When 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.
After 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.
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.
“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.