Dancing with gravity

Each year, 50,000 people in this country step out of aircraft into thin air, trusting their lives to a few square metres of nylon. Many are first-timers, making their jump in the embrace of a tandem master, who operates a single chute which supports both jumpers. With the introduction of tandem parachuting and other new techniques, it has become easier than ever to leap into the void—and land to tell the tale.

Written by       Photographed by Shane Stradwick, Karen Mousey, Rob Mengel and Michael Schneider

The big hand reaches zero. Ten thousand feet. Not very high if you’re an astronaut, but a long way if you’re about to fall. And I am. It’s minus five degrees outside the aircraft, and not noticeably warmer inside, yet I am sweating profusely. I would swallow, but my throat has given up working. “Six-minute warning!” shouts the loadmaster.

What any I doing here? Parachuting seemed like a great idea from the comfort of my air force office and from my usual station up front, navigating Andover aircraft to the point where they dropped their human cargo. Now I’m part of the cargo, and suddenly the old aircrew excuse: “Why jump out of a perfectly serviceable aircraft?” makes a lot of sense. A whole lot of sense.

Suddenly, the back of the aircraft opens. The ramp goes down to the level position, revealing nothing but blue sky and the white caps of the clouds far below. Through that gaping hole the noise of the wind and the engines is deafening. Oh, man, I am not happy about this.

My instructor motions me to my feet. “One-minute warning!” I pull out the safety pin on the automatic parachute release that is going to save my life. Goggles down. Helmet tight. As I inch towards the ramp, I am transfixed by the view. “Thirty seconds!” My aircrew colleagues are laying bets on whether I’ll jump. I am almost at the edge. “Red on.” My body is pleading not to do this. “Green on.” Too late to panic now. “Go!” screams my instructor. I make the most hesitant, pathetic step I’ll ever make. Into 10,000 feet of thin air.

I’m tumbling, legs kicking frantically as they try to get a purchase on something. It’s a desperate fight with an unseen enemy. I am on my back, stable for a second, then tumbling again, trying to arch, straining to get into a position that will get me stable and end this ride of horror. A quick practice of my ripcord pull; more tumbles and an altitude check. Suddenly, a jerk as the auto-release fires. I look up in silent thanksgiving at the expanse of billowing fabric. I’m alive! I have survived freefall number one!

That was 11 years ago. For a person who was petrified of heights, it was as bad a nightmare as you can imagine, and not how I would recommend a person learn about skydiving. Fortunately, these days there are a couple of alternatives that make it far easier for the first- timer: tandem parachuting and a new form of instruction known as accelerated freefall. As a result of these innovations, skydiving has taken off in the last five years as one of the most accessible forms of extreme adventure sport. Like bungy jumping, it is promoted as a “must do” for all ages. Commercial operations have sprung up in an environ­ment dominated for years by the military and small clubs of weekend enthusiasts. With 25 tandem operations spread from Whangarei to Invercargill, a fall is only a phone call away.

With a tandem jump, the whole process—from turning up at the airfield to sipping a celebratory cup of coffee (or something stronger)—can take as little as an hour. Punters fork out between $170 and $245 to fall from between 9000 and 12,000 feet with a licensed tandem master, who will have done at least 500 and usually closer to 1000 jumps and completed a tandem master course. The New Zealand Parachute Federation (NZPF) has issued 100 tandem licences, all but three to men. On busy days, tandem masters can com­plete up to 12 “passenger” jumps. In a year, they can rack up 1000-1500 and earn more than $60,000. Despite the unbeatable view, it is demanding work and not without its unique downsides—a consequence of being intimately connected to a perfect stranger. Just as some people get motion sickness in cars or boats, others find freefall a little much. Hanging under a parachute strapped to a passenger who is being sick upwind of you leaves a lot to be desired.

Like bungy operators, tandem masters have all the smooth persuasiveness of a politician on the election trail. The quips roll off their tongues as they strive to reassure: “Relax! I know what I’m doing,” and, more convincingly, “We’re in this together.”

After a ten-minute briefing, the customer dons a pair of brightly coloured overalls, a soft leather helmet reminiscent of those worn by WWII fighter pilots, goggles and full-torso harness. At the aircraft, there’s a quick practice of the exit, and you’re ready to part with terra firma. It’s at about this stage that you wonder whether this was such a good idea.

Fear wrestles with excitement as the aircraft climbs skyward at full power. Part way up, your tandem master fastens the four metal clips which connect you to his harness. He reminds you of the little that you have to remember: “On exit, keep your hands on your harness and arch your back into a banana, arms and legs wide apart. Lift your feet up just before landing. Enjoy.”

Before you know it, you are at the “top floor,” 12,000 feet above sweet Mother Earth (oddly, aviators still measure height in feet). The pilot eases back the throttle and someone rolls up the door. Show time. Jumpers closer to the door quickly disappear, and then it’s your turn. One moment you’re squatting in the door, buffeted by the wind; the next you’re falling.

Actually, it’s more like floating. Air is rushing into your face, which in some way makes for a strange sort of quiet. You’re falling faster and faster, then suddenly there is a powerful upward jolt, as if you had been snatched up by a giant eagle. You hear the flutter of fabric and look up to see the arch of the canopy. Now you can relax into a soothing glide all the way back to earth.

For some, a tandem jump—perhaps won as a prize or given as a present—will be the start of a greater adven­ture. Once bitten by the freefall bug, it will be off to learn more, either through accelerated freefall (AFF) instruc­tion or the older, more common method of static line parachuting.

A parachute (plus a reserve chute for that one-in-a­-thousand occurrence), a radio (so someone can talk you down) and a helmet are the basic items of kit required. Go the static line way and you’ll find yourself in a class of around 20 for an evening of theory lessons interspersed with periods on the hangar floor yelling out drills in response to prompts from an instructor. The hardest part of the course is time spent in a harness practising emer­gency drills that everyone hopes will never be needed,but which require split-second reactions if they are. The instructors are emphatic about getting these routines right—not surprising, since a chuteless descent from the standard drop height takes around 20 seconds.

Static line parachuting gets its name from the para­chute’s deployment system: a line hooked to the aircraft. Once out the door, the jumper goes one way and the aircraft another. The line tightens and the parachute is pulled out of its backpack. The system is pretty foolproof. It is your basic parachute jump: almost no freefall, but hands-on control once the parachute is open and a reassuring voice in your ear to get you safely to the ground.

Accelerated freefall is for those who are a little bolder, a little richer and want to take responsibility for their own jump. (The accelerated bit refers to the speed at which students learn, not the speed at which you fall!) Instead of a line connecting you to the aircraft, you jump with an instructor on each side hanging on to make sure that everything you do is as planned, and that when it comes to that critical moment—pulling the ripcord—no mistakes are made. Once under canopy, the experience is the same as with a static line jump.

The beauty of AFF instruction, which has become popular in the last five years, is that mistakes can be corrected as you go. While talk in freefall is not possible because of the noise of the rushing air, a system of hand signals and body movements enables the jumpmasters to pack a lot of teaching into the 45-second lesson.

With the help of video, many of today’s AFF student skydivers progress far more quickly than was possible in the past. However, the skills required of the AFF instruc­tors and jumpmasters are considerable. They have to be one step ahead of any situation that might develop. Given that a skydiver in a stable face-to-earth position is falling at close to 200 kph, that is no small task.

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Those who take up skydiving as a sport tend to fit into several camps, depending on the preferred style of aerial manoeuvring. Relative work, canopy relative work, freestyle and sit flying all have their followings.

Formation skydiving or relative work has been the mainstay of competition. It involves a team of four members, with a fifth taking video footage of the jump for judging. The aim is to complete as many formations as possible within the standard 35 seconds of “working time.” Teams have to complete a prescribed set of forma­tions (there are dozens of variations) picked from a hat at the start of the contest. Exit altitude for four-way teams is 9500 ft, and the chutes are opened at around 3000 ft.

Relative work is like ballroom dancing, but with three partners and in three dimensions. Often team members fly over or under each other to make the next formation. Such flying is not easy. Skydivers tend to create a “hole” above themselves as a result of the vacuum from their passage. Move above another skydiver for more than a fraction of a second and you are likely to tumble on to their back, causing them to tumble too.

If relative work is an aerial tango, then freestyle is ballet, involving a solo performance of creative moves. Sit flying is different again: a high-speed freefall discipline in which flyers operate in a sitting position.

In canopy relative work the formations are made not with bodies in freefall but by stacking the canopies into predetermined formations such as boomerangs and Ts. Parachutists jump at 6000 ft and deploy almost immediately. Working time starts the moment the first parachut­ist exits, and lasts for two minutes.

The regulation ceiling for sport jumps without oxygen is 13,000 ft. With portable oxygen (and special civil aviation clearance) the occasional trip to 20,000 ft is possible. From that altitude parachutists are able to spend up to a minute and a half in freefall.

The altitude record in New Zealand is 27,068 ft,although the Singaporean military have conducted descents here from 30,000 ft. The world altitude record, set by Captain Joseph Kittinger of the US Air Force in 1960, is a staggering 102,800 ft—about three times the height at which commercial jet aircraft fly. Kittinger jumped from a balloon, and during freefall he reached a speed of 1006 kph, just slower than the speed of sound at that altitude.

The unofficial record for formation size stands at 297, set in the Black Sea location of Anapa in September 1996. Paul “Jyro” Martin, an Auckland parachute manufacturer, was there. Participation in such attempts is by invitation, and you need to be highly disciplined to mix it with 300 other skydivers in the air, when horizontal speeds of 100 kph are possible. Running into someone else’s parachute when it is opening can be fatal, and many a parachutist unfortunate enough to do so and survive has broken a limb or lost an eye in the process.

In general, only military aircraft can provide the capacity needed to put that many skydivers into the air. The Black Sea attempt used Russian helicopters, each capable of carrying 100 people to an altitude of 21,000 feet. The New Zealand record, by contrast, stands at a modest 32, though Craig Stevenson, a former New Zealand four-way representative and regular organiser of “big-ways,” considers that with a little practice and adequate aircraft support it would be possible to get a formation of 50 together.

In recent years, New Zealand teams have found it hard to be competitive in international skydiving contests against the professional teams fielded by such countries as the USA and France. Cost is a major barrier. With a single team descent costing upwards of $130, training isn’t cheap. Top-ranking teams routinely score about 20 points per dive (based on the number of formations they complete), but at national skydiving events the best New Zealand teams are achieving only 10 points.

Local skydivers are pinning their hopes on the Sydney Olympics and the possibility that relative work will be included as a demonstration sport. The resulting boost to the sport’s profile could help it attract commercial sponsorship.

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While most parachutists jump for sport or pleasure, for the military it’s all part of the job. Each year, some 150 trainees do courses at the Royal New Zealand Air Force Parachute Training and Support Unit (PTSU) at Whenuapai air base. Most are soldiers being trained in airborne operations, but Special Air Service personnel and RNZAF pilots who fly aircraft fitted with ejection seats also spend time at the unit.

The training of paratroopers is thorough and tough. When you see recruits loaded with up to 160 kg of parachute and combat equipment, you know why the airborne units have developed a reputation worldwide as the hard men of the military. For most soldiers, parachut­ing involves jumping out of aircraft at altitudes as low as 800 ft with a conventional round canopy. (Overseas, special low-level parachutes allow exits of 250 ft and less.)

observation platforms—that led to the widespread introduction of the para­chute harness.

During the First World War several enthusiasts tried to persuade the military to use parachutes as life-savers for aircrew. One of the most persistent was Everard Calthrop. He decided that the best way to persuade the Royal Flying Corps chiefs to purchase his Guardian Angel model was by live demonstration. On a chilly November 11, 1917, before an invited audience of reporters, two British officers, Major Thomas Orde Lees and Hon. Lieutenant A. Bowen, demonstrated the parachute by jumping from the high span of Tower Bridge, 150 ft above the Thames. It was a flawless demon­stration, but the war lords remained obdurate, claiming that parachutes were fundamentally unsafe—this despite a near 100 per cent safety record for balloonists who had made parachute descents.

Credit for the first parachute drop from an RFC aircraft goes to a New Zealander, Blenheim-born Captain Clive Collett, who jumped with a Guardian Angel from 600 feet on January 13, 1917—ten months before Orde Lees’ demon­stration. Collett was New Zealand’s first fighter “ace,” and shot down 15 German aircraft as part of No. 70 Squadron.

Orde Lees, who emi­grated to New Zealand in 1938, gave parachuting demonstrations regularly in England and abroad, his many descents from aircraft including at least five at less than 300 ft. He taught parachuting to the Japanese air force and was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun in 1923 for his efforts.

Though an accom­plished jumper, he was an unpopular man, and, had fate played a different hand, he might never have lived to don the silk. Just three years before his Thames jump he had been a member of Ernest Shackleton’s disastrous transantarctic expedition (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 28). When the expedition was stranded on Elephant Island, Orde Lees was picked by his fellow crewmen as the “first meal” should cannibalism be their only means of survival.

The ride is short—especially in the event of any form of emergency—but even when all is well it takes less than 50 seconds to get to the ground. Impact is hard, and the landing roll is not some fancy dance but an essential skill to master if the soldier is to get up without broken bones and sprained joints.

Training starts with a week of learning how to fit equipment, carrying out aircraft procedures, hanging in harnesses rehearsing drills, practising landing rolls on mats and then off progressively higher objects. Ground training is completed with jumps from the back of a moving truck and ends with a leap from a tower 10 metres’ high on a free-running cable, with only a 20 cm propeller acting as brake. It’s not for the fainthearted, and many claim that jumping out of the tower is harder than jumping out of the aircraft.

More advanced training—for SAS personnel, for example—involves the use of square canopies. These steerable parachutes enable soldiers to jump at high altitude and glide silently to a drop zone tens of kilo­metres away. When deployed at night, they provide the ultimate in stealth, allowing small teams of crack soldiers to infiltrate behind enemy lines and have a strategic impact out of all proportion to their numbers.

Familiarisation training for air force personnel is less rigorous than what army airborne units are put through. To minimise risk, they jump into water, the rationale being that since aircrew cost millions of dollars to train, there is little point in exposing them to more risk than is necessary. The water jump removes the most hazardous part of military static line training—landing—while providing aircrew with the benefits of experience gained on an actual parachute descent.

Most will never have to deploy a parachute again in their air force career. However, for a select few the training will be a prelude to that spectacular moment when necessity forces them to pull the ejection handle in their aircraft—condemning it to scrap while saving themselves to fly another day (see sidebar, page 80).

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What attracts a person to parachuting? After all, there is nothing natural about jumping out of a perfectly good aeroplane. When you are standing in that open door, every instinct, every ounce of logic applied to the problem, suggests that you shouldn’t step out.

Is it a need to conquer fear over and over again? To spit in the eye of death? Are parachutists just another breed of adrenalin junkie, craving a high-altitude fix?

Most of them would admit that they never entirely get rid of their fear, but over time it becomes more a sense of respect for what they are doing than a replay of the sheer terror of the first jump. Then, as in any sport, the chal­lenge is to improve your skills, and in skydiving that usually means becoming more adept at manoeuvring in freefall.

I admit that when I started out I used to personify fear: eyes as wide as saucers, skin a colour that would make a corpse look healthy, shaking uncontrollably. The line from the 23rd Psalm about walking through the valley of the shadow of death had a startlingly direct relevance.

But after you have fallen from 10,000 ft a few times you begin to realise that the experience is survivable. From then on it becomes an exercise in fear management.

In fact, fear is probably a healthy thing. Graeme Dingle once said that you should never climb with someone who has no fear, and I think the same goes for this sport. Fear keeps you on the edge, and the doubt that it causes ensures that you double- and triple-check everything. In short, it keeps you alive.

The flipside of fear is daring, and Paul Early, camera­man for the four-way team which represented New Zealand at this year’s World Air Games in Turkey, says that in its formative years there was a streak of daredevilry running through the sport—for example, so-called “low pull” contests, “seeing who could wait the longest before pulling the handle, like playing ‘chicken’ with the ground.” Now the emphasis is on the quality of the aerial performance, he says, not the level of daring.

Still, parachutists are inveterate experimenters, always looking for variations on the theme of gravity. Skysurfing has leapt into public consciousness in recent years through a couple of high-profile TV advertisements. And it’s a small step from jumping out of an aircraft to leaping off a cliff; thus was born the sport of BASE jumping (the letters stand for Buildings, Antennas, Spans and Earth).

BASE jumpers tend to keep a low profile because of the difficulty—and legality of access to their launch sites. The risks are high and the safety margins extremely narrow. In New Zealand, BASE jumps are often con­ducted from only a few hundred feet, using static line deployment to ensure timely inflation of the canopy. Although the sport is an offshoot of parachuting, it does not come under the auspices of the NZPF.

A further dimension of the parachute experience is night jumping. Darkness brings a new set of dangers, as the sky can look much like the earth from 10,000 ft, and you don’t get the same “ground rush”—that sense of the world racing up to meet you as you prepare to deploy the canopy. If you are not monitoring your altitude carefully, you can be too low before you know it.

Parachutists wear glowing light sticks to show other jumpers where they are. It’s a big sky, but if you are practising formations and all pull your parachutes at the same height, the flying space can rapidly become con­gested. You not only have to worry about who is to your left and right, you could also have someone above or below, and you really don’t want to find they are there by flying into them.

At club level, experimentation can take the form of wacky aerial games. “Pass The Pumpkin”—a simple enough concept on the ground—becomes a whole lot more difficult in freefall. The idea is that each jumper passes the vegetable to the next without dropping it, and the aim is to see how many passes can be made in a single jump. “Hoop Jumping” involves two parachutists holding a hoop made of alkathene while the rest of the aircraft’s load skydive through it.

There is an element of exhibitionism in parachuting which lends itself to dramatic entrances. Parachutists have jumped into all manner of sporting fixtures, fairs and shows, and even into their own wedding ceremonies, though in this country there is no known instance of the knot being tied “under canopy.” The law requires that people be able to interrupt a wedding—not so easy when you’re in mid-air.

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Parachutes have come a long way since the days of Lenormand, Garnerin and Montgolfier, the French “fathers” of parachuting. Today, over and above their sporting and military applications, they are used to drop supplies, brake drag-racing cars, lift water skiers into the skies and deliver spaceships back to Earth. Among the memorable soundbites of the modern era are the words of John Glenn, America’s first man in space, after re-entry: “Chute is out … chute looks good .. . chute looks very good!”

Even rugby players use parachutes—not for braking as they rocket across the try line, but for strength training: they run towing a small chute.

The typical modern parachute consists of a harness container, a main chute and a reserve. The canopies them­selves vary in size from 360 sq ft for student canopies down to around 70 sq ft for “racing” models. Many systems include an automatic activation device (AAD). The latest computer-controlled variety opens the reserve parachute at a preset minimum height—three seconds before the parachutist would otherwise “bounce”—giving a short, sharp 30-second ride to earth. First available in 1991, this device has saved the lives of many skydivers and is manda­tory on tandem parachutes.

The days of the famous ripcord handle are gone—at least in the sporting arena. Many “bail-out” emergency parachutes still have them, as do the military freefall rigs, but these days sports parachutists generally throw the pilot chute or drogue into the airstream when they are ready to deploy. The drogue inflates and acts as an anchor in the sky, providing sufficient drag to pull the main parachute from the harness container.

Although a state-of-the-art parachute system including AAD costs around $8000, an adequate set of (new) gear can be bought for half that. With a little love and care, a modern canopy will easily handle 1000 descents. In theory, the reserve only sees the light of day when it is periodically inspected and repacked (by law, every six, and only by a registered packing technician).

The “love and care” bit is taken seriously by parachut­ists, which is fair enough when you consider that the gear saves their lives on a daily basis. Says Dave Hall, a Wanaka tandem master with 5500 jumps to his credit and a qualified packer: “I give my main chute to the pack­ers—they can get it ready to go in about ten minutes. But packing the reserve takes three hours. That I always do myself.”

Modern canopies are of the ram-air variety—basically an aerofoil with the front cut off. Air gets in between the upper and lower parachute surfaces and inflates the cells to create a “soft” wing. Forward movement provides lift and keeps the canopy inflated by ramming in air at the front—hence the name.

Rather than acting as a brake—as round parachutes do—they act as wings. The faster you go, the more lift you get, and the smaller the parachute you need. Look up at a high-speed canopy and you could be forgiven for thinking you were riding a handkerchief.

One of the attributes of modern parachutes is their ability to glide very efficiently. In 1980, a group of soldiers from the British armed forces parachuted across the English Channel, a distance of 35 kilometres. Our own would-be cross-channel fliers have not been so successful. An attempt in 1979 to cross Cook Strait ended up with four wet parachutists being rescued by helicopter.

Canopy malfunctions are relatively rare. In 500 jumps I have never needed to use a reserve, but maybe I’ve just been lucky. Everyone who stays in the sport certainly expects to use one sooner or later. High-performance canopies are the ones most likely to give problems. They are less forgiving of variations in packing technique, and if things go wrong during opening they get ugly quickly. High-speed spins are the usual consequence, but another short freefall and deployment of the reserve are usually sufficient to remedy the situation.

Still, accidents happen, and where freefall is involved they tend to be fatal. While New Zealand has a good safety record (seven deaths in 10 years, with descent numbers now averaging 50,000 per annum), the NZPF went through a black spot last summer with four fatalities in four months, including the first tandem fatality ever.

Bob Howard, NZPF technical director, puts the deaths in context. “One in a thousand students will have a problem with a parachute, and one in a thousand of those will not be able to handle the problem properly.” That’s one in a million not bad odds for an adventure activity.

Deaths during competitive skydiving are rare, but not unknown. In South Africa, members of a four-way team were concentrating so hard on their formations that they lost altitude awareness and deployed too late. All four died. Today, most competitive skydivers use audible altimeters, which give the wearer a wake-up call when it’s time to pull the handle, as well as conventional wrist-or chest-mounted watch-face models.

Even so, parachutists still get lured into thinking that they have more time than they really do. Incident files are full of “went low … opened low” comments, even when both altimeter systems have been used. Such is the power of a skydive to transfix.

From a medical viewpoint, the most hazardous type of parachuting is high-altitude jumping. Hypoxia—a lack of oxygen to the cells of the body—affects reasoning, vision, memory, judgment and decision making. The symptoms include a fuzzy feeling in the head, euphoria, clumsiness and poor or failing memory—not the kind of behaviour you want when you are hurtling towards the earth at a rate of 200 ft per second.

Opening shock also increases with altitude. In thinner air, aircraft must fly faster to get the same lift, which means that the parachutist’s speed relative to the earth is higher, and so are the G forces felt when the canopy opens. At high altitude, the rapid deceleration can damage the parachute, causing panels to blow out.

A more direct threat to all skydivers is temporal distortion. Part of the thrill of parachuting is the surge of adrenalin which comes at the moment of leaving the aircraft. The problem is that adrenalin release can significantly distort one’s sense of time. Ross Ewing, one of New Zealand’s leading aviation medicine experts, says that high adrenalin levels in the blood make a person feel that things are happening in slow motion and that there is plenty of time to carry out vital actions.

Clearly, when you are plummeting from the sky at terminal velocity, you can do without a hormonal aberra­tion adding to the risk. On the other hand, teasing gravity and experiencing such quantum mechanical concepts as the compression of space and extension of time are all part of the heady brew that keeps skydivers coming back for more.

These are adventurous times. With a parachute on your back you can skysurf, freefly, parabungy or build some complex jigsaw in the sky. Or perhaps you might attempt the ultimate test: a chuteless descent. This may not be as crazy as it sounds. Some parachutists believe a freefall descent into aerated water would be survivable. Others, working on the principle that the larger the formation the slower it falls, speculate that at some critical size and shape of formation the combination of speed, flight path and air resistance would be sufficient to allow the team to land without the need for parachutes.

However, such an attempt would rely on wills of steel and 100 per cent commitment from each person; chickening out at the last moment would be fatal for all. But imagine being part of the first team to pull it off. Is such a dream any more elusive than those pursued by Garnerin, Irvin and Kittinger?

With attitude and altitude, anything is possible.