I recently rediscovered an old photograph taken by Michael Kuhn, friend of my brother-in-law, Alan Field. Alan was a keen skydiver, his enthusiasm for diving was infectious and together with the misguided notion that skydiving might help ease my fear of heights, I took a lesson and jumped. Just once.
Take note of the parachute on the ground in the far right of frame. That was the target landing spot on which the instructor was standing, guiding me in with a pair of paddles. Also note two things about the guy with the paddles: First is that the position of his paddles are reflected in the degree to which I’m flaring the chute and second is that he’s running away (left of frame, slightly behind me).
I’ll let you in on something: This is the first time for both of us. Me in the air, him with the paddles. Never again!
A second later I hit the ground hard and went into the roll we were trained to make on a rough landing. I picked myself up, dusted myself off, gathered in my chute and limped back to the hangars, more than a little dazed. With a cold beer in hand I sat myself down in the late afternoon sunlight to reflect on my experience – no doubt already sure it would be my last jump. Twenty minutes later, when I stood up, I was in agony. I could hardly walk but still had to drive myself back to Johannesburg, more than an hour away.
X-rays revealed a cracked coccyx as it turned out, for which there isn’t any satisfactory treatment.
So how did it come to this? Training. Taking it too literally vs forgetting it in a crisis.
For my part, not being of a panicky nature, I took the training too literally. The instructor explained how we would be guided in by a guy on the ground with a pair of paddles, that we should heed his signals and flare only when and to the degree he indicated.
To make the point he said every one of us would go through a range of emotions from feeling anxious, feeling certain it was time to flare and then feeling it was too late – all well before the time was right. We were to stay calm and wait for our signals.
The dangers of flaring too early were explained to us in graphic detail: Basically you fall out of the sky and injure yourself badly. He told us to wait for the signal, to override the urge to pull on the ropes to slow our descent – until the time was right. It was natural, he said, to feel that the signal was coming too late; to think we were about to die. Control the fear, we were trained, and wait for the signals. So, I waited patiently on mine.
Beginners typically don’t land anywhere near the target. For example, a friend, who took the same course, managed to land in the grounds of a nearby prison. Fortunately for her she landed amongst the staff residences and not in the general population. Nobody could recall a beginner skydiver landing anywhere near the mark. But I came very close. So, with me barreling straight down on the target, on which my guide was standing, he panicked and ran from his post and in those final few seconds, forgetting his own training, he stopped signaling.
Of course, I felt for sure I was going to die, but I waited on my signals anyway …