Taken Out

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One load on the sked today – 0640 pickup for a 0900 wheels up. The planes remain the property of the King, and missions need to be run.

Up early. The kitchen was deserted, but coffee was up, so I wandered outside with two cups, thinking maybe today was the day that my digestive system would kick back into gear after applying the bowel equivalent of a thermonuclear war a couple of days ago (only one innocent capsule, but a promise from the nurse “…you’ll never poo again… probably explode…”)

The early light was in evidence, and so was the early (or late) action. A sex act between two unnamed people was taking place in a side street just over the road from the hotel: synthesised moaning in a foreign language, and instructions being offered in an English tongue. Whatever. I drank my coffee, praying that the caffeine would do its legendary thing to my lower intestine. A light breakfast, upstairs to change, and yes: blessed relief. I’m scared of the toilets at the dropzone. I don’t believe two functioning toilets for some 400 blokes is adequate. The early rise saved me, and had me at the DZ, on time, and with a sense of confidence about the day.

We missed the opportunity for an Aussie photo. Going to be tough from here: Igor, wife and kid are all decked with something, and Igor was forced to stand down from the load as a result. I bled for him.

The dirt dive went well, smoothly. We’re all into the routine now, I think it’s a total of four 400 way attempts. A small change in the lineup: I’m on the ramp, which rocks, a new cameraman behind me, and another camera inserted a few rows back. The camera fliers are wary of, and have problems with, condensation – the temperature ranges from 40C on the deck to below freezing, and we’ve been huddling with Will after the tailgate opens to try and help with his lenses. I alert the others in the lineup as we head back to our marks, and make a mental note to have a chat with the new guy before we go. The dirt dive finishes with a rousing round of applause, increasing in tempo and culminating is hollering and whooping.

It’s a good vibe.

Without the need for extra runouts to help the radio crew, we’re back at the tents for a short break before liftoff. Good: we’re getting organised. Hydrate, chill, and then the sound of the first of twenty massive props coming to life before we go.

Double check everything. Neptune. Helmet. Rig. Gear up. I apply extra gaffer tape to my hastily constructed booties, bless Terry for loaning me a suit. Alcohol wipe for my oxygen hose. I crack the visor on my helmet so the sweat from my head doesn’t condense, and hit the ramp with twenty lines of twenty five people.

I meet our new camera guy, and discuss with him the exit, oxygen hoses, count. He will not be on the lower step of the ramp, but back as far as he can with a hand on the yoke of my rig. Cool.

The five Hercules turn in towards the control briefly, and I think a photo is taken with five lineups and five aircraft ready to go. Then plane two stops at the front of our lineup, I plug my thumbs in my ears and my fingers on my helmet, and we enter the belly of the beast…

The packup towards the rear of the plane looks tight, cramped, but near the ramp it’s quite comfortable: as first off the ramp, I have room to stretch my legs in the cramped gaffer booties, and I can cradle my head in my heads for the long sortie ahead.

The ramp closes, and I turn on backlighting on the Neptune. Nice to have a watch, an altimeter, etc – it’s all you need, and being waterproof you don’t have to take it off to wash your hands. Sorry for the plug, but I like mine, and thank once again my skydiving friends who collectively gifted me last August.

We taxi for a few minutes, sorting out oxygen hoses. No call this time from a wannabe plane captain (NCOS) to pass along hoses that won’t reach people in any case. Seems to me that if we have (1) problems with hoses at the rear and (2) problems with the COG as we stack up and (3) problems with people being sore-arsed and tired at height, we’d do better to /not/ pack up the plane so tightly, but there’s too many Non Commissioned Plane Captains already, and once again I keep my trap shut. I knot my hose through my chest strap, in consideration that it may not be mine for the duration.

One billion mosquitos have invaded the Herc overnight. The great Aussie salute never came in so handy.

The sun peeks through a porthole, meaning we’ve turned base on the taxiway. We just need to wait for #1 to take off. Duly it does, and the engine note in our Herc climbs; a shudder as the brakes are released, and we cruise down this 10,000′ long runway at an ever increasing pace.

An ever so gentle rotation; our inclination changes, but not the noise. Hydraulics cram the landing gear into place, and at least one note changes a little.

I stow my sunglasses. It’s relatively dark in the cabin. The airconditioning has fired up, a mist visible from the vents in the plumbing overhead. There’s some very safe people here: practically everyone enters the plane fully ready to exit, and despite the probability of (1) a Herc crashing on takeoff with four props spinning or (2) anyone surviving such an incident unrestrained, most of the jumpers have helmets in place for takeoff. They stay for the first 1,000′, eight beeps indicating the warning that the first pilot chute (Tony D, at 7500′) is imminent, and if you’re not in formation there’s about to be people tracking. At home, we exit at 10,000’ – that’d give us some sixteen seconds in freefall before the breakoff. Here, we’ll have around two minutes.

Climb rate is not a problem. The routine I’ve developed suggests that we’ll be in excess of 20,000′ in a snip over fifteen minutes, and there’s a few things to do before then.

I take off my helmet, leaving it inverted to hopefully reduce the amount of moisture in the liner. Using an alcohol swab, I smear any germs on the hose around a little – at least giving it a shiny happy appearance – and pass said swab back to Dave, who is looking a little Howard Hughes about the situation. I claim the hose as mine, and note 4000′ already.

“Oxygen test!”

My hose works, so I do nothing. There’s lots of thumbs-up happening, which might make a problem hose difficult to detect: we’ve had at least two, where a hose twisted on a previous exit hasn’t transported properly, or has partially wound off the oxy line from the rear. Maybe if we took a thumbs up from the camera crew on the ramp – end of the line – and then a hand in the air to detect a problem, we might save a load one day. I take another poke the end of the hose through the chin vent in the helmet, and shut my trap :-)

6,000′.

I close my eyes, and visualise the entire jump once more – from the two minute call to the beer in my hand. I’m rushing a little, and it only takes about four minutes.

11,000′

I sweep three mosquitos from the cavities in my helmet, and put the lid on. Oxygen feed isn’t far away, and no harm in being a little ahead of the game. Visor cracked open a little – although I’m a mouth breather by custom, it’s difficult to not exhale partially through your nose. I cradle my helmet on the yoke of my Talon, enjoying the flex harness and cut-in backpad (no more shameless plugs, but my Talons are lovely and comfortable and I paid for them :-) I trace the hydraulic lines on the roof once again, looking for any drips like the one that ruined a rig earlier in the project.

Legstraps, check. Handles haven’t moved, check. Helmet velcro, check.

A Royal Thai Airforce member waves the placard for 10,000. The crew changes each flight, and he’s a little late this time.

14,000′

“Helmets on!” Just being a little ahead helps with “that calm feeling”. I recall that the instructor who asked me to capture that feeling – nearly ten years and nearly all my jumps ago – is behind me in the plane, last row of whackers. Cool.

15,000′

The dry, sweet taste of the oxygen feed crashes into my face, and I savour it. You can’t overdo oxygen unless you’re silly about it, and it instantly cures a range of ills. Including hangovers, although today that’s not an issue.

The 15,000 placard never gets displayed, but “20 minutes” appears a little later. Although the Hercs can scream to height, formation flying requires significant setup, and the line and echelon are all-important.
I spend the next fourteen minutes breathing, just breathing and enjoying. It’s actually a very important part of my life: solitude in my helmet, but teamwork around me. Life, with the threat of death. Training, versus luck. And so on. Reflect. Breathe. Live.

Or, as Mal once put it:
“Dream. Believe. Create. Deploy!”

Neptune says 12 minutes has elapsed since the 20min sign. Only a couple of mosquitos flit around in the ramp area now, and I’m not convinced any of them are awake at all. I wait, and sure enough the hydraulics kick into gear. RTAF crew left waits, then nods to RTAF crew right, who levers the switch to raise the tailgate into position. Glorious sunlight fills the cargo area once again, and dust, mosquitos, and small items of misplaced litter are evacuated instantly, never to be seen again.

The six minute signal is due, and sure enough, the RTAF hold up an open palm and a thumb, echoed through the cabin.

Game on.

Movement at my rear. We’ve been here thirty five minutes on the cold steel floor, so it’s understandable. I wait for it to stop, then check my handles. You never know.

We’re counting down now. It’s a pretty view out the back, and from position C1 – first line of floaters on the ramp – I get a kickass view of the sky behind us. No contrails, but I can make out five distinct exhaust plumes. I can see one other Herc – left trail trail – and no others, and that’s good. C4, a Russian on the opposite side of the plane, might be able to see right trail trail – but if I can’t, that means it’s in much better shape than yesterday.

Neptune says four minutes. Why not – a furtive check of my handles again. There’s been a little shuffling as camera moves off the ramp (1) to not be on a moving platform and (2) to help keep those lenses warm…

Any time now. I check my breathing. It’s good. A small line of condensation has appeared around the nose of my visor. Damn.

RTAF Left holds up two fingers. TWO MINUTES.

I do nothing. They always seem to be ahead of the internal radio system we’re using, and there’s three radioed people in my visual range. I can see the right trail trail Hercules now, its massive bulk wallowing around in the thin air at

24,000′.

Two minute call from a radio helmeted team member. There’s a rush to stand up, and I pace myself, respecting the energy demands on the body at this height. As I lever from my knees, our plane shifts appreciably, and I stumble. RTAF left offers a hand. I take it. I can’t see his face behind his oxygen mask, but I can see his eyes, and he can see the appreciation in mine. I arrange the three oxygen hoses I take responsibility for: mine, my wingman, and the camera guy, placing them all on in cradled hand over my outside shoulder. A hose around a deployment system means an instant canopy at high altitude – a hard opening in the thin air; a long ride down; and no chance of a record.

One finger in the air. One minute.

We begin to move back towards the ramp. Pressure from behind, pressure from in front. My oxygen hose is ripped from my hand by someone in front, and I dispose of the other two, unsure of what precipitated this.
My visor gets the cold air, and fogs from top to bottom instantly. The air on the ramp is tearing at my makeshift booties. There’s a giant Belgian between me and Carey, who is giving the key. I still haven’t seen a wave to dispense of oxygen hoses, nor a fist to indicate a countdown has started.

I do, vaguely, through the crazed mess that is my visor, see a chopping motion towards the back of the plane.

That’s the “Set!” in “Ready! Set! Go!”.(or something else in the count that goes EFS :-)

Must be time to go.

I take one step backwards, keeping my hands in front of my face, and the relative quiet of the ramp is replaced with the shattering roar of twenty props clawing through the thin air and 140 knots of airspeed smashing into my body.

I can’t see shit.
I wish I had a radio. Maybe one day we’ll all have one for this.

There’s been a replacement in the lineup in front of me, so I have two black and orange backpacks to choose from. I track a little, still effectively in a standing position, and wait for movement. I sneak a look at the base; it’s a little deeper this time, and I relax my body position, not wanting to have to deal with traffic in Sector 3 – where I absolutely should not be.

Angled on the relative wind, I’m in a good position to watch the traffic build, and I pick up the two rigs in question. Another rig I recognise scoots under me, then another, and it’s time to go. I remember the run-out, and start “sheep dogging” my way towards my sector.

My peripheral vision tells me it’s looking good; more and more people are invading the space in my visor. Waves of red and white and blue, with no sudden downward spikes; it’s a damn fine start.

Our wave approaches the base.

The five way line docks.

We move a little closer.

Then I feel what Craig Giraud described as “a ghost walking under your body”, and instinctively I neg, trapping a little more air and using my “insurance”. Also instinctively, and regrettably, I also look down, and spot a white suit in a “distressed body position”. I check back with the base – it’s all good, and a couple more feet up and I’ll be back in echelon with the Belgian giant.

I edge up. Still over a minute of freefall to go.

Cautiously, we approach the base, in a wave.

So do 398 other people.

In and down.
Closer.
In and down.
Closer.
In and down.

I never saw the hit coming. This is a fine art, and close to the base with an ever decreasing relative fall rate there’s not a lot of room for error, everyone needs to be in control and and playing the game. The video showed a distressed body position sliding underneath a handful people in our sector, then stationing briefly under me, sucking me down and backwards, in a burble that had me crashing onto the other jumper and cascading us even further down.

Recovery from well under a formation, in perfect slot, without taking air from others is a VERY fine art. By the time I decelerated to neutral, I had an exceptionally pretty view of the underside of the formation. Well, pretty if you’re a camera flier with wings and stuff, not so pretty if that’s not part of your plan.

The rules say if you can’t quickly perform that very fine art, get the hell out of Dodge. From here, it was already way too late. I lit up and headed for my sector landing area.

Usually, I’m following my tracking leader for eight seconds – so closely I can read the Neptune embedded in his helmet, which is cool. No such luxury here. In this situation I need to be (1) further away and (2) lower than everyone else at opening time. I sneak a peek at my wrist. 12000′.
I’m going to be tracking for more than eight seconds.

I go as hard as I can, and in addition to checking the landing direction and my vector, I catch myself shouting into my helmet. There was some very bad language happening in there, and I made a note to be more polite to my helmet in future. Looking back between my legs, I see a cover shot for “Skydiving magazine” and three people underneath it. Remembering than Wendy Smith is underneath the formation, Henny is usually there as well, and someone was underneath me when this sh’t happened, I have this magnificent vision of what I could only take to be a magnificent 398 way above and behind me.

I’m well clear of everyone else when I open – no-one lands further away. I had to dodge a tee shot on the fourth fairway at the Udon Thani golf club after my flare was complete.

Nice exit though.

And the FAI judges put it at “only” 347 when you count the odd missing grips.

We’ll try again tomorrow.

(continues in “World Record Day“)

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