My knees give a small shake, a feeling of weakness washes over me, and I pray they hold steady. Only the heels of my feet are in contact with the floor – my toes hang over free air. I chance a glance downward, and the ground sits 115 metres (377 ft) below me.
“Police car?” – A thought shoots through my mind and causes my stomach to drop out from under me. It’s not a police car, but the vast amount of adrenaline coursing through my system has caused every nerve to feel on fire. Every little sound and sensation rips through my core.
I can feel the harness of my rig sitting tight against me, and it comforts me. My mind is filled with images, I can see the entire process of packing the parachute in precise detail like an HD movie is playing directly in the optical centre of my brain. I can physically see and feel every fold of material, the touch of the lines running through my fingertips and the sound of velcro being fastened. My mind is full of questions and doubt.
“Does it matter that the folds in the material were slightly off centre? Were they off centre at all? Surely I would have noticed at the time? Was I distracted when I was packing it? I can’t remember…maybe I was. Surely Cal would have noticed and corrected me…? Maybe everything is fine? Did I removed the packing clamps?”
My mind returns to the moment, and with sudden un-nerving speed, the cloudiness that comes with heavy thought is removed, and I am suddenly aware of where I am again. The railing of the bridge is cold in my hands…the space in front of me feels like a vast void of emptiness. Silence.
As a SCUBA diver, I am accustomed to the feel of water, that real, substantial, tangible feel of water. In comparison this feels like nothing, a gaping void of nothing that I will fall into with no ability to recover. No swimming, no treading water to stay afloat. Just falling.
Silence. There is no aircraft slipstream that I am used to. No workable air rushing past me giving the sensation of balancing of a giant fountain. Nothing to work with, nothing to push against. Just emptiness.
“Ready?” – Cal’s voice startles me back to the moment.
“Yes” – Comes my reply. I am relieved I didn’t throw up when I tried to speak.
“Bridle is clear” – Says Cal, informing me I don’t have my bridle tangled or hung up. A tangled bridle would prevent my parachute deploying and I try to shake from my mind the messy result that would occur should be bridle get hung-up.
“Have a good one!” – He adds. I simply nod in reply.
“3…2…1… See ya!” – I shout – and then my feet leave the bridge…
The drop in the stomach hits me, and the wind speed quickly builds against my face and my body. Time seems to slow down, and my worries leave me. Cliche for sure, but it is truly amazing how free you feel once you have given up your fate. The rest of the world stays on the bridge, and I am now in a world between worlds.
I am incredibly aware of my body position, I focus on maintaining even shoulders and a strong push forwards with my chest. A tumble at this moment would mean my parachute could not lift cleanly from my back. It could get caught up in my legs or body and envelop me, which is a term known as being gift-wrapped.
I focus on falling first in a head-up position, before slowly transitioning to a belly to earth position. My focus is firmly on the horizon. It’s incredible how quickly the background disappears as I drop into the dry river valley which the bridge spans. I see the wooded valley sides rise up and consume me.
After a couple of seconds, I throw my pilot chute out into the increasingly building wind. A pilot chute is effectively a small, round parachute that you throw and it anchors itself in the sky as you fall away from it. The bridle line connects the pilot chute to the top of the main parachute. As you fall away, the high drag force created by the pilot chute in the wind literally pull the closing pins from the container and open the flaps allowing the main parachute to lift off, and once the lines reach the end of their length, the air fills the cells of the canopy, and it blossoms above you.
As the pilot chute leaves my hand, the long passage of time makes it appear as if it is sitting in front of me, dancing and playing with me, and refusing to anchor. It’s almost as if I have ceased to fall myself and am stuck in purgatory. Eventually, after what feels like an age, it disappears from view above me as I fall and I can literally feel the pins pop on my back and a drop sensation as the heavy parachute is lifted clear from me and ceases to be part of my body weight.
Suddenly, I feel a tug on my shoulders, and my legs drop out beneath me. I am hanging in my harness. Instinctively, I look up at my beautiful green and blue canopy above me still rippling as it pressurizes. Without even thinking my hands reach up on the risers and I grab the yellow steering toggles. I release them and feel the surge forward as my canopy begins forward flight. A perfect opening.
The valley feels three-dimensional and real. It surrounds me on all sides and is entirely different to the open skies of parachuting from an aircraft. Here it is more like real flying, and as I turn my canopy 180 degrees around to face into the wind for landing, I fly past the supporting struts of the bridge – huge concrete giants standing tall and extending beyond my field of view above me. I am in a happy place now. Freefall has never been my thing, but I genuinely love flying my parachute. It seems to respond to my every thought, and I guide it gently past the concrete sentinels who have released me from their grip and have allowed me to fly free.
I guide my nylon angel through a gap between two trees and onto the grass field and bring her in for a smooth landing. After my feet touch the earth once more, she loses pressure and drops obediently to the ground behind me, slowing deflating and settling onto the grass. She lays there, silent and almost as if she is waiting. She has saved my life, and now she sits here, practically a tangible connection between her and me. The silence literally deafens me, and I feel a fantastic sense of calm.
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