Sky diving is not a normal thing to do – people don’t fly naturally, so jumping out something that can seems mildly insane. So if you are going to jump out of a plane, wouldn’t you want to be in control of it? Which is why when I decided to go sky diving, I avoided tandem and did the training for Accelerated Free-Fall (AFF) – jumping with your own parachute under the guidance of two instructors.
Training was a few Tuesday nights in the weeks leading up to jump day, and then a full morning of confirmation training on the day itself. A lot of the other AFF students kept talking about the jump nervously, and I started to worry that I wasn’t worrying – what if I got up there at the door and it all hit me at once? My Dad had said repeatedly “Anyone who isn’t scared the first time they jump out of a plane is either crazy or a liar”. But if I wasn’t worried, there wasn’t much point worrying about worrying later.On board the plane on the way up I just quietly ran through everything I’d need to do, and it wasn’t until we were over the drop-zone itself that the nerves started to come up – that little rush of “Here we go!”.
But by the time I was setup at the door, all the nerves were gone again – I was in full military procedure mode. My two instructors were either side of me holding my shoulders, and I was kneeling in the open door looking out. Now first time jumpers signal to their instructors they’re ready to jump by watching the horizon, counting out “One… Two… Three!” – moving their arms forward and back with each count – and jumping on the “Three!” while watching the horizon. The instructors are supposed to jump at the same time while hanging onto the student.
Except my two instructors didn’t do that – they pulled me out of the plane as soon as I called “Two”…
Free-fall is a weird experience. It’s loud for starters – you’re essentially in a 200km/hr wind. But it doesn’t necessarily feel like you’re falling – unless you’re jumping through clouds (something I didn’t do till much later) the only reference is the horizon in the distance and the altimeter spinning around madly on your wrist. All my training jumps (with the exception of one) were done from 14,000 foot; giving the average jumper about 60 seconds of free-fall. The instructors spun me around a few times and did a few signals to me (so they could test later how aware I was of things during the jump), but to be honest it wasn’t that exciting. It was weird, but I didn’t get that adrenaline rush everyone raves about. For me it was a procedure – putting on the parachute, loading into the plane, moving to the door, exiting the plane, popping the chute, landing; all of it was following a procedure.
I enjoyed parachuting, don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t have gone on to do the rest of the jumps for my A Licence if I didn’t. But I never got the thrill everyone else talked about. On the flip-side, bungee-jumping scared the hell out of me – the river/canyon walls were rushing up, and there was that moment of absolute terror (about a second after I’d jumped) when my body suddenly realised “OH SHIT, I’M FALLING!”. But I never got it with sky diving – it was too procedural, and free-fall never really felt like falling.
A sense of speed is not something I think this guy could ever complain about
The only time I ever got a sense of how fast I was going was when on about jump 14 or 15 I fell through a cloud – it came rushing up at me, and a split second later I punched out the other side. Otherwise it just felt like it was insanely windy.
Sorry Dad – I guess this means I’m crazy…
In an amusing side note when I told an American backpacker about 3 years ago how I didn’t really get a thrill out of skydiving, she told me I was dead inside. Then she gave me conjunctivitis.
I’ve mentioned before I got a fairly early start scuba diving – the first time I ever got to try it at all was in the Red Sea, when my family was living in Jordan when I was 9 and 10. But I had to wait till I was 12 before Dad would take me on my PADI Junior Open Water course. Dad and I did a lot of diving in the years immediately after my course, but when I was about 16 it seemed to taper off – I was heading into my last two years at high school, Mum and Dad had just started their own business, and my interests had moved into competitive pistol shooting instead.
It wasn’t until I’d been working in the mining industry for about 6 months that I realised how much I missed the ocean, and when I left my job as a blaster I spent most of what I’d saved over the previous 12 months on diving courses and equipment. First I got Dad to put me through all the courses I needed to do to become a PADI Divemaster, and then lovely Sarah Stoneham at Dolphin Scuba Diving put me through my Open Water Instructor’s course, and sent me off for my Instructor’s exam. Around the same time I got involved with “tech” diving – training to dive beyond the range of normal recreational diving, such as inside wrecks and caves, breathing mixed gases, and diving beyond 40m.
My instructor Callum at Dolphin Scuba put me through my paces over a fairly intensive 6 months, doing course after course, going progressively deeper and having things get more complicated/dangerous/expensive. The final dive of my tech training was an 88 meter dive on a “virgin” wreck (we were the first people to ever dive on it) of a World War II minesweeper, the HMAS Junee. I carried a setup very similar to the diver in the picture above – a twin cylinder set (with a blend of gas in it) that could kill you if you breathed it at the surface, plus another 3 smaller cylinders under my arms with different gas mixes for different depths – and unlike the diver above, I fell into the water instead of stepping, because it was so bloody heavy.
It took us 4 minutes to descend the 88 meters, we had 8 minutes on the wreck, and then we had to spend the 56 minutes coming back up to avoid decompression sickness – where the nitrogen and helium you’ve been breathing bubble it your blood. If we hadn’t been using multiple mixes of oxygen-enriched air (which are potentially fatal if used below a specific depth), it would have taken hours to decompress. Dangerous and very expensive – including the cost of the gases (medical grade helium is bloody expensive) and the boat ride out to the Ship’s Graveyard off from Rottnest Island, the whole dive (and it’s 8 minutes on the wreck) came to about $450AUD. And once again – I enjoyed it, but didn’t get any kind of rush from it. Just a sense of a job well done, much like finishing a post on the Mighty Ginge.
74 – Learn To Fly A Plane
Just after I finished high school, I applied for the Australian Army – and was rejected. Apparently it’s okay to be trained to shoot people when you’re barely old enough to shave, but having pimples on your back makes you a non-starter. Instead I was placed on a 12 month medical restriction (meaning I had to wait a year before re-applying successfully), and went to university instead. But my folks were particularly concerned about me in the months between being knocked back by the Army and starting uni, so to keep me busy they offered for me to learn to fly – it had always been a dream of Dad’s, and I thought it’d be fun instead of wallowing in my rejection.
So nearly every day for two months I’d go out to Jandakot airport and learn to fly planes – my instructor Min was lovely, we got along well, and I got the hang of things pretty quickly. Before long I was cleared to fly solo around the Jandakot training area, and was building up towards the final flights of my licence. And then uni started – flying went on hold. Nearly a year down the line I picked it up again – I was only 6 flights and 2 exams away from having my private pilot’s licence. But as you’ve probably guessed, if I don’t have a passion for something, I’ll try for a while out of a sense of duty, then drop it. Well in the case of flying I’d done two of my 6 “navigation” flights, and my third navigation flight (and first solo navigation) is the last I time I’ve flown a plane.
Flight 2 my new instructor Jim had taken me out along the flight I’d be doing later solo; it was fairly easy but the distances were long. The flight with Jim took about 2.5 hours. And the start of Flight 3 – with me flying solo – started out the same. The first ~1 hour leg out to Pingelly went without a hitch. But when I turned around to start flying to Bunbury for a “touch & go” (landing on the run way and taking off again without stopping), something went horribly wrong. I still don’t know how I managed it, but I headed further south than I should have – much further south. Within 20 minutes things below didn’t add up to where I was supposed to be on the map, and I knew I’d gone off course, but not which way. It wasn’t until I realised I could see Busselton in the distance and not Bunbury that I worked out where I was. Changing course to Bunbury, I knew I didn’t have enough for the “touch & go” – the diversion had eaten so far into the reserve flight time I was wondering if I’d make it back to Jandakot at all.
I was about to find out just how much fuel you can squeeze out of a Piper Warrior III.
And I’ll give you a hint – it’s a little less than I’d hoped…
When planes approach runways the usual method or Procedure-Turn; is to fly parallel to the runway in the same direction as the wind (“downwind”), then once you’re passed the end of the runway turn 90 degrees right (‘crosswind”) until the runway is lined up directly on your right, then turn toward the runway to land (“final”) – descending the entire time. I made it onto the downwind run and started my radio procedure. But when I made to the turn onto crosswind, the engine stopped.
You see, Piper Warriors store their fuel in the wings. And if you’re drawing fuel from a very low right-wing and then make a right turn, all the fuel runs to the end of the wing and starves the engine. The moment the engine stopped, I was about 600 foot above the bushland at the Northern end of Jandakot’s main runway – probably the worst place you could ever have your engine stop. I switched to the left-wing for fuel, but the engine wouldn’t restart – it was already empty from earlier. I switched back to try the right tank again (in case it was a blocked fuel line that had cleared) as I levelled the (now gliding) plane out of the turn, but the engine again refused to start. Back to the left – nothing. I was at about 400 foot above the trees, and I decided to try the right again as my left hand moved up to the radio, ready to make that call no pilot ever wants to make: “MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY”.
I tried the engine magneto on the original right-wing again (with the wings now levelled), and the engine restarted. Realising the engine had stopped because of the fuel moving in the wing, I gently made the last right turn onto final and landed in the first 100 feet of the runway – I’d been out for nearly 4 hours on a 2.5 hour flight…
My instructor wanted me to keep going, to get back out there the next week – but I knew. It wasn’t that I was scared – it was that I didn’t care enough about what I was doing enough to not make mistakes. I never had a passion for flying, it was just something I could do and felt I had to keep going with. And it’s not that I’m scared of flying – hell in 2010 I flew between Australia and the UK 6 times. But I’d prefer someone who has a passion for flying – someone who’s completed the insanely intensive commercial pilot’s licence – to be the one in charge of making sure we all get there.
Right, the next “101 Things” entry is all about something I really am passionate about – comedy. So lets hope that is a little more fun! In the meantime, envy in the fact I get to tell people how almost crashing an out-of-fuel plane is in my troublingly long list of near-death experiences…