The Evolution of Parachuting: An Old Man’s Story

glenWhen I joined the RAF in 1950, parachuting was what we called skydiving. At that point the notion of jumping out of a plane for fun would have seemed ridiculous.

When one jumped out of a plane it was either for a training exercise or it was because one needed to escape a burning cockpit. Air planes were expensive machines back then, something that’s never changed. So, even if black smoke did start to appear, we were trained to wait until the very last minute to abandon the machine. It was a last resort.

I was 18 when I joined up. Just a youngster during the Second World War, I’d survived many air raids in my time and held the armed forces in great regard as a result. The sacrifice of so many during that time had struck a chord with me, especially since I lost my own Father during the chaos and bloodshed: his body was never found.

They were heady days back then, and a good time to be in uniform. The country was jubilant in the initial wake of the Second World War, but it was also tired. There was more of a grim determination to enjoy life, given that so many had died to protect it. We did not feel prosperous but we were making do.

My division was stationed in Berkshire, we were mostly picking up were our forbears left off. Ready to go at a moment’s notice but mostly focused on training and learning. I’d joined up for the steady work and to honour my family, but didn’t expect to find such satisfaction in falling from the sky.

parachutingAfter what felt like endless weeks of training, I was taken to the skies for the first time. Although there are plenty of things that I’ve forgotten in my 84 years – I hope I’ll never forget the feeling of taking off for the first time. For a teenager barely out of boyhood, the exhilaration of being borne into the skies – where some of the great battles for our country had been fought – was almost too much.

The Percival Prentice was the first aircraft I was allowed to take control of. Even though it was only a few years old, it felt ancient. I’d never flown before, seeing the green fields of England beneath me for the first time took my breath away – I remember the flight instructor smiling at me, I think I might have been crying.

That was to be the first flight of many, but it was the parachuting that would come to define my career.

glen old

On a Veteran Celebration Day recently, I was introduced to the young men and women who are currently serving in the Armed Forces. In honour of the men who had served throughout the history of the Armed Forces, these youngsters were dressed in the uniforms of the 40s and 50s – it almost felt like stepping back in time.

Alongside a working Percival Prentice was a young chap, kitted out in full parachuting gear. He told me that he had assembled the gear himself, replacing key components with scraps of materials donated by local businesses. The parachute was what caught my eye the most.

Stitched together with a sturdy acrylic material, on closer inspection the chute was formed of safety covers for swimming pools. The material might have been a little too rigid and inflexible to pack a way into a bag, but the effect was striking. The shining blue lining of the cover, taken from a public swimming pool that no longer had any use for it, took me right back to my first dive – a clear day in ’51, I remember fearing for my life.

plane view“You’ll be fine, laddie.”

I must have been shaking. Its one thing taking the stick of a plane for the first time but jumping from a moving aircraft felt like suicide.

Back then our equipment was relatively rudimentary, the gear had been checked and re-checked by professionals but there was still a niggling doubt in my mind.

When it came to jump, I’d just about made peace with God and accepted my fate. A small shove in the small of my back and I was hurtling through the air, struggling to control my descent. My training had not prepared me for the adrenaline rush – nor had it be prepared me for the strange feeling of serenity. The experience of weightlessness is one that I will never forget.

I pulled the cord, and decided that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.



Fear of Flying

barbMy crippling fear of flying stems from a traumatic event that occurred to me when I was 10 years old. Decades later I’m now a fully qualified skydiver with over 20 dives to my name, this is how I conquered my fear.

Back in 1961, flying was not as cheap or as common-place as it was today. However, by this point travelling around the world was starting to be claimed by the every-man. No longer was flight an unreachable luxury, reserved for only the richest of businessmen and musicians. Commercial airports were beginning to crop up all around the UK and young families were starting to take their first faltering steps into the world of the package holiday.

couple 60sI was fortunate enough at the time to have parents that both earned a considerable amount of money. My father was a manager for a local car dealership and my mother was one of the few female car salesmen in the country. A winning team in marriage and business, they loved nothing more than lavishing us with holidays. Up until that point we’d been to Scotland, London and Cornwall – all of which felt like exotic places when compared to our industrial Sheffield.

However, when 1959’s financial year came to a close, my parents’ business had pulled in more money that ever before, and they wanted to celebrate. A package deal, one of the first of its kind, was booked to Barcelona and we were all ecstatic. Neither of my parents had ever flown before, yet they were confident in the safety of flying (despite Buddy Holly’s death in early 1959) and were glowing with pride as we pulled up to the airport with myself and my older brother.

With airport travel being such a novelty for most British people at the time, there were a lot of inexperienced flyers in the terminal that day. As a 10 year old child, unused to large crowds, I found the press of people claustrophobic. The combined stress and worry of the couple of hundred people, queuing before the security terminal, had my heart racing. When it came to passing through the security, I was shouted at by one of the officers. My parents, bless them, were little comfort as they started to become just as edgy and nervous as the other people.

60s planeWhen it came to boarding the plane, I was a nervous wreck. I had decided to be grown up and not cry, but the tension was building inside of me. The air hostesses could sense my fear, but there was little they could do as the other passengers, by this point, had whipped themselves into the closest thing British people could get to a frenzy.

The engines started with a choke and splutter. My parents, assuming I was now fine with the whole ordeal, put me on the window seat right above the wing. Once the engines were pushed to full throttle the sound was deafening and I felt like the very bones in my body were being shaken. By this point I had resigned myself to death, silent tears were falling down my face and I was visibly shaking – but no one noticed. So lost in their own heads, were my parents, that they took no notice. I’d never felt more lost and alone.

Four hours later, we had landed and were fine. But the 2 weeks we spent in Spain were overshadowed by the catatonic state that I had fallen into. Unwilling to communicate or look anyone in the eyes, I had retreated into my own head. I believed that I had died, and could not come to terms with the shock of being hurtled through the air at thousands of miles per hour.

That day scarred me for years.

airplane2If I saw a scene involving an air plane at the cinema, I would have to leave the auditorium in a cold sweat. Just the sound of a plane passing over head would send my heart racing. I had to carry medication around with me, in case a panic attack was unexpectedly triggered.

It took me five decades and years of therapy to see a plane in the sky and not fall back into a state of panic and fear.

Around 2010, my son went travelling around the world. On his gap year, he’d not been allowed to travel on planes up til this point due to my nervousness, I could no longer stop him from exploring the world. He took eight long distance flights in the space of a year. He called after each and everyone to tell me that he’d landed safely. When he came back home, he was breathless with adventures and excitement – I knew that I needed to conquer my fear.

backpackerI was 60, and I’d only left the country once. Both my children were about to leave home and I’d barely seen the world outside my home city of Sheffield.

It was my therapist who suggested the skydive. I’d been seeing him for years, but after I’d told him about my son’s experience he must have seen the determination in my eyes.

When it came to the first jump, my husband was holding me firmly by the hand. Ironically, it was the taking off in the plane that was the scariest part. The plane was small, and I was shaking before I’d even stepped up to the door.

Once the door was slammed shut, and the engine had been pushed to full throttle I was practising my relaxation techniques and focusing on the comforting embrace of my husband.

The jump was one of pure liberation.

Not only was I doing something that most 60-year old women would never dream of attempting, I was celebrating my conquering of a fear that had ruled my mind for decades.


Skydiving in Catalonia

emmaThree years after my first skydive for charity, I had over twenty dives under my belt. I’d passed the first three levels of the AFF qualifications, and started the first Skydiving Society at my University. The skydive bug had dug its teeth in deep. After my first skydive for charity, all I’d wanted to do was to get back in the air and make the leap once more. My close friends thought I was crazy. I’d gone from being a girly girl, living for the weekend and going out to a studious, skynerd who saved all her pennies for her next dive.

Luckily, I’d made a heap of friends whilst starting the Society. Jumping out of a moving plane at 5000 feet tends to bond individuals, no matter how disparate your personalities seem from the start. This was ideal, as my next plan for my skydiving escapades would take me far out of the United Kingdom and into uncharted territories. Catalonia was the destination that I had in mind, I’d read in magazines about the gorgeous countryside and it sounded amazing. There were loads of Skydiving Companies out there who all had good reps online, so it was just a matter of booking the flights and getting out there.skydive

We very nearly didn’t make the flights, if it hadn’t been for my Mum forcing me to book parking from Edinburgh airport ( has the best deals!) we would’ve missed them for sure. We were so busy thinking of insurance, currency and accommodation that we never thought of it. After waiting half an hour for Toby to drag his ridiculously oversized luggage to the car, and getting stuck in traffic for another twenty minutes; we were close to running late. Thank the Lord, my Mum forced us to book a parking space. We breezed in to the car park and just about made it through security in time. I blamed Toby, Toby blamed the traffic – we all thanked my Mum.

catalonia landscapeSunny Catalonia was everything that the magazine pictures promised and more. The magazines didn’t feature the wonderfully friendly locals who helped us find our way to the airfield; the magazine also neglected to mention the stunning food that totally blew our minds. If you’ve taken a few sky dives and enjoyed them, I wholeheartedly recommend taking a dive overseas. The combination of exploring a new country and jumping out of a plane to get the ultimate panoramic view makes for an absolutely awesome experience!

A Sky Dive Was The Answer To My Need For Adrenaline

jasonWhen I first got into skydiving, I was at a crossroads in my life. In my mid-30s, I had plenty of money. My job in recruitment had put me in a stable financial position however, due to the large amount of hours that I worked, I was single and without a family. Now many people would argue that I had all the time in the world, that my money and job made me desirable – and that I was easy on the eyes. I wouldn’t feign to disagree with these people, but it wasn’t a partner and family that I was seeking in my thirties. No, after nearly 15 years of office work and board room meetings, I needed adrenaline.

driving-fast-637x408Now, I had tried a lot of the typical extreme sports already. In fact, in the years before my first dive, I had experimented with surfing, rock climbing and had a brief love affair with very fast cars. Although these proved to be worthy distractions to my ennui, there was an itch that had not been fully scratched. Nothing felt visceral enough, there were either too many safety precautions in place or the danger just didn’t feel real enough.

My first sky dive was a gift to me from my sister. She’d watched haplessly as the Porsches came and went and as my garage filled up and emptied of an assortment of ropes, hooks and pulleys. I’d dismissed skydiving up to this point as a novelty, an expensive time-consuming hobby with a fleeting high. How wrong I was. The training and induction took an entire day, although I found it tedious for the first hour, every minute leading up to the jump my excitement began to mount. As individuals were led away, one by one, to the planes that were taking off and landing all day, I felt something that I was not accustomed to – fear.

sky diveI had driven cars at hundreds of miles per hour, I’d been paddle-board shark fishing in the Pacific but somehow I found myself scared at a simple jump. A jump that I had seen pensioners performing just earlier. The fear that built was an innate one and it only grew as the day wore and my time finally came to take the plunge. I had taken many flights before, but not in a plane so small. As we took off, a wild eyed kind of panic took hold of me. My eyes must have betrayed my emotions as the instructors on board asked me if I was alright. I nodded my affirmation and took the plunge, and what followed was one minute of sheer unadulterated adrenaline.

shark thresherA sky dive is ‘one of those’ experiences. Something that can be described and elucidated, but never fully communicated. Even if you don’t have the same need for speed that I have, I can guarantee you that your first sky dive (even if its your last one) will be an experience that you will never forget.