You’d think it would be thrill enough just to leap from an aeroplane, but to a lot of people who enjoy skydiving the search for excitement is never-ending.
Take BASE jumpers for example. They move on from the relative safety of altitude and back-up parachutes into a whole new world where they have far less margin for error.
Or wingsuiters, who wear restrictive suits which add an extra layer of complexity to any jump.
And night jumps.
The thought of leaping from an aircraft into total darkness may sound terrifying, even ridiculous, but it could be considered to be just another skydive – only blindfolded.
Earlier this year I joined a group of people seeking to add another dimension to the sport we love so much. On a warm, moonless night in April we gathered at the Bridgewater drop zone in country Victoria to undertake training in night jumping techniques.
Just after sunset we assembled in a classroom buzzing with anticipation. We were about to benefit from the years of experience of our DZSO, or Drop Zone Safety Officer, who sat us down in a room to explain how the evening’s activities would be conducted.
Armed with a whiteboard and a passion for sharing he carefully took us through the steps required to successfully perform our jumps, covering such topics as night vision, canopy manoeuvring, and landing. We discussed exit strategy, a vitally important part of night jumping, as well as circuit planning and collision avoidance.
There were many variables to think about – but broken down into constituent parts and reassembled with the glue of safety the risks involved became quite manageable.
And so it was that we found ourselves taping glow sticks to our jumpsuits – some to our arms and others to our legs. We specifically attached a red one to our chest straps, the philosophy being quite simple; should you see a red light under canopy you know you’re flying towards another skydiver, and you both need take evasive action.
We also taped a small torch to our left forearm, the same arm as the altimeter, which we’d then use to check our canopies once opened. It was explained that we don’t use the right arm as that would increase the chance of entanglement when throwing our pilot chute at deployment.
Once everyone was geared up we spent about thirty minutes sitting quietly outside in the dark. This was to allow our night vision time to kick in, however I could see some people were using it to reflect upon what they were about to do. No one changed their mind though – the opportunity to do night jumps doesn’t occur often.
Soon the aircraft taxied into position, enabling twelve excited skydivers to climb aboard, and as the plane started rolling we settled in for the short ride to height.
These first jumps would be hop and pops, meaning low altitude, short delay deployments. We were broken up into three passes, with four jumpers exiting on each pass, giving plenty of time for each group to exit, deploy and land.
No sooner had we taken off than it was time to get ready to exit, each of us taking a moment for one last check of our closing pins and altimeters, and to have one final rehearsal of our emergency procedures. I was using an illuminated altimeter, and it was strangely exciting and a little bit weird to be employing a function that I thought I’d never use.
Five thousand feet.
Our loadmaster opened the door, and using the positioning lights that had been set up on the landing area issued small course corrections to the pilot.
We were up on our haunches, giving each other the “skydiver handshake” – our method of wishing each other a good jump – and then it was time to focus.
In our group of four I’d volunteered to go first, which not only gave me the longest free fall but also meant I wouldn’t have to look at any nervous faces. As I stuck my head out of the door I could see stars shining above, the lights of the town below, and headlights moving along an invisible ribbon of road, but the landing area appeared only as a tiny patch of white in a huge field of black, without any visual references at all.
And then I heard “Go!”
Suddenly I was suspended on an invisible column of air, with absolutely no sense of falling, and only the wind noise and a tiny pointer on my hand to tell me I was accelerating towards the planet. The ground didn’t get closer, and the lights didn’t get bigger. I could simply have been floating in a darkened swimming pool for all I knew.
Strangely, although I knew no-one would be able to see it, I instinctively waved off, giving the signal to nearby skydivers that I intended to throw a hundred and forty-four square feet of nylon into the night sky.
It was a very sweet opening.
Once I’d checked the canopy I concentrated on looking for other people in the air, and finding no one near me set up my landing pattern, using the ground-based lights as my reference.
Not surprisingly, in the absence of other distractions the circuit and landing were easy, and I touched down only metres from the ground crew.
It was a beautiful sight as I looked up and saw the rest of the load flying gracefully in the darkness, their torches acting as beacons in the gloom and the dense night air amplifying their screams of delight.
Congratulations were shared, and promises of beer made, but for now there was a more important issue at hand.
The plane had landed, and we were going again.