What My Skydive Revealed About How Others See Me

It is almost five years since my tandem skydive for Ataxia UK. They are currently organising a group-skydive event for this Summer. I really like fundraising events that encourage people with ataxia to take part and want to share my story for those with Ataxia who are considering taking part. I wanted to show that it was quite safe, and I really enjoyed it. See the Youtube video here.

The Jump

Today is the second day I have spent at this airfield. Waiting for the heavy clouds to break apart. There is no rain, the jumps have started. My group and I are outside, laughing and joking about the divers they had met. Their easy confidence is so reassuring. Two of the jumpers from the last flight swagger past, oblivious, chattering excitedly to each other. They have experienced something I have not. They were on the ground like me just fifteen minutes ago.

I’m lifted onto the plane and slide backwards into position and look out of the window. The plane lurches slightly as it lifts from the ground. Immediately, the features on the ground look like a satellite image on google maps, slowly losing detail as they are pinched into infinity. The banter has stopped now, the smiles have gone. The other jumpers check their kit and stare straight ahead as we begin our climb.

There is time to think now. The doubts come. I wonder if I should be here, if the people who thought I would hurt myself were right. I have a 5-year-old daughter and a son due in a few weeks. Death feels close. I wonder if he has followed me up here, or waited for me on the ground with my wheelchair and my distraught Mother-in-Law? I think about Neville, my Wife’s Grandfather, who jumped from a burning Halifax bomber in the dark over occupied Holland. I know something of the fear he must have felt, I ask him to watch out for me. I feel that for the first time ever, my future is wide open, I don’t know what is going to happen to me. And I don’t like it.

Then we’re sitting on the edge of the door, my feet dangling into the emptiness.  We’re above the clouds, the sky is a solid azure the air feels saturated with ice. I remember the walk-in freezer at a fast-food restaurant I worked in a as a teenager. The air is rushing past, I can’t see my instructor, he is behind me. I can’t look and have to shut my eyes. Time slows down. I think: ’Please go, please go’ over and over again like a mantra. Finally, we tumble out into the freezing sunlight. My stomach turns as we instantly accelerate to 120 mph. I want to go limp, to shut down, to hide, to let this whole ordeal wash over me. The wind thunders in my ears as we fall. My instructor taps me on the shoulder, the cameraman is right in front of me. I remember to smile, but I’m far from happy.  I’m trying to stay alive, trying to figure out which way up I am, where the ground is and to remember to keep breathing. We begin to spin. I close my eyes and brace myself. We go faster and faster. I taste sick and cannot take much more of this. I am just about to beg the instructor to stop when our spin is cut short. The cameraman is in front of us again. Once more I look up and try to smile, but the air pushes all the muscles on my face into a tortured grimace.

The chute opens and we are pulled roughly upward into the clouds. The jolt as we change speed is not as bad as I expected. We are enveloped by an eerie silence. I release the breath I realise I had been holding in.  My relief passes as I see something flash past us in the corner of my eye.

I think my shoe has come off, ‘I’m never going to get that back.’ I smile as I think of my shoe appearing out of the sky and mystifying the people or animals watching as it thuds into the ground. There is unearthly silence. I try to say that my shoe has gone, the instructor assures me the falling object I saw shooting past was just the cameraman. I look down. My shoes are still with me. We break through the clouds, the fields below lie in a peaceful patchwork of summer shades. Finally, my mind is clear, and I am lost in this beautiful moment.

“Can you put your feet on mine?” the instructor asks, as we had agreed earlier. I can just reach the tops of my knees with my hands. I grab the material and pull. The muscles in my legs have tensed and I can’t bend them. I cannot touch his feet with mine. I cannot even get near them. He is five foot five at best, I am six. I relax. “We’ll try again” he says with an edge of frustration. I try again, nothing. “This is very important; we’ll both be very badly hurt if we can’t get your legs up”. Rather than motivating, this terrifies me. I grab the material of the jump suit and pull with everything I have. I scream with the effort. The muscles in my legs are on fire, I have pulled the legs of my jumpsuit over my knees. We are quite low now. We’re out of time. “This is not good, if you can lift your legs at all, do it now!” the instructor orders. I lift, but there is nothing left. How fitting, my body has let me down once again, one last spectacular time. I never wanted to hurt anyone else, I’m not ready to die. We come in fast, there are people shouting and scurrying over the grassy landing area. I close my eyes and try to brace myself for the pain, I don’t want to open them again.

There is a thud, my bare knees hit the ground, there is a sharp pain there. I am winded as both our bodies hit the ground, mine beneath. My face hits the ground hard. My instructor releases his harness and climbs off me. I hear voices, urgent, worried. I am rolled over, there are people standing over me, the sun flashes between them so I can’t see their faces. I still have no breath, the pain in my knees has eased. I can’t be paralysed, or dead. My legs are both there, my exposed knees are grazed and one side of my face is sore. My instructor used all his skill and experience to bring us in at a shallow angle. I’m elated because I have survived, but exhausted. I manage to say I’m ok to someone. The cameraman is back to capture the after-jump reaction.

“How was it?” he asks.

“Great” I say, shakily sticking a thumb up and smiling.

Post-script

I’m really glad that I had such an amazing experience and raised money for Ataxia UK. I would highly recommend a tandem skydive to anyone but have no desire to do it again myself. I was unfortunate, I’m sure that with better preparation, I would have enjoyed it even more.

I was surprised at the reaction that followed my decision to jump Some openly disapproved, they thought I was taking an unnecessary risk, but it felt like they were saying: ‘You’re disabled, you shouldn’t be doing this.” I’m sure they were motivated by the urge to look after me, but it made me want to prove them wrong. Many were supportive; My GP, signed off my medical form with a few questions, he said: “You’ll really enjoy it” and “it is one of the safest things that there is to do.”

Afterwards was just as interesting. Many people said what I was did was very brave. I thought a lot about this. Was I brave? Were they saying: ‘You’re brave because you are disabled and did something physically difficult?” I never felt brave; people were using their idea of disability to process what I’d done. I didn’t care as long as they paid up! You can see from my account that I never once thought I was being brave. I spent most of my short time in the sky feeling incredibly anxious or uncomfortable and the remainder thinking silly or mundane thoughts or in awe of the silent beauty I was drifting through.

I watched the video on Youtube with our daughter, just five at the time, she thought the hat I wore was to jump out of the plane was silly. For me, that was the best response of all.

Richard Brown

May 2019

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