Fly, fly…

Early morning under the African sky. The sun is already peaking over the palm trees behind the military airport. I tie the laces on my second-hand army ranger boots for the third time.

What time is it? Seven thirty. What a ghastly hour. I have a slight hangover. I really shouldn’t have gone to the ‘Monts de cristal’ last night. The ‘Hills of Crystal’ is both a chain of mountains in the interior and a popular night-club in Libreville, Gabon. I have “my bottle” there. Quite snobbish isn’t it, to have ‘your bottle’ at a night-club? It does make for effect when you enter the place, say hello to the barman and say:

“Evening Jean-Pierre.  My bottle please.” Almost everyone has ‘their bottle’ anyway. You buy it upfront, the night-club’s cash-flow is better, and it makes your subsequent tab lighter. Can’t remember now whether ‘my bottle’ was whisky, (doubtful), gin or vodka. Regardless, we had a good evening last night, celebrating the Big Day in advance. But now? Hangover is killing me. Or maybe it’s just my nerves. Or both.

I tie my ranger boots again. One is never too careful. I look around. Everybody is getting ready. Changing into airman overalls. Fighter pilot kinda stuff. With zippers everywhere. One piece. Don’t want to lose your trousers at a critical moment.

I check my gear. Boots. Tied. Overalls. Zipped. Helmet. Second-hand too. The whole gear cost me a bundle. But I like the helmet. A motorbike helmet. Peter Fonda ‘Easy rider’ style.

The veterans are lining up the ‘other’ gear inside the hangar. Nerves get to me. I have to pee. No toilets in a military hangar, I go out, around the back. To my relief, I’m not the only one to take a pee outside. I wonder how fighter pilots do. Not easy to pee with so many zippers. Which zipper is it when you’re in a hurry?

I try to think about all the training I’ve had. Slightly muddled in my head now. Today is the ‘Big Day’. My first parachute jump. After weeks of training, theory and ground practice. Finally. Today is THE day. Weather’s good. Hardly any wind at ground level. Perfect.

Diego hands me my main parachute. Watches carefully as I strap it on. Any mistake in putting it on can be deadly. My ‘chute is a standard Army model. Round, no slit. You can only slightly direct it by pulling on one or both suspenders. Front or back. Beginners don’t get fancy ‘chutes the first time. Main back ‘chute weighs 20-25 pounds. Diego walks around me checking me from head to toes and back. He hands me my emergency ‘chute. About ten pounds, smaller than the main ‘chute. A smaller sailing surface: 50 sq. meters. As opposed to 70-90 sq. meters for the main. (For those non-metric savvy, multiply the square meters by 10.7639 to get sq. feet. LOL.)

I fasten my emergency ‘chute. Called ‘ventral’ in French, as it is harnessed on the belly. Diego turns around me again. Gives me a thumb up. Diego is/was Spanish. French now. Former Foreign Legion. ‘Français par le sang versé’, French by the blood shed, is the Legion’s motto. A majority of the members of the Gabon Para-Club were active or retired French Military then. France kept a military base in Libreville. 3rd RPIMA. 3e Régiment Parachutiste d’Infanterie de Marine. Our Marine Corps. Wonder whether there still is a French base in Gabon? We used to keep bases everywhere in Africa. Memories of past ‘Grandeur’?

What was I doing in Libreville, Gabon, in the heart of Africa? After College, my first job was in Africa, of course. After my African childhood, where else would I go? I worked as a financial/accounting analyst at the Libreville office of a major French Oil company. Lots of oil in Gabon. Job was all right, though Finance was not my business discipline of preference. But Hell, that’s what a business major is about. A bit of this a bit of that. Accounting was ‘that’.

I’d made a bunch of good friends in Libreville. Most of us had our bottle at the Monts de cristal. Bottle brothers. Some were members of the Para-Club. They taunted me for a coupla months. Until I said yes.

Then I went through ground training. Tedious, but critical. How to handle your ‘chute. Learn the wind. Emergency situations. Learn to fall. And fall. And fall. Your typical round Army ‘chute has a ground speed of 18 kms per hour. (A tad over 10 miles an hour). If there is wind at ground level, the wind speed adds up. A ten mile wind plus your ‘chute’s speed can add up to 20 mph. Better learn how to fall. Or break a leg.

“Ready?” Joko is the drop chief. Another veteran with 300 jumps under his belt. Lines us up by “stick” (group) of three. Two lines facing each other. “Always check your ‘vis-à-vis’ “. He checks all our gears again, then we get on the plane. A military plane. A Nord 260 if I recall. (Nord 262, according to Gilles Labruyère, and I believe he’s right). Plane ‘lent’ by the Gabonese Air Force. French pilots. Retired French Air Force.

Our plane. The pilot is flapping his wings as a salute, before turning around and heading back to the airport. Very low. Called “radada” in French pilot slang.

Everybody sits down. Two metal rows inside the plane. No fancy seats, just two metal benches. Pilot starts the engines. My heart must be doing 200 beats a minute. Everybody is tense. Including the veterans. Jumping out of a plane in mid-air is serious sh… I mean, business.

Pilot pushes the two propellers. We ride slowly towards the runway. Last minute check-list. Push the engines to full speed. Take-off. We start climbing. Back door open. That’s where we will jump out of the plane. I’ll never forget the noise and fuel smell. We climb to 3,000 feet, turn around towards the DZ, the drop zone, south of the city, where non-jumpers, friends and partners will pick us up after the jump.

Joko is the jump chief, but Diego is the one at the door. He crooks his finger at me. Hand-signals only. Too much noise. I’m the first to jump. There have been too many cases of last-minute jitters, when beginners give up at the last minute. First-timers are the first to jump.

Oh. By the by. One tiny little point. Today, first-timers jump harnessed to a veteran jumper who’s strapped to you in your back and handles everything. In those days one jumped alone. Yes. Alone. In a procedure called “automatic”. Just like the WWII movies. Your back ‘chute is folded very carefully, and placed inside a bag, fastened by strings, tied to an opening strap, the end of which has a metal hook you clip on a fixed metal cable inside the plane.

What you do as you are called to jump, is to go to the back of the plane, clip the hook of your opening strap to the metal cable, turn towards the open door, place your hands on each side of the door. Outside the frame. And wait for the green light.

So here I am. Facing the open door. I look down below. 900-1,000 meters. (3,000 ft). Everything is microscopic. As I stand there, I think ‘This is the biggest mistake in your life. This is crazy.’ But. There is no turning around. The pilot flies over the DZ once to get his bearings. Turns around. Comes back. Sounds the alarm. BUZZ! BUZZ! BUZZ. Louder than the engines. Get ready!

The light at the back of the plane switches from red to green. JUMP!

I shoot out of the plane like a bag of potato chips out of an open car window. At least 4 or 5 yards away from the plane. Don’t want ‘nobody’ to think I could be even a teeny weeny bit scared, do I?

I drop down. Initial falling speed is about 17 mph. Skydiving from higher altitudes is much faster. Not me. I was a potato chip bag. Just imagine. The plane flies at about 400 km/h max speed. Inside the plane you have no speed. When you jump outside, you’re hit by a 400 km/h wind. (Okay, okay: 250 mph.) If you don’t assume the right position, facing the wind, you are tossed. I didn’t – take the right position – and I was tossed.

After what seems like an eternity, 4 seconds on average, my back parachute opens. Safely. Let me dismiss a common misconception. When your parachute opens, you’re not pulled up as we can see in movies or videos. The ‘cameraperson’ is the one who keeps dropping. Not you. Your chute opens. You just ‘stop’. Suspended in the air. The ground, 2500 or 3000 feet below is too far away to give a sensation of speed. You just dangle at the “same” spot. Neither do the straps ‘tear’ at your shoulders. Just a smooth stop. In the mid-air.

Another sensation I’ll never forget. Silence. By the time you get your bearings, the plane has flown away. You can’t hear the engines anymore. You are suspended in white silence. A silence I’ve never experienced elsewhere except in high mountain.

But first thing first. Training. First, check your ‘sail’. Look up. Watch the ‘chute carefully. Is it perfectly circular? (Nowadays they’re rectangular. Same difference.) No parachute line has crossed over? At the risk of tearing away the fabric? And down you go? Or, let go your ‘chute and open the emergency parachute.

I check. All peachy. Now concentrate on the flight down. I still can’t get over the fact that I’m ‘flying’. Slowly gliding in the air. Look down. Where’s the DZ? The Dropping Zone? The DZ was a bare strip of land south of Owendo, the harbour of Libreville. Caught between the sea to the west, and a biiiiig, large swamp to the right. With trees. Trees ain’t good. The instruction during training is to avoid trees at all cost. Easy with a fancy parachute. Not with mine. Further instruction: if you see you cannot avoid the tree, cross your arms across your face. And, cross your legs. Straddling a branch at 20mph is not recommended for your balls.

Looking down I can see I’m good. Neither above the sea, neither above the swamp. We later did drop a few sticks on both due to the pilot’s misinterpretation of the wind. (That will be another story). But this time I am fine. After a short while I can see the makeshift windsock down below. Windsock installed by the ‘ground team’, who drive down to pick up the loonies. Jumpin’ outta them airplanes… Tssk. Wind is good. Check.

Time seems eternal, though a 900 or 1000 meters drop lasts around 2 minutes or less, not sure about the math ‘nymore, so that’s 240 seconds. Believe me, you can feel every second. Or fraction of.

As you go down, the objects on the ground get bigger, you begin to feel the speed, feel the fall. A facing wind is the best option. Makes for a slower landing. Wind in your back adds up wind speed to the ‘chute speed. With a round parachute you don’t have much choice. Can’t turn the ‘chute around to face the wind, all you can is pull one or two suspenders to roughly pick your landing spot.

Ground is coming. Fast. Pull your suspenders against the wind. Unlock your knees. Get ready to tumble. Avoid big rocks if you can. (There were a few…)

Landing. Tumbling. Getting back up. Pull the ‘chute ropes to flatten the ‘chute so you won’t be dragged.

YEAH! I’ve made it! In one piece. Can’t believe it. Ground crew applauds. I’m only a few yards away from the ‘plate’, the target one aims for. ‘Beginner’s luck’, Diego says later. (I’ll never get any closer. LOL)

I start pulling the ‘chute together in a bundle. It will be refolded later. With care.

I look up. The plane has come around. Dropping the second stick of three. At 9,000 feet. They’re veterans. They fly higher. I can see the three dark dots in free fall, then the ‘flowers’ opening and blooming. One. Two. Three. All well.

There would later be a dozen more jumps for me before I left Africa again. Each jump with its own blend of fear, excitement, surprise, elation.

Right now, as I look at the African sky with the three flowers slowly coming down, I fling my fist in the air, thinking:

“I’m 22, and I can fly.”

Yours truly, c. 1976. I thought I didn’t have a jumping pic of myself, I usually took the pictures, you know the story, the photographer seldom comes out on the pix. But as I scanned this particular negative, I recognized my Easy Rider helmet. Remember the song?

Thank you for flying Equinoxio Airways. Please grab your ‘chute under your seat, strap on and line up towards the rear in an orderly fashion. The back door is already open. No hurry though, the red light is still on. Don’t forget to hook your ‘chute strap to the metal cable. Have a safe jump.

Fly as high as you can all through 2023. Always. Happy New Year.

74 thoughts on “Fly, fly…

  1. Il est possible que ce soit un Nord 260. Il est cependant plus probable que ce soit un Nord 262. J’ai fait mon vol de pilotage automatique sur un Nord 262, pilote humain, et osé, Gilbert Klopfstein. Le Nord 260 avait une cabine à section rectangulaire alors que le Nord 262 avait une section circulaire. Il avait également une rampe arrière qui aurait été préférable pour un saut en parachute. Une dizaine seulement de Nord 260 ont volé, pour le CEV, Air-Inter (à l’époque) et une compagnie locale dont le nom m’échappe. Aucun en Afrique … de mémoire. En revanche, le Nord 262 a été produit à une centaine d’exemplaires et certains ont volé en Afrique … de mémoire encore.
    Bravo pour le saut et pour l’article, Brieuc !

    • Tu as probablement raison. Je savais que c’était un Nord, mais pas sur pour le modèl. Nord 262 me paraît correspondre à la fois à mon souvenir et à ce que tu dis. En fait j’ai suivi ta technique en cherchant des images et en comparant à mes photos.
      Et mes compliments pour ton vol de pilotage automatique. Ça j’ai jamais fait… A +

  2. Gelukkig nieuwjaar, Brian! What a great story again. (Do you consider your stories bundled in a book?) ‘I shoot out of the plane like a bag of potato chips out of an open car window.’ That is a wonderful line. I love the detail of the Easy Rider helmet. 🙂 And I learned a thing or two. That when the chute opens one doesn’t ‘jump’ up a bit, and about the silence. I figured one would hear a lot of wind noise. I’m not entirely sure I want to go and buy me my own parachute, but If I do I know now what to expect. Tot ziens.

    • Gelukkig nieuwjaar Peter! Glad you liked the story. And the details. 😉 The silence is probably due to the fact that one jumped in automatic. when one skydives from a higher altitude, plunging towards the ground one must hear the wind. But then once the ‘chute opens it’s silence. Again as in high mountain…
      Tot ziens. Enjoy 2023…

    • Thank you Gigi. I know most people wouldn’t, and I don’t blame them. My youngest daughter did too. (Told us afterwards. Her mother was horrified. Me? What could I say?)
      Hope your arm is mending… Slowly.

    • Haha! I understand you perfectly. And I see you got the message. That and the following dozen jumps were amazing. Each one different. Each one fraught with a different danger. For me and the others. But we all made it. Fortunately…
      Have a great Sunday Derrick. And a nice ride amongst the ponies…

  3. Great story Brian! Of course, I remember the Easy Rider song and film. 😉
    I’ve only jumped out (tandem) once and that was at 14,000 feet. Can totally understand the sensations in your story, but I haemorrhaged both eardrums in the freefall and it was excruciatingly painful! Once the ‘chute opened it was a little less painful and the specialist said not to do this again. Think I might have mentioned that before.

    • “We were born…”
      Did you post on that? I seem to remember.
      Both eardrums must be terrible. Sorry it must have spoilt the experience.
      I imagine you can’t dive either now?
      (We are comrades in ‘chutes too. Yeah!)

      • Ha, ha…
        Yes, I did and think you may have commented but can’t remember now. Yeah, it kind of spoiled the experience but it still was incredible!
        The specialist said before I went diving (I have my ticket), that I needed to undergo a full test again, but he doubted I could and advised it wouldn’t be wise to try. 😦 Guess I need to be happy with snorkelling, which is pretty good.
        Not quite, I did tandem, you did solo – a big difference! I have a good friend that used to do skydiving for a hoppy before it became too expensive, he’s done over 2 or 3,000 jumps, now that’s impressive!

      • It seems to me you make the most of your experiences. Good.
        Snorkelling is fine. (Never got to diving. Don’t know why, lack of opportunity I guess. Eldest daughter did. In Belize.
        Tandem or solo, it’s all a matter of the available technology at the moment. Imagine if you’d gone solo and burst your eardrums?!
        A few thousand jumps is not unusual for the best. S/he must miss it.

      • Indeed I (we) do!
        I love diving but didn’t like the palaver of donning all the necessary gear. Snorkelling is so much easier – each has its own benefits/drawbacks.
        Lucky, I didn’t burst my eardrums (‘just’ hemorrhaged) as the specialist said I could have lost my hearing completely! What a bloody scary thought. 😦
        Yes, he does, but don’t believe he has his gear any longer.

  4. This is the first detailed description of a parachute jump I’ve ever read. The only person I’ve known who jumped from a plane (50th birthday present) broke her ankle and later died of a pulmonary embolism. Not to be morbid or anything.

  5. Oh what an intense story this was! I felt like I was there too, suspended in silence. But then I started to think, what if you start panicing? I could never do it! I loved the end. 22 and can fly. At that age, we all think we’re invincible, don’t we? Bright futures ahead, everything is possible.

    • Haha! All the point of training, in any discipline is precisely to “control” panicking. I saw a guy who was about to jump unhook himself from the cable in the plane. Refused to jump. We all had doubts about him.
      Remember your training as a fight attendant? Face emergencies if they arise…
      And yes… I thought exactly that. “I’m 22 and I can fly”. One can be invincible then. 😉 And should be.
      Then we learn, little by little.
      Bon Dimanche Lumi.

  6. What an entertaining post this is. I really enjoyed your descriptions of the parachute coming down, it sounds peaceful and interesting (which I’m sure it is if everything goes right and a bit less peaceful if not). I don’t know if I don’t you that I am a chartered accountant and I work in corporate finance. I look after selected transactions for some southern African countries as part of my job.

    • Dankie Robbie. That sensation going down is so unique, I’m glad I conveyed at lest some of it. Of course skydiving from a higher altitude must be an altogether different sensation. Yes I remember. To each his/her own. I studied a lot of accounting/finance in France then in the US. Not my discipline of choice in the business ad portfolio. I prefer Marketing and Communication. By far. But accounting and finance were very useful to me when I had my company. And I can still check a balance sheet in a. minute. LOL.
      Which countries do you work with? Angola? Botswana? Further up north?

      • Accounting is useful. I do a lot of corporate law in my job too which I like very much. I assist Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Mauritius, and Namibia. I occasionally work with Mozambique, Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria.

      • Corporate law is an entirely different field. Compliments. But I do agree, accounting is very useful. I just spent the past few days arguing with the accountant of a building where I own an apartment. Numbers don’t square up. LOL. Eventually we will solve it. Just matter of common criteria…
        Those are a lot of countries. I only lived in Kenya. Loved it. Went to Nigeria for business once. Hated it… LOL. So you must travel quite a bit. How nice.

      • Sounds good. Those two are the only “options” I might still consider to “come back” to Africa even for a short while. Last time I went (Kenya) was in 1988… A while

  7. Very daring and adventurous of you, Brian. I kept thinking throughout this story what was the reason behind doing this? Yes, I’m quite boring. Then I realized – for the thrill. The very reason so many embark upon precarious adventures. Loved reading every line and experiencing the emotion. You always ensure a great journey with your words. And that bottle at the bar seems like a great idea. Would you be looking for a bottle sister? Haha. Wonderful writing and sharing. 🙂

  8. Exhilarating—both your jump and the location. What a wonderful experience to look back on. Nice to have a few photos to illustrate the story as well. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks Carol. I am blessed – or cursed – with a very good memory. Not exactly total recall (as Dr Reid in Criminal Minds) but close. So those “episodes” are relatively easy to write. And since I have been digitalizing most of my and my parents photo and film archives, it was easy to find those. And enlarging one to a surprise. My helmet! 😉
      Be good.

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