Day 1

It’s Saturday 28th April 2007 and we’re planning to fly to Texel – an Island off the West coast of Holland – to undertake a Military ‘round’ parachute course. ‘We’ are Paul Squires and Mike Farrelly. Mike's a commercial pilot who is also into private flying and I was introduced to him a couple of years ago when I was learning to fly the Chipmunk. He's as daft as me (sorry Mike, I meant adventurous, not daft) so I knew he'd be interested in this course. We were first alerted to the existence of the Association of British Military Parachutists (ABMP) by our mutual pilot friend Paul Yates who had already completed his ‘wings’ course three years ago. Paul Y had been reading about a world record breaking HAHO (High Altitude, High Opening) jump undertaken by members of the ABMP who in 2001 deployed round military chutes at 26000 feet over the Nevada desert (the ABMP pushed the record to 30300 feet the following year). We drunkenly agreed one night that such a record could be broken and we might consider trying but anyone involved would have to hold a recognised ‘round’ parachute jump licence and so the Texel course, organised by the ABMP, seemed a good starting point.

Texel - The Netherlands

A course like this can’t be undertaken in the UK but can be done in The Netherlands due to the fact that the Dutch don’t have their own Parachute Regiment. The courses which run at Paracentrum, Texel are NATO recognised and once complete (after 5 jumps), you get your ‘wings’. Mike has apparently jumped before and I have jumped before but only once or twice and a good few years ago. The idea of doing a course like this seemed sensible six months ago but as the course date gets closer I begin to wonder what the hell I’m doing!

Anyway, I’m committed and I assume Mike feels the same way so, even in the face of our Wives dusting off the insurance policies and not being too happy about us going and despite our own trepidation and personal reservations, we can’t bottle out now …. Holland, here we come!

A round course at Paracentrum

The Flight Plan is lodged, the General Aviation Report has been faxed to Customs & Immigration, the aircraft is pre-flight checked, we’ve got full fuel (enough for 4 hours flying) and Texel know we’re coming. However, despite all the advance planning, we’re still not in the aircraft and it’s 10 minutes after the departure time in the flight plan. I’m panicking as we’ve not even got our immersion suits on yet and they’re a real bastard to climb into. Mike suggests we “stay cool” (impossible in those fucking suits!) but I want to get to Texel at our original estimated time so we struggle into the suits and waddle out to the aircraft. Just time for a couple of photos of us looking ridiculous in our orange suits and then we’re off.

Mike and Paul suited up at Blackpool

The journey from Blackpool is approximately 300 nautical miles (about 550 kilometres) and most of the flight is over the cold, inhospitable waters of the North Sea. If we have an engine failure or any major problems and have to ditch, it is unlikely that we would survive without additional equipment, so we’ve rented the immersion suits plus a liferaft and an emergency locator beacon. Hopefully they won’t get used but better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them!

We eventually get airborne at 12.20 local time. The weather and visibility are great and the flight is uneventful. We take almost a direct track from Blackpool to the VOR at Pole Hill, then overhead the beacon at Humberside airport and then direct to Texel with just one or two ‘kinks’ in the route to avoid danger areas, restricted airspace, military low-level flying areas and the like. We speak to Leeds Bradford and Humberside and, once over water, we speak to Anglia Radar who subsequently hands us off to Amsterdam Information about 10 minutes before we cross the FIR boundary. I’m Pilot-in-command but Mike has been expertly playing with the autopilot and the GPS and consequently the aircraft - a very well equipped Beechcraft A-36 Bonanza (G-FOZZ) - virtually flies itself.

Mike & Paul in the Bonanza

Two and a half hours later we are approaching Texel airfield . The visibility is still perfect and we pick out the 3000 foot main grass runway from some distance away, speak to the tower, position to the North of the field and join right-hand downwind for runway 04. There’s a bit of wind but it’s virtually straight down the runway so the landing is easy. As we taxi in, 5 or 6 parachutists under square canopies fly over us at considerable speed and land accurately, to a man, on a target area which to me looks no bigger than a postage stamp. Flashy bastards – they’ve done that a few times I’ll bet- but they’ve all got big smiles on their faces and make it look easy and fun. I can feel the excitement building.

just arrived at Texel

We park, de-suit, take a photo or two and then spend 15 minutes trying to figure out how to apply the control locks to the aircraft! We eventually figure it out and wander over to the control tower where we meet Ed and Mike de Bruijn. Ed is the Airport Director and Mike is the Assistant Airport Manager. I’ve been in correspondence with Ed via e-mail for some months as we were originally going to fly across to Texel in the Anonov AN-2 (LY-MHC – see Antonov UK) which is owned and operated by myself and Paul Yates in the UK. Ed has been extremely accommodating and now, meeting him in person, he is every bit as friendly and welcoming as I’d come to expect from our previous e-mail exchanges. If Ed is representative, the Dutch are laid-back and relaxed but also totally professional. When I enquired about payment of landing fees, I was told with a wave of the hand that I could forget about that until we were leaving and no-one even bothered asking for passports or other documents. What a contrast to the UK where you are met by Special Branch on landing even if you’ve only had a day trip to the Isle of Man!

Mike and I both badly needed a drink and so we go to the café and have a few of bottles of a brew called ‘Duvel’ which is 8.5%BV!!! Having had nothing to eat, the beer hits home and I’m slightly light-headed by the time I ring Graeme Taylor, the Secretary of the ABMP, who has kindly offered to pick us up at the airport and take us to our lodgings. Graeme says he’ll be with us in 30 minutes. Bloody hell! How far away is this place? I would have thought you could drive round the entire island in that time. But no worries – time for another beer. It doesn’t matter if we get pissed today as the course only officially starts at 10.00 tomorrow.

Graeme arrives and we stow our gear in his van and get on our way. Graeme is a very friendly Scot with an easy-going attitude and it’s very easy to warm to him. We find out later that he has some 1300 jumps under his belt and our respect for him just continues to grow.

Graeme Taylor - Secretary of ABMP Where's my ciggies?!?

Graeme drops us off at our Bungalow accommodation and we meet the four other lads who we’re staying with. They’re introduced as Sean, Tom, Kaiser (real name, David, we later discover) and Chris. They all seem to know each other and have already been to the shop to stock up on food and beer. We later find out that Sean, Tommy and Kaiser have known each other for a while but that Chris is new to the group although you’d never know it. Mike and I are a bit wary of these guys for all of 10 seconds as they immediately make us feel welcome and it’s clear we’re going to have a good time and a good laugh as they’re all taking the piss out of each other already. We’re a mixed bunch. Everyone but me seems to have had some military experience but only Kaiser is still serving and has just come back from a tour in Iraq. There’s a couple of boys from the Parachute Regiments and they wear their berets with justifiable pride. Kaiser and Tommy have not jumped before. On the other hand, Sean has over 50 jumps but is unassuming and modest about his comparatively higher level of experience. Chris’s enthusiasm for all things relating to parachuting is contagious and I swear if you cut the lad in half, he would have ‘Paratrooper’ written through him. He has done the Wings course before both in Texel and in Estonia so this outing is just for fun. Kaiser and Tommy provide most of the humour – generally by taking the piss out of each other but it’s clear that there’s genuine friendship and mutual respect between these guys and it’s impossible not to like them all.

Back L-R Mike, Paul, Melvyn (Instructor), Sean, Kaiser & Tommy. Front L-R Mick & Chris - the team in Texel, Holland. (Why am I the only one smiling? Do they all know something I don't??)

The only remaining room has bunk beds and Mike deftly claims the top bunk, puts his towel across the radiator (leaving no room for mine), unpacks his clothes onto the shelves next to the wardrobe (leaving little room for mine) and spreads his toiletries all across the shelf over the sink. There’s clearly a bit of German ‘towel on the sunbed’ approach here but I’m sure Mike is doing it unconsciously and it’s just a reaction to having been billeted with a group of blokes before. He climbs onto his bed and I try mine out. Unfortunately, the springs under the top bunk are not doing too good a job and if I lie on my back, the impression of Mike’s arse is suspended what seems like 3 or 4 inches above me. Think I’ll be sleeping on my side tonight for sure!!

Mike and I know each other well enough - he's a good guy and an exceptional pilot. This will be a shared experience for two parachuting 'novices' and I'm sure we'll have a laugh during the course of the next week and be firm friends by the end of it but I'm not used to sharing a room with another bloke so I'm going to have to do a bit of adjusting to living, not just in close proximity to Mike, but with four other guys too.

That evening we all go for a meal with Graeme and his Wife, Irene and the seventh member of the jump group – Mick - and his partner, Janice, at a bar-restaurant about a quarter mile walk from the bungalow in an area called De Slufter. I don’t get a chance to talk to Mick too much as he’s at the other end of the table but there’s a lot of banter and joking from the rest of the guys at my end of the table. I’m sat next to Kaiser and opposite Sean and I manage to learn quite a lot about these two guys (although they probably can’t remember what they said and most of it’s not for public consumption!) Mike and I have a bottle of red wine with the meal which turns out to be a bad move as Chris is heard to remark that we might actually be officers in disguise and he clearly thinks that there’s something suspect about anybody who drinks wine rather than beer or who doesn’t take at least three sugars in their tea! Graeme helps out by having a glass so Mike and I aren’t regarded as the only Ruperts! In addition to the wine, we have a good few beers and although I’m not legless, the walk back to the bungalow is not exactly in a straight line. Fortunately, no-one else seems to be walking in a straight line either.

I go to bed with a slight buzz, pleased to be in the company of new friends and eager to get started tomorrow. Despite the alcohol, due to an equal mixture of excitement and trepidation, sleep is a long time coming. A few weeks ago, when at home, I had a dream about falling from an aircraft wearing a parachute where the harness had broken and I was trying to hold it in place with my hands. That one random dream is the only indication that I was in any way apprehensive about the course. Tonight, when I eventually get to sleep, my sleep is dreamless.

Day 2 & 3 (29th & 30th April)

Paracentrum, Texel

We're up reasonably early next morning (Sunday) and we all pile into Kaiser's car for the ride to the DZ. We've been told our briefing starts promptly at 10.00. Graeme arrives at 10.20 prompting the first of many jokes that week about having a whip round to get him a new watch. We're not being unkind, we're just keen to get started.

Texel Airport from the road with resident Starfighter

We all sign disclaimers and medical papers are checked then Graeme announces " now you're all fucking doomed! DOOMED!!!!"

Graeme's briefing is very reassuring and the main message is that there's no such thing as luck. "if something goes wrong up there, it means someone's fucked-up. Follow the training and everything will be OK." That's all well and fine but what if the guy who's packed my 'chute has 'fucked-up'? I would call that bad luck! What if the aircraft stalls and crashes before we get to jump height? What if I catch a gust of wind just as I'm landing and it takes me into a ditch? I'm a bit of a control freak myself - I always like to be 'hands-on' and would always sooner do things myself than be a 'passenger' so I'm pre-disposed to believing, like Graeme, that everything's within my control. But when you start really thinking about it, you have to realise that only certain things are actually within your control and in order to jump out of a perfectly good aircraft a 'leap of faith' is required - that's where the courage comes in. As the saying goes "Fear is a reaction.....courage is a decision".

We listen to details of the way in which the parachutes (MC1-1C) behave. They are 'steerable' to a degree as they have steering modifications (holes!) at the rear which results, in still air, in a forward speed of about 3 metres per second (approx. 6 knots). However, still air is a rarity and it is important to land into wind. The normal limit for a training jump is wind of 6-7 meteres per second which means that you will be landing at 3-4 metres per second if landing into wind. If you are silly enough to land downwind then the combined landing speed would be about 10 metres per second (20 knots or about 23 MPH) which obviously increases the risk of injury.

After Graeme's training briefing we go outside and are escorted by one of the Paracentrum staff on a walk around the Drop Zone to look at the hazards close up. Ditches, racetracks, concrete posts and an extremely hard grass runway all surround the DZ. However, I'm bored at this point and can't really see the point of this walkabout when what myself and the boys really want to do is get on with it. It's probably something to do with liability and Paracentrum's insurance but it still seems overkill to me.

Drop zone with ditches and racetrack

We go to a local town for lunch and then back to the DZ to do some PLFs (Parachute Landing Falls). This involves us jumping from a platform about 3 feet off the ground in various configurations - forwards, backwards, left, right. A properly executed PLF will take all the force out of the landing - feet and knees together, knees slightly bent - landing on one foot is almost certainly going to result in sprains or breaks. I don't think I do even one of the practice PLFs satisfactorily but Melvyn, our instructor, seems to think I'm OK as he asks some of the other guys to re-do certain falls but seems OK with my efforts. I'm not happy with what I've done. He probably feels sorry for me as I'm the oldest and lankiest of the group so he's going easy on me!

Melvyn - our instructor

Just after lunch we have the pleasure of seeing a Lancaster bomber do a couple of low passes over the airfield. This Lancaster is one of only two airworthy examples today and it was in the Netherlands either to commemorate Operation Market Garden (the largest airborne operation in history carried out in WWII to secure certain strategic objectives for the Allied advance including the bridge at Arnham - subject of the book and film 'A Bridge Too Far') or the food drops which were carried out towards the end of the war to help the starving Dutch. The Lancaster is spectacular and, as a pilot, I can think only one thing - "I wish I was flying THAT!"

Lancaster bomber over Texel airfield

The wind is clearly too high for jumping and the speed of the training reflects the fact that everyone knows there'll be no jumping today so we go in and begin learning how to pack chutes under the expert supervision of Graeme and Cobby.

packing table with '1 Charlie' parachute Chris and Cobby

Packing parachutes seems difficult at first but it's relatively easy once you understand the way the chute is supposed to come out of the bag on the static line. It's all about ensuring there are no twists in the lines or faults in the panels and getting the chute neatly flattened and folded into the deployment bag. It's better if done with two packers. The novelty of packing soon wears off and the job very quickly becomes tedious but it needs to be done and it needs to be done properly as literally, someone's life could depend on it. All the chutes are numbered and a record is kept of who packed each chute. Also Graeme and Cobby have to check the packing at various stages and sign the chute's packing record book. They do a 'four line check' to ensure that there are no crossed lines and check before the deployment bag is tied and the chute goes into the rig and they generally keep an eye on things. Mick has his own rig and he and Chris have packed before (on a previous ABMP course) so there's more skilled hands than unskilled ones.

Kaiser, Paul, Sean and Chris at the packing table Tommy and Kaiser with Graeme

No jumping today and the knowledge that there is yet more training tomorrow before jumping (even if the weather is favourable) puts us all in the mood for a beer or three that evening. Home for a shower and a spruce-up and then we go in Kaiser's car to a town to the South called De Koog and find a number of bars and then, eventually a night club. The music's loud and the crowd is lively. There's booze and women aplenty...what more could a chap want? The alchohol we've had so far puts us in a somewhat uninhibited frame of mind and Kaiser and Tommy immediately start gyrating around a pole on the dance floor! Not the most impressive poledancers I've ever seen but what they lack in looks is more than made up for by enthusiasm. They are totally unabashed and, not for the first time in my life, I rather wish that I could routinely adopt such a "I don't give a fuck what anyone thinks!" approach to life. I try, but most of the time, I'm faking it. I try to get the whole thing on film by using the video in my new mobile phone but it's too dark and I only succeed in getting myself in trouble with a pair of very attractive Dutch girls who mistakenly think I'm trying to film them and immediately draw their boyfriends' attention to the English pervert. I've had enough booze by now to think I could take 'em but perhaps it's just the paratrooper mentality getting the better of me!? Even in a club such as this the beer is comparatively cheap and we continue to give our livers a mild hammering. Kaiser is driving back and having had only two or three times the legal limit (I could be wrong, Kaiser, I wasn't counting, Mate). Mike and I unwisely decide to go back with him, leaving the other boys to get a taxi home. They arrive home no more than 10 minutes after us and I can't help thinking that they could have saved the taxi fare and marvel at this small example of the many, many ways in which alchoholism fuels the economy and is therefore very public spirited. I get the feeling we will continue to be 'public spirited' throughout our stay here in Texel! More ground school tomorrow.... (groan) I can't wait!

The following day the wind is still too high and I can feel my frustration growing. More PLFs and we're hooked up to a kind of scaffold to have a final test with Melvyn. This involves us going through the drills with which we're all now very familiar..."One thousand, two thousand, three thousand... check canopy! It's big and round, no rips or blown panels, the apex is in the middle, steering mods at the rear (so no canopy inversion). Pull on the risers and kick like hell to remove any twists, steering toggles, left, right, orientation (you don't want to collide with another jumper) steer into wind and navigate to the DZ.... easy. If the canopy has not opened, deploy the reserve (if in doubt... get it out!) (T10-R)

. T10-R Reserves Kaiser -"it's a long way up there!"

These are not spring loaded so need to be pulled out of the reserve bag (which is positioned over your stomach) after pulling the reserve handle and thrown firmly down and left to deploy. It takes anything up to 10-15 seconds to do a 'dry run' reserve deployment on the ground but we're reliably assured by both Graeme and Melvyn that if the main doesn't open for real then adrenaline will ensure that the T10-R is deployed in about 3 seconds!! Will I have the composure to deploy the reserve if something really goes wrong? Actually, after all the training, I think I will (but let's hope I don't need to test the theory!)

We all satisfactorily complete our final test and we are deemed by Melvyn to be ready but, because of the wind, no jumping today so a bit more packing and then home to get ready for another night on the town.

Paul on scaffold test - reserve deployment Melvyn talking us through entry/exit of the Cessna Caravan

30th April is the Queen of Holland's Birthday and a public holiday so everyone in De Koog is painted orange and engaged in silly street games. As we walk down the main street in our DPMs and camo gear, more than one group of local kids is humming or whistling the tune to The A-Team. Who says the Dutch don't have a sense of humour? Kaiser's not driving tonight so we play our own silly games and all get blotto. A taxi home and we're all tucked up and asleep by the ridiculously early hour of 4am ready for what will hopefully be the first jump tomorrow.

Day 4 (Tuesday 1st May 2007)

Any hopes of jumping today are dashed by the low cloud - if you can't see the DZ from the aircraft, you can't jump. How frustrating! We pack chutes and generally mope around all day nursing our hangovers from the previous night. The weather looks like it's set for the day as the wind seems to have dropped a bit but this means the low cloud is not getting blown through. We're now nearly half way through the week and none of us have jumped yet. I'm starting to think we'll never even get off the ground and I'm miserable and irritatable. Mike is a bit 'Zen' about the whole thing but I like to get angry when things aren't going according to plan as this helps me. However, it doesn't make me particularly pleasant to be with and I'm well pissed off with packing chutes and waiting and I'll tell anyone who comes into earshot.

To keep ourselves occupied and to relieve the boredom, most of the boys and I visit the air museum which is on the airfield at Texel. During the later part of WWII, Texel was a bit of a radar blackspot for the occupying German forces and so many bombing and reconnaisance missions from England routed over Texel. The island is littered with Allied aircraft crash sites. The museum is well worth a visit and the details of all of the Allied pilots who crashed and lost their lives on the Island (some of them as young as 20 or 21 piloting bombers and fighters) is quite humbling and I struggle to imagine what it must have been like to go to War at such a young age. It makes our little bit of thrill-seeking on this course seem very tame by comparison.

The museum visit is the high spot of the day and we all go back to the bungalow for a bite to eat and an uncharacteristically early night.

Day 5 (Wednesday 2nd May 2007)

Today the wind is 6-7 metres per second - definitely within limits so the first drop IS going to take place at last!. No sooner are we told to gear up.... we're ready, as everyone has previously chosen their main and reserve and no-one needs any encouragement as this is what we've all come here for. We all help each other get kitted up and then it's outside for a 'pin check' where one of the Paracentrum staff check that the chutes are fitted properly, all the strapping on the kit is secure and the pins holding the reserve to the main harness and securing the T-handle to the reserve are in place. Once checked out, the static line clip is placed over the left shoulder and attached at the front. This serves as a visual confirmation that you've been checked and makes it easier to attch the static line to the strong point in the aircraft. We get a briefing about the wind direction and we all form a mental picture of where the wind is coming from in relation to the DZ and where we will have to turn the chutes in relation to the position of the sun to ensure that we are flying into wind.

Paul checking Mike's kit

I'm quite tall and none of the parachute rigs fit me quite properly. Consequently, I'm walking with a bit of a stoop and my legs go bandy like a cowboy who's lost his horse as my gait is based on a desire to keep my tackle intact. The leg straps are dangerously close to my delicate parts and the thought flits through my mind that my testicles might be permanently damaged by the not inconsiderable force of the chute opening when I'm effectively in freefall. Still, God gave me two and I really want to get my wings now so, the Hell with it! I'll risk it.

Paul kitted up and ready to go

We're a bit worried that we won't all get to jump together because there are other jumpers and some military re-enactment guys who, like us, have been waiting for the weather to be jumpable and this is the first lift of the day so everyone wants to be on it. "I don't care how you do it, just make sure you all get your arses on that plane together" says Graeme. So we all edge forward and as soon as we're told to move out, we stride forward, as one, to the muster point to get on board the Caravan which is just taxying out.

The Cessna Caravan - our lift

Chris is first on board and I'm second. I slide in but I don't have my hand over my reserve handle. The Jumpmaster (Iwan) says quite forcefully " if anyone doesn't cover their reserve when the door is open they will be on the beach , because they won't be jumping any more". This is not aimed at me in particular but I feel like he's talking to me as I know I've not covered the reserve. A lesson learned. It's very dangerous if a reserve is accidentally deployed when the aircraft door is open as the reserve is likely to drag someone out of the aircraft. We sit there as the sliding door closes and the aircraft climbs. Strangely, I'm not at all nervous or even excited. As the other boys get on board and we sit cramped and huddled together on the floor of the aircraft (to get as many jumpers in as possible), I try to listen to my heartbeat and detect that, not surprisingly, it is beating a little faster than normal. However, I thought I'd be shitting myself by now and my mind would be a blank but I'm actually OK and I could best describe my feelings as anticipation rather than worry or concern. I know that this is because of two things - the first is that, because of the weather over the last few days, we have had quite a long time to prepare ourselves for this and it's not been rushed. The second is that, as a group, I think we've gelled together quite well and no-one (and I do mean no-one!!) would let Graeme or the team down by performing poorly, flapping or displaying anything other than quiet determination. As I look around the other guys they all look calm and ready.

The Caravan climbs to 2000 feet and the jumpmaster opens the door and throws out a piece of wood with a streamer attached. This is a wind drift indicator and, on the first pass over the DZ, gives an indication of where Iwan should position the jumpers.

Second pass and we're going! The heartbeat gets a little faster still. What I didn't realise in my haste to get in the aircraft is that if I'm second in, I'll be next to last out in a stick of seven.We all shuffle forward. First man in the door....GO! He's out and we all move forward. Everyone jumps without hesitation and I'm next. I get to the door, Iwan says "Go!" and I throw myself out of the door as hard as I can from a sitting position to make sure that my pack doesn't catch on the doorway. "One thousand.... two thousand... three AAAAARRRRGGGHHH!!!! my goolies!! (I find out later that my leg straps were twisted but no-one thought it important enough to mention that when we had a gear check). I look up and see the chute open but it's all happened a bit fast and I begin to reconsider whether I would have had the composure to deploy the reserve. It gets better and seems slower as the course progresses but I think the real risk is at the beginning.

I'm the one on the left

I'm looking for the other guys as we don't want to be too close together and risk a collision. The only person close to me appears to be Chris who, as first man in, jumped after me. He's coming towards me at what seems like an incredible speed. "Steer away, steer away!" he shouts and despite our training which quite clearly states that if two chutes are converging, each should steer right, he steers left! For fuck's sake!!! I reverse my initial right turn and go left to avoid him and later realise that he is steering as close as possible to the hangar on the other side of the active runway (which we've been told we shouldn't cross) to get kitted up again and ready to go asap.Chris has, of course, done this before so he knows where he wants to land and I was in his way!

Once the chute is opened there is quite a long time to get yourself orientated and get as close as possible to the drop zone.I'm trying not to look at the obstacles such as ditches, fences etc as Graeme has assured us of a strange parachuting phenomenon which means that if you look at something, you will land on it. It seems to work for obstacles (if you concentrate on a ditch, you'll almost certainly land in it) but, perversely, it DOESN'T seem to work if you concentrate on the centre of the DZ. Chris has previously (drunkenly) said that anyone who doesn't hit the DZ is a "twat" and in true twat style, I miss the DZ narrowly and land in an adjacent field (along with Kaiser).

I remember all the training and land, feet and knees together, knees slightly bent, with the best backwards PLF I've done so far. (It gets progressively worse every subsequent jump - but more about that later). I land with a bit of a bang but not too hard. I get dragged a little but manage to put my weight on the risers. get to my feet and run around the chute to deflate it. I'm so pleased to be on the ground in one piece that I make no attempt to make a decent field pack from my chute and just bundle it together and trot to the muster point. Sean and Kaiser try to help me to get my chute rolled into a decent field pack while we wait for everyone to arrive at the muster point but as my chute is pulled out, something catches on the reserve handle and ... plop.... it deploys and drops like a piece of shit on my boots. Bollocks!! Graeme's going to kill me or, even worse, they're all going to take the piss. Still there's 4 more jumps to go. Let's see what cock-ups the other guys are guilty of before the course is finished!.....

Well, one jump down, four more before I get my wings.

We are escorted back over the active runway to the re-packing hangar and as we approach, Graeme greets us with a handshake and a big smile. I feel like I've joined an elite club and frankly, this makes the whole course (and the pain that's about to follow) all worthwhile. Graeme rolls his eyes when I explain I've accidentally popped my reserve. but nothing can dampen the feeling of accomlishment and I'm keen to go again. No sooner are we back in the hangar than we're kitted up again and walking back out to the Caravan for jump 2. I'm 3rd of 5 jumpers and as spaces are limited on this lift Mick and Chris (who've both got their wings from a previous course) don't join us. This time, I'm slightly more aware of what's going on and I hope for the textbook jump but as I exit the aircraft and the chute deploys, I look up and realise that, whilst the canopy is big, round etc, I've got multiple twists in the lines. I try to pull down and out on the risers whilst kicking my legs around frantically but the twist is stubbornly refusing to come out. On second inspection, the chute doesn't look quite as big as it should and I realise that the twist has gone so far up the lines that it's actually inhibiting the full spread of the canopy. I've not time to consider whether I'm descending faster than I should or whether the twist is due to poor packing or a very bad exit as all I can concentrate on is kicking like mad. Eventually, the twists come out and I spin around quite quickly. I can now get myself orientated but I've lost a lot of time and I realise I've been flying downwind all the time I've been trying to sort out the twist. The upshot of all this is that I land even further from the DZ than I did on the first jump. In fact, I land in a ploughed field but the soil is very sandy and soft and, aside from getting a mouthful of it when being dragged a little, the landing is fairly gentle. I take my time and make a decent field pack of the chute and I trot back to the RV, making sure I protect the reserve! Two down.... three more to go!

Paul kitted up and obviously happy to be getting on with it

Back out again and now I'm getting cocky. I volunteer to be last in the aircraft so I'll be first to jump as I want to know what it feels like to be first out rather than follow others. Frankly, the speed and urgency with which the jumpmaster marshalls everyone makes it very difficult to refuse and so I consciously want to jump first to test myself as, if I'm ever going to have any misgivings, it'll be now. We're up at 2000 feet and the WDI has been thown out so we're now on the second pass. I'm sat in the open door and as first to jump you get a little more time to look down at the ground. I have to admit, I do feel a slight apprehension which wasn't evident on the first two jumps. However, Iwan gives the signal and, after a very slight hesitation which I hope only I was aware of, I throw myself out.

There's quite a lot of noise at first because of the air rush but as you feel the jerk of the canopy opening and check that the chute has properly deployed, the whole world seems to go silent as you drift slowly down. There's hardly any perception of vertical or lateral movement and for a short moment or two, the sensation is slightly soporific (and at best, the feeling is close to spiritual).

Everything seems to be happening slower this time and I'm even more aware than on the first two jumps so you'd think I'd be able to hit the DZ but.... you've guessed it...... I end up in the same ploughed field as last time. Also, the wind seems to be picking up a bit and I'm dragged on landing to such an extent that I can't get to my feet so I have to struggle to release one of the capewells on the shoulder of the harness which effectively frees the rigging lines on that side and releases the tension on the lines so that the canopy deflates. Graeme had briefed us only to release a capewell if we had no choice (as the lines get tangled and repacking is more difficult) but, on this occasion, I thought the wind which was dragging me was going to take me into a fence or a ditch so releasing the capewell seemed the lesser of two evils.

carrying the chute back for re-packing

It's now 18.30 so no more jumping today. Still, we're more than halfway to completing the course and when I take stock, I realise I'm both physically and mentally knackered, so going out to celebrate (as Chris and Sean insist we do now that we're not Rounds 'virgins' any more) seems a good way of recharging the batteries for tomorrow. The details are vague. I can remember us all drinking some weird brown coloured local drink a little like Jagermeister and I can remember waking up the next morning, totally dehydrated, with my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. However, most of the details of what we got up to will probably require hypnosis to retrieve. Suffice to say, we had a good time (I think....)

Day 6 (Thursday 3rd May 2007)

I feel like shit. Come to think of it, the whole bungalow smells like shit!? My five housemates have obviously all had their morning constitutionals before I've come out of my drink-induced coma. Nothing like a hangover and the combined smell of five different lots of crap to wake up to! The smell reminds me of last night's kebab and puts me right off my Cornflakes.These are great guys but, truthfully, I've had enough of living in all male company now - the bog is a disgrace, the kitchen's littered with the remains of ham & cheese barms, AB Chillie ('Airborne Chillie' made by Tom before we went out last night) and other assorted foodstuffs and the living room smells like an ashtray. I walk outside into the fresh air which wakes me up a bit. It's a nice clear day but, rather worryingly, there seems to be a bit of a stiff breeze. I hope it's not too strong a wind as we all really want to get the last two jumps in today.

We get to the DZ and get kitted up. The wind is getting up towards 8 meters per second but it looks as though we're still going to jump.

Iwan has been overheard saying to the Military re-enactment guys that our group know what we're doing and that they should 'take a leaf out of our book'. Given the fact that there are a number of complete novices in our little group, this is very flattering but I have to admit that we do seem very businesslike when it comes to the jumping. There may be a lot of fooling around in the evening when one or two beers have been consumed but when we get kitted up, everyone is professional and serious. I'm feeling quite pleased with myself but, as the old saying goes...."Pride comes before a fall" (or in this case, a jump!)

I end up being first out again but this time it's not because I want to be, it's just because I'm slowest out to the Caravan. Because the wind is higher than yesterday, Iwan decides that we will go out in two groups. I'm first out in a group of three and the exit is good. I can feel that this time everything will go well and I'm determined to hit the DZ.

And I do.... but the windspeed means that I hit travelling backwards and my PLF is probably the worst I've done as I misjudge the distance above the ground and I hit before I'm ready. I land on part of the DZ near the runway and it's HARD! Compared to the relative softness of the recently ploughed soily/sandy field which I've landed in on jumps 2 and 3, this feels like landing on concrete and I know I've hurt myself simply as a result of the impact. However, I get to my feet quicker than I really want to as I don't want anyone to know what a totally shit landing I've just done. The only good thing I can say is that I managed to keep my feet and knees together and my knees slightly bent. If not, I'm sure I'd have broken something. I walk slowly back to the muster point. I'm not happy but I don't want to let anyone know. Only one more jump to go.

Walking back to the re-packing hangar after the drop

The wind is getting even higher and interestingly, no-one is talking about it as if, by ignoring it, it might not prevent us from doing the last jump. We're kitted up and airborne and this time I'm 3rd out. I later discover that the wind is at 9 meters per second (that's 18 knots or approx. 21 MPH). I'm more apprehensive on this jump than any of the previous ones and I just want to get it done. I'm not sure whether this is because I was a little shaken up by the previous jump or whether I'm getting random thoughts in my head about something going wrong on the last drop. Also, on the first jump, to some extent, despite all the training, ignorance was bliss. Now, I know enough about what's going on to know that the windspeed means we're jumping in marginal conditions. Even in time of War, weather can cancel an airborne operation but, come on, Paul, we're not talking about extremes of weather here - it's just blowing a bit harder than yesterday. Stop being a wimp and get on with it.

Paul under canopy

I'm out and the canopy's fully deployed. Again, I'm heading in the right general direction for the DZ but the runway runs parallel to one section of the drop zone and I can see a light aircraft taxying out. I'm watching it and getting closer and closer to it and I'm sure the pilot can't see me so I know I'd better steer away. I turn downwind but the part of the DZ I'm heading for has a ditch running down one side of it, again, parallel to the runway so I'm trying to land on the strip between the active runway and the ditch and from where I am it looks awfully narrow. Because of this, I don't want to turn back into wind as I should to slow down because I don't want to lose sight of the target. Consequently, I pick up a lot of speed and, although I'm planning to turn back into wind just before landing, I'm not thinking clearly enough to recognize that this won't bleed off all the speed I'll have gathered.

jumpers 1 and 2

I hit the ground unevenly at what must be about 25MPH. For the first time, my legs must not have been together and I feel pressure on my right ankle. CRASH, BANG. I literally see stars (I thought that only happened in cartoons!) I smash my head on the ground and I'm grateful for the way the helmet spreads the impact. My teeth bang together and I'm winded and I get dragged for what seems like ages. I'm disorientated and I can't reach the capewell as it seems that I've rolled over on landing and the lines are twisted to the point where the webbing on the harness is covering up the capewell on my left hand shoulder which I'm trying to get the fingers of my right hand to. God only knows what my left hand is doing ... hanging on for dear life I think which is totally irrational as I'm already strapped to the parachute and want to get out of it , not hang on to it! Although I've landed backwards. I'm now being dragged on my belly and the reserve handle snags on something as I scuff along the ground and the reserve pops again underneath me and I'm getting well and truly wrapped up. The wind seems really strong and I haven't a clue where I'm getting dragged to. I eventually manage to pull the capewell and I'm on my feet but a little dazed. My ankle is beginning to really hurt but what I'm most annoyed about is how the last jump is going to turn out to be, technically, the worst. and I seem to have lost the reserve handle too. A second reserve accidentally deployed and a lost reserve handle - Graeme's gonna love me!

I get myself together and, with considerable difficulty, manage to gather both the main and the reserve chutes together. I take off the entire rig and set about doing a sweep for the missing reserve handle. I haven't actually been dragged as far as I thought but it still takes me about 15 minutes to find the handle. My head hurts, my ankle hurts, I feel like I've been kicked in the groin by a horse. I'm not sure I could have shocked my body any more if I'd been in a car crash!

As I'm limping (very slowly) back, I see the ambulance zooming out to the other side of the DZ. Bugger!, one of the lads must be hurt. I start looking at the other figures walking back and try, by process of elimination, to work out who's missing. Looks like it's Sean and I temporarily forget my aches and pains and both I and some of the boys who I've now joined up with on the way back to the hangar are genuinely concerned about him.

The van which serves as an ambulance is back at the hangar and as we get closer, we see Sean, holding his left shoulder and wrist protectively but with a brew and with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. He's walking wounded so it could have been worse and, although he's evidently in some pain, we're all relieved that he's still swearing and joking. Seems he's been dragged through a ditch and it's confirmed later that he's broken a collar bone.

Sean with broken collar bone and injured wrist after last jump

He's most pissed off that he's lost his watch as it was apparently a new one and I suggest that some of us go out to have a look for it. We reckon we've got next to no chance of finding it but we're all feeling a bit sympathetic towards Sean (and perhaps feeling guilty that we're secretly so pleased it wasn't us who got dragged into the ditch as it could have happened to anyone) and so we feel as though we should go through the motions. Graeme, Cobby, Chris, Mick, Mike and I go out in Graeme's van to the other side of the field but we can't drive across the DZ so we have to go on the public roads to the east of the airfield and then walk through the racetrack to get somewhere close to where Sean said he had landed. When we actually get there, we're given a clue to where Sean landed as there's a very distinct visible trail where he was dragged by his chute and we set about searching the ground around the drag marks. There's still quite a lot of ground to cover but, amazingly, Cobby locates the missing watch within a minute or two and we all set off back feeling rather pleased with ourselves - just another small but powerful example that you should never give up without trying something, even if the odds are stacked against you.

The searchteam! - This is where we found Sean's watch Graeme climbing over the ditch

Later in the afternoon, we get our jump logs signed and stamped by Iwan and we have a small 'passing out' parade where we all receive our Wings and a certificate of completion from Jan Boyen - the owner of Paracentrum. There's also an 'unofficial' award ceremony instigated by Chris, Tommy and Kaiser. It seems some of the boys have been into town whilst Sean was at the hospital to buy gifts. Among the 'awards', Sean was presented with a set of plastic water wings due to his encounter with the ditch and I got a box of toffees called 'Old Timers' - a not too subtle (but nonetheless, amusing) reference to the fact that I'm the oldest guy on the course! It's fortunate there weren't any called 'Miserable Git' as, whilst it's all smiles now, I've had my sulks when I thought we weren't going to get the course finished because of the weather. Anyway, we're all now qualified and I'm smiling even though my right ankle is twice as big as it should be and I feel like I've been set upon by a gang of thugs wielding baseball bats. I think I've just sprained the ankle rather than broken anything and I need to give it a bit of a rest as I'm flying back home tomorrow.

Graeme is very complimentary about the course and says that it's the best course he's run. That's quite flattering knowing how many of these he's done before. I now have mixed feelings - in one way, I'm glad it's over and I've got my Wings but in another way, I wish I could jump again and make the last jump a good one. Still, I find out that in addition to Sean's accident, Mike also landed on his head, none of the other guys really did a textbook drop and Mick had the piss taken out of him by Graeme for landing downwind (as I almost did) and doing five or six PLFs in rapid succession - in other words, bouncing all over the bloody place! Apparently, Graeme's got it all on film so there'll be more piss-taking later.

the team at course end - Sean, Kaiser, Mike, Paul, Chris, Tommy, Mick & Graeme

Everyone, including Graeme, Irene and Janice, go for a drink at the bar in De Slufter to celebrate a successful course completion. Mick stays with Graeme and the ladies to have a meal and the rest of us go back to the bungalow to get fed and showered ready for a final night out. I've taken the two portable GPS units out of the aircraft to charge them up for the flight home tomorrow and, like a complete idiot, I walk out of the bar with the rest of the guys leaving the £3000 worth of kit on the bar. I must be concussed or something! I realise what I've done about an hour later and, although I've already probably had too much to drink, borrow Kaiser's car keys (he's asleep on the couch in the living room) and drive back to the bar in De Slufter. Thankfully, they're still there. No-one had touched them and I can't help thinking that I could have left them there for a week and they'd still have been waiting for me. Another example of the differences between Holland and the UK. I'm extremely relieved and thankful that the Dutch are so honest.

Once everyone's showered and spruced up, it's a walk (or in my case, a hobble) back to the bar in De Slufter for another drink while we wait for a taxi. Tonight, as it's the last night and we want a change, we're going to go to another town to the North called De Cocksdorp rather than De Koog which has been the centre of our social activities all week. As we're sat in the bar I start to feel really unwell. I don't know if it's the not inconsiderable pain which is racking my body (and which does not seem to be abating with the alcohol ), my ankle, my hay fever (which has been bugging me all week but which is particularly bad tonight), tiredness, mild concussion or shock. I just know that I don't feel right and I float the idea that I might not join the other guys and may just have an early night. This suggestion is met with some incredulity that I could be such a pansy as to consider not going out on the LAST NIGHT. However, the more the guys verbally abuse me, the more convinced I am that I shouldn't go and so they all go off in the taxi sulking at me. Mike's final words are that he too is feeling a bit the worse for wear and that they'll probably just have a few drinks and be home before Midnight.

I finish my beer on my own and limp back to the bungalow.

I lie in my bunk but I can't sleep at all as my ankle is now absolutely killing me and I've no painkillers. At 04.35 the boys come home noisily and, as expected, they're all pissed. Mike is totally legless, says sorry about a thousand times because he thinks he's woken me up, can't get on his bunk and is giggling uncotrollably and keeps saying something very fast in an unusually high voice which I can't make any sense of but which he thinks is hilarious. After about ten minutes he somehow manages to get on the top bunk. I wasn't helping because by this time I'm resentful that they've all been out and had a good time without me! Within a further 30 seconds Mike's snoring loudly and I can hear at least two other lots of snoring from elsewhere in the bungalow. Fucking great! I stayed home to get an early night and I'm the only one awake! My total sleep is measured in minutes, not hours, but as dawn breaks, at least my head seems to be clearing and my ankle isn't quite as bad as last night.

Day 7 (Friday 4th May 2007)

The following morning, we're back at the DZ. The Dutch Army are there on some sort of excercise. It's alright chaps, you didn't need to come out in your Tanks and APCs just to see us off!

A contingent from the Dutch Army - come to see us off Dutch Army sentry

We've packed all our stuff and Mike and I have to get it stowed in the Bonanza and get flight plans etc. filed and take on some fuel ready for the trip home. However, we don't want to leave Graeme with the job of repacking all the chutes used yesterday so we volunteer to do a bit more packing and it kills a bit of time until we have to leave.

We ask Ed if we can do a low pass over the airfield before leaving and he gives us permission. It's never going to be as impressive as the Lancaster but it seems a fitting way to say goodbye to our new comrades (and to show off a bit as well!) Mike says he can see some of our friends as we pass low over the runway but I'm only looking forward as I don't want to make this a pyrotechnic display by crashing with full fuel. We pull up under full power and waggle the wings (Mike's suggestion - it seems corny to me but feels good doing it) before departing West.

Bonanza G-FOZZ low pass over Texel airfield

The flight home is as uneventful as the flight out and Mike (who is still hung-over but denying it) does the RT mainly to keep himself awake and because, having had little or no sleep last night, I simply can't be bothered.

Back to Blackpool, back to normality and shortly, back to work. However, something to look forward to - there's an advanced ABMP round course in Estonia next year. Kaiser, Chris and Mick have already signed up for one later this year but I can't attend due to other commitments. Apparently, on the Estonian course, some of the exits are much lower (no time for reserve deployments but not as much time for the wind to blow you off course either). Also, some of the exits are higher with the deployment of a small drogue chute and substantial delay before the main chute is out of the bag. Sounds interesting. Sounds risky. Sounds fun. I intend to be there!

ABMP badge Wings

Chris Kaiser Mick Mike Paul


If any of the foregoing has offended anyone involved, this was unintended - but tough! - don't be so sensitive!!!

Paul Squires - June 2007

Graeme Taylor letter - click for larger PDF



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