Drop zone

The Cessna 206 is a robust, workmanlike aeroplane, described by the manufacturer as ‘the sport-utility vehicle of the air’. With a length of 8.61m and a wingspan of 10.97m, space for the pilot and five passengers (six if you take the seats out), it’s popular with air charter companies and small cargo carriers, as well as for private and military use. It’s damn reliable.

The one I’m sitting in is perfectly functional too, which really makes me question why I’m planning on jumping out of it, 3 500ft (1 066m, but everything is measured in feet when skydiving) above the farmlands of Robertson, in about 10 minutes. It’s difficult to be rational when weighing up the pros and cons of challenging gravity to a duel a little over a kilometre above terra firma.

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One thousand feet!’ calls André (aka Dodgy), our instructor. We run through the checks, calling out as we go: ‘Helmet! Chinstrap! Three rings! Handles! Chest strap! Leg straps!’ Then back to fidgeting and nervous glances out of the window at the patchwork-quilt world below. Minutes later, ‘Three thousand feet, standby!’ André attaches the static line to Riaan’s main chute release, and the snap clip to the steel loop on the pilot’s seat – the strongest point on the plane. Once we’re in position, southwest of the drop zone, he flings open the door, and the world comes roaring in, deafening and freezing.

Climb out,’ calls André. Then, together with Riaan, ‘Right foot, right hand, left foot, left hand!’ as the latter shimmies out and hangs from the starboard wing strut of the Cessna. ‘Check in! Look up!’ Riaan glances up, lets go, and disappears from view. The pilot wiggles the plane to the side to slam the door shut and the plane quietens. I feel dizzy and there’s an odd pressure behind my eyes.

What the hell am I doing?

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The rookie

Flashback 24 hours. It’s a bright and breezy Valentine’s Day morning when I arrive at Skydive Robertson, based at the Robertson airfield. It’s like walking onto the set of Top Gun, but slightly goofier. Everyone who’s been around for a while has a silly nickname. There’s a constant chatter in the hangar and the clubhouse, 99 per cent of it about skydiving. It’s not surprising to recognise an obsessive streak in people who jump out of planes for fun.

There’s a buzz in the air, and that’s not just the pilot taxiing the plane out for another run. Parachute packs are laid out on mats and carefully packed. A whiteboard is scrawled with names and times. Men and women shimmy about on their stomachs on wheeled mats while others look on and instruct, practising formation jump procedures. Tents are pitched on the grass outside the clubhouse.

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I slurp on my third cup of coffee. I’ve had four hours’ sleep and have just driven 160km from Cape Town, but it’s cool, I’m ready to jump out of a frikkin plane! Keanu Reeves did it in Point Break; I can do it, right?

Wrong. Well, kind of. You can rock up (with a booking, of course) and do a tandem jump, strapped to Tim, who, as mentioned, has a bit of experience guiding visitors through the heavens. But if you really want to learn anything about skydiving – and eventually become a qualified skydiver – you’ve got to go at it alone. Anything between 10 and 24 times. You see, there are two paths to becoming a certified freefalling nutcase: the Accelerated Freefall Programme and the Static Line Freefall Progression Programme.

The hardest jump

Either way, you have to jump to find out if this is the thing for you. ‘There’s no real hierarchy in skydiving,’ explains André, ‘because the hardest jump you do is the first. It’s a great leveller.’ André, an engineer who works offshore for oil companies, has been skydiving for 17 years. Like us, he pitched up at the airfield one day with a hankering for something different, and quickly grew addicted to what he describes as an adrenaline rush like nothing else. He’s a qualified jump instructor, and over the course of eight hours he takes us through the ups and downs (quite literally) of the sport – the equipment, aircraft drills, exiting the plane, how to arch your body to move your centre of mass to the front, canopy control, landings, and malfunctions and reserve drills.

Malfunction. The word bounces around inside my head like a pinball. Mercifully, the procedures involved in ensuring you don’t become a pancake in the event of a chute malfunction are pretty simple. ‘Skydivers jump out of aeroplanes,’ says André. ‘We are, by definition, not smart people.’

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Float, shape, spin, rinse, repeat

After exiting the plane, you count to five, by which point your chute should have deployed. You check for float (is your parachute slowing your descent?), shape (are the end cells of your parachute inflated?) and spin (are you spiralling horridly out of control and to your possible demise?). If any of these doesn’t check out, it’s time to execute reserve procedures. ‘Arch! Look! Handles! Right! Left! Arch! Check!’ These are words we shout out many times over the course of the day, jumping around the clubhouse, on the tarmac outside, hanging strapped into practice gear outside the hangar.

These drills become the rhythm of our day, André running us through them relentlessly until they become ingrained. ‘Fear does a funny thing to you,’ he tells us later. ‘It affects your senses. You experience tunnel vision. You start to see in black and white. Your hearing becomes very selective. You lose depth perception for anything beyond arm’s length. It’s instinctual, evolutionary; you’re gearing up for a fight.’ A fight with gravity, I think.

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Managing the situation

You’ve just deployed your reserve into your floundering main,’ André says to me with a grin. ‘Remember, this isn’t a race; it’s a drill. Pull your cutaway handle right down to your groin, then pull the reserve ripcord handle.’ I look down sheepishly.

What happens if I do that?’ I ask.

You have a very bad day,’ replies André. And a very short one, I’d imagine.

That’s the very serious reality of this sport. ‘Skydiving is by its nature a hazardous sport…’ says André, stating the obvious. But there’s a caveat: ‘…if you don’t act responsibly. It’s all about managing the situation.’ Part of managing that situation is maintaining your equipment. You need a qualification to pack a parachute. While you’re learning, somebody else does it for you, but eventually you take that responsibility upon yourself. Regulations around your reserve are even more stringent, he explains. ‘After six months, your reserve is declared not sky-worthy – it has to be unpacked, checked and repacked by a parachute technician. I cannot pack my own reserve chute.

And before you ask, it happens about once in every 500 jumps. I’ve seen students deploy the backup on their first jump, and I know guys who’ve jumped 3 000 times and never used it.’

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A leaf on the wind

There were four, and now there is one. Me. ‘You’re gonna do great, buddy,’ says Oliver. I twist round on the cushioned floor of the plane and move into position beside the pilot, staring at the rows of dials and switches as André hooks me up. He hands me the static line and I yank it to check that it’s securely fastened.

I make some crass philosophical references to my bowels and my state of mind. ‘If you’re not scared, you’ve wasted your money!’ says André. I laugh. ‘Standby!’ The door swings open. ‘Right, Anthony, I want a strong, positive exit from you.’ I wish I’d re-watched Point Break, I think. ‘Right hand, right foot!’ The step is slippery from flying through clouds. ‘Left hand, left foot!’ The force of the wind against my face and body is incredible. I step off and hang from the strut, a leaf clinging to its branch against the wind. ‘Look at me! Look up!’ calls André. I look at him. I look up. I let go. A leaf on the wind.

Arch your back. I can’t see anything. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, five thousand. I can’t believe I’m counting. I sense a change in my descent. My eyes dart upwards and see a purple shape overhead. It’s open. Float, shape, spin: check. My lines are twisted. No problem – pull and kick. I spin round gently. Check. I’m still looking up. Release my brake handles and cycle them for five seconds. Check. I pull gently on my right brake and turn 180° to the right, then to the left. Check. I flare once, pulling the brakes right down to check they’ll work for landing. Check. I look down.

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The roof of the world

I look down and I’m sitting – quite comfortably, in fact – on top of the world. Alone. As alone as I’ve ever been. I realise I forgot to say ‘Geronimo!’ as I exited the plane, and yell it into the emptiness. The farmlands and the Robertson Mountains stretch out like an oil painting, dappled in the morning sun streaking through the clouds. I turn and find myself soaring down the face of one such cloud, vast and grey and imposing, yet I feel no fear, only an exhilaration so great that it nearly moves me to tears.

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I buzz the cloud and circle round, keeping an eye on the windsock far below. The breeze is fair and it keeps me aloft for what feels like ages. Eventually, I move into position downwind of the drop zone and drift slowly down towards the earth, keeping an eye on the baton master’s signals. At the last moment, they signal and I flare, braking hard, and touch down gently on the scrubby ground – like a leaf falling from a tree. And promptly fall over backwards. I stare up at the big blue above, and laugh hysterically. As I stand to gather my lines and my chute, a grin spreads across my face, one that will stay there for the next hour. ‘More,’ I say to myself. ‘More!’

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This article originally appeared in khuluma magazine. Image copyright: Oliver Nothen, Anthony Sharpe

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