I walked towards the aircraft as it stood on the apron waiting to take me skywards. The nearer I got to it the noisier it became and I could actually feel the noise as something painful. Yet I was attracted to this plane like metal to a magnet. The knots in my stomach were tightening and even my suit seemed over-tight. I looked around at my fellow passengers and wondered what they were feeling.
I tried to put all this mental discomfort out of my mind.
As I climbed the steps to reach the open doorway I could feel the warm air from the engines flowing over me. A uniformed crewmember indicated where I should seat myself and, as the heady stench of the aviation fuel made me feel faint, I was relieved to sit down.
Using aircraft to get where I needed to be was a necessity though I supposed that I could always use a hot air balloon even though the journey would take an inordinate length of time. I could still reach my destination, but it just wasn't practical. The engines suddenly got noisier and the aircraft began to creep forwards. That dreaded time was approaching when the plane would take off, yet every time this happens, I still marvel at how it would lift up into the air. Just before that moment of relative quiet as the wheels leave the ground, I always have a sense of panic thinking that the take-off won't happen. I feel fear. I can taste it and it's metallic.
Then the plane lifted me up and began the steep climb into the sky where the tumbling acrobats performed their acts.
I could hear someone talking out aloud, almost shouting, just to be heard above the din of the engines. I turned my head towards the co-ordinator's face as I looked up.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
"Yes," I managed in a meek voice.
The moment was now very near when I knew that the knots in my stomach would leave me.
"We'll be over the target area in about two minutes," he said.
Two more minutes. A veritable lifetime, but I'd done this many times. Many lifetimes and although I didn't feel particularly focused in my thinking I knew that I was, with that icy calm as it comes over me. Absolute concentration. I was prepared and reflected upon the first time I'd been in this situation when I'd felt real dread and that the knots in my stomach couldn't get any tighter. I hadn't been sick. It wasn't that type of unsettled feeling.
Just simple tension. Simple.
I remembered that someone had once told me the difference between excitement and fear cannot be described since the sense of awareness is almost identical. I wasn't feeling fear and my excitement increased as I heard a distant: "One minute". If I didn't know I was excited, I could still imagine I was really fearful. Terrified.
Movement of my fellow passengers around me heightened the sense of urgency. Countdown was now in terms of seconds and the sound of the aeroplane's engines cut through my thoughts with a staggering suddenness.
The final minute was almost completed. The countdown nearly over.
I looked in front of me. A blue emptiness dotted with wisps of white, but nobody was there. Through my helmet I could only feel the vibrations caused by the engines, but the rush of the wind passing by the open door combined with the firm tap on my shoulder signalled the unheard command:
My gloved hands pushed backwards against the doorframe at the same moment that I forced my feet downwards against the floor in a well practised, almost automated, movement. I stepped out into the void. The shocking feeling of the floor vanishing was fantastic and the sensation of the wind was immediate as my goggles were forced into my face. I had cleared the aircraft and was plummeting to Earth. I dipped my head mimicking the speed dive of a predatory hawk, falling faster even though I could not detect that as a different sensation.
The knots in my stomach had gone and my sense of exhilaration multiplied a hundred times. No. A thousand times. An unquantifiable excitement filled my mind. My earlier tension had been soothed by adrenaline. I couldn't imagine a more glorious feeling than free falling to Earth on a certain one-way trip, just like an aircraft once it has left the ground and has only one way of returning.
My feeling of excitement filled me to bursting point. I glanced at the altimeter strapped to my forearm and it seemed to almost unwind counting rapidly downwards. I was back in that earlier countdown scenario, but this time was different. I wasn't visualising. Imagining. This was real and happening. Now. I was in my element. I felt the unstoppable urge to somersault. I rolled over very fast. I did it again. The sensation of total freedom was complete. Literally, nothing on Earth could match this moment.
My feet pointed upwards, legs bent at the knees, as I fell face downwards towards the ground and with my arms held out in front of me I reached out to link hands with my eight other team members to form a circle. Symbolically, everyone was an equal and responsible for each other.
Moments later, we disengaged hands and moved off at different angles to create a stacking pattern each jumper well clear of the next. The feeling of falling was countered by the push of the wind trying to stop me. Impossible. I was travelling so fast, but the illusion was real. There was no guide to my movement, but the ground was rushing inexorably towards me, yet it appeared to be stationary.
When I reached the predetermined altitude, I pulled hard on the ring at the end of the cord and the parachute opened. I knew that just moments earlier the others would have done the same in sequence, although I couldn’t see them. My descent speed was instantly lessened as I seemed to be lifted upwards, though still falling downwards and drifting sideways clear of any collision path. This illusion caused by the speed change was truly disturbing, yet exhilarating. The rush of the air on my face seemed to slow and the pressure of my goggles eased slightly as I glided towards the ground feet first. I’d be first to land since I opened my ’chute last.
Was I going down or was the ground coming up? Peculiar. I could never distinguish the two opposite movements and it was like sitting on a train while it is standing at a station next to another train. Any movement could be the train I was sitting in or the other train. It is impossible to tell the difference until some other event destroys the illusion.
My feet gently touched the ground and I collected up the dancing red fabric trying to float ahead of me. Unhooking my parachute harness and removing my helmet, I carried my bundle expertly while leading my colleagues one behind the next in a perfectly straight line as we walked towards the applause of the crowd.