March 18, 2012
I wake up to bright sunshine and not a cloud in the sky! As I sit up, my own cluster of butterflies takes off and flutters my early morning appetite out of sight. Today is the big day. Two scheduled descents from the Balloon (An initial capital letter because of the dominant part it will play in the rest of today.)
We’ve spent the past week in the hangars, which are effectually huge gymnasiums with outlandish paraphernalia and have, instead of polished wooden floors, concrete and padded rubber matting. Our instructors, who will despatch us, (sounds foreboding doesn’t it?), from the Balloon, and eventually the aircraft, are proficient physical training instructors.
The twelve of us, the remnants of a group of forty-nine would-be paras, have spent the past few days performing somersaults, endless forward rolls, fan drops, side right, side left rolls, disappear up your own backside rolls ad nauseam, with only severe neck aches to show for it.
After going to the dining hall for a coffee, but nothing solid , I board the truck, with my pale-faced companions to be ferried to the issue station for parachutes. “The girls” have packed the parachutes. Unlike free-fall parachuting, where each packs his own, the military chutes are packed and inspected by an extremely competent team of W.R.A.F. members.
Kitted out with a chute and helmet each, we re-board the vehicle to go to the Dropping Zone (DZ). There, in the vicinity of a barrage balloon, linked by steel cable to a ten-ton Leyland truck, stands a small group of instructors. Attached on the underside of the Balloon is the Cage.
Similar to the rear half of cargo truck, without wheels but complete with a tubular steel structure covered by a tarpaulin, the Cage waits for the neophytes. We line up in two single files to form ‘sticks’ and are ordered to number from the right. As a Staff-Sergeant, and the senior jumper present, I stand on the right of my line and shout “One”, closely followed by the guy on my left as “Two”, and so on. Instead of being marched to the Cage, we are told to “Stand Easy”.
A bus pulls up and a gang of girls stream out, dressed in light blue coveralls, orange helmets and fitted with chutes. They are the packers.
They are allowed to voluntarily perform two jumps from the Balloon. In the cold light of day, we can’t for the life of us understand why anyone would, of their own free will, jump without para pay, but the word goes round that they do it to show faith in their own packing. Psychologically, it’s a brilliant, fiendishly calculated move by the authorities because the girls are going to jump first. Who amongst us would then have the cojones to refuse, after the girls have shown that it is not a macho male preserve and is as easy as falling out of a plane? We are perversely gratified however, that despite the giggles and smiles, there is an underlying nervousness among their group indicated by the banter drying up as they are taken to the Cage.
Once aboard, the instructor in charge lowers the steel bar across the doorway, and shouts his readiness for ascent to the ground staff. The cable plays out. The Balloon rises, remorselessly and agonisingly slowly, but smoothly, on its way to the rarefied atmosphere of eight hundred feet and the first parachute jump of the day.
(to be continued)