Six years ago, the day before my 25th birthday (sob), I ventured to an airfield outside Oxford to do my first tandem sky dive. I should explain before I go any further that up to that point in my life I had been anything but a daredevil. Furthermore, I had a rather stubborn and borderline morbid fear of heights – in particular of falling. Which is why, when it came to thinking of what would encourage people to donate towards my impending volunteering trip to Tanzania, this came immediately to mind. Surely facing my most serious of fears would raise lots of cash? And you know what? It did.
I remember that day like it was yesterday. As I’d got confused over timings and had pitched up after everyone else I was relegated to the last slot of the day, which meant a whole day for my nerves to build into a terrifying crescendo. By the time we boarded the plane I felt physically sick, not that you’d know from watching the video as I grin inanely like a halfwit from start to finish (if you want to know what fear looks like, check it out – and don’t be fooled by the smile. Note that it doesn’t reach my eyes).
When we reached 12,000 feet I was rigid with terror, but by some miracle the instructor convinced me to inch towards the open door, close my eyes and leap into the unknown. For the first few seconds, as we flew through the air, I had no idea what was happening. But once we stabilised and I realised I was still alive I relaxed a little and tried to enjoy the experience. The problem came when the instructor moved my arm so he could pull the parachute cord and we began rocking wildly back and forth.
Now, anyone who has ever suffered from travel sickness will know a rocking movement whilst already in motion does not a nausea-free journey make. And sure enough, within seconds my mouth was watering and I began to realise there was a very real chance I would throw up – in mid air, on my instructor. After he pulled the parachute I became even more certain this would be our fate, and so when he asked if I was okay and I vigorously shook my head he cottoned on and sped up our descent as best he could. Fortunately I managed not to cover us both with my own vomit mid-air, but when we landed I lay face down in the grass for half an hour, my face entirely devoid of colour (the photographer had to physically lift me to film the final scene in the film, after which I lay back down, groaning).
Needless to say it was a rather unpleasant and somewhat scarring experience, which was a shame. And given that everyone I’ve subsequently met who has done a sky dive has said it was the best thing they’d ever done, I’ve always felt a bit short changed.
So you can imagine my delight when the opportunity presented itself to go back to the very same airfield – this time for a trial flight in a glider. A friend who is part of the Oxford Gliding Club (who are, incidentally, keen to get more members, so if you live in the vicinity and fancy giving it a try do pop down there and find out more – they’re a very friendly and hospitable bunch and they cook a mean post-flight BBQ) invited a few of us down last night and I jumped at the chance to have a go.
Before we arrived I hadn’t given much thought to whether my fear of heights was still alive and well all these years later, which I think was probably a good thing. By the time I was kitted out with parachute and having my safety briefing it was too late to back out, and within minutes we were being towed up into the sky on our breathtaking ascent. The first few seconds after the tow line is unclipped are just incredible; everything is silent and you feel a sense of weightlessness that’s hard to describe. Then you gently twist and turn through the air as you make your descent back to the ground – it’s probably the closest feeling to being a bird you could have, and it’s really, really special. I can’t deny the descent made me feel a touch on the fragile side, but it was worth every second of discomfort to have experienced that initial high.
It might not have been another sky dive, but I still feel in those few minutes in the sky I made peace with the air space that robbed me of what should have been an enjoyable experience all those years ago. And you know what? I might even be tempted to go back and do it again.