For as long as I can remember, I have had a fascination with flying, or rather with soaring. I would dream about being an eagle, I would spread my wings and glide through the air, feeling both the warm sun and cold breeze on my face at once. It was a powerful and vivid dream and one that felt almost within my reach. I suppose it was only a matter of time until I turned to skydiving.
I flew to Spain and began my training. Training for solo skydiving is an interesting process. You complete a day of ground school where you learn how to recognise certain problems, like your chute not opening, or it opening but your lines (the wires from you to the chute) getting twisted and tangled. You learn how to deal with said problems. And most importantly, you learn how to focus on these problems not happening to you. Mind over matter! After all, if you didn’t focus on this, why on earth would you jump from a perfectly good airplane? Oh yes, the soaring. I’m an eagle inside, yada yada.
With ground school completed, I was ready for my first jump. For anyone who has done a tandem jump, it’s time to forget about that. When you are training for solo jumps, you start as you mean to go on. Ok, it’s not quite as dramatic as all that. I had two instructors, but neither was attached to me. When we got to altitude, 13,000 ft, the sound of the airplane engine changed, it went into a type of holding pattern and someone opened the door. A gush of cold air hit me and the reality of what I was about to do began to sink in. Some other skydivers exited the plane and vanished in a fraction of a second. Unfortunately for me, my stomach plummeted to earth with them. At that point, I did as I had been instructed to in ground school; I looked right into the eyes of my primary instructor and waited for his signal. I’m sure many first timers lost their nerve from seeing the others exit. Thankfully, I got over my initial bout of plummeting butterflies and waited for my turn. Last.
Finally, when everyone else had exited the plane, my secondary instructor climbed out of the plane and hung onto the outside. I knelt in the open doorway and felt the instructor grab the side of my jump suit. My primary instructor grabbed the other side of my jump suit, from inside the plane. I was now sandwiched in the doorway of the plane, still at 13,000 ft, still without a stomach. I looked at my primary instructor and on his signal I one-two-three-jumped!
We tumbled at first but righted ourselves almost instantly. I assumed my arched-back position, my instructors held fast to my sides and we made a cross-shape in the sky. I felt my face move independently of its muscles; my cheeks flapped and my safety goggles almost blew off. I had a perfectly rational moment of concern for my spectacles – if I lose these, it’ll be a disaster. I remember that thought process vividly, I scolded myself for thinking that perfectly rational thought and reminded myself that I had more pressing matters to attend to; The fact that I was travelling at 120 mph towards the earth being the primary one.
I watched my altimeter and when we reached my pulling altitude I reached around and pulled my chute. Unfortunately, my hands had become frozen by the cold air so my grip was insufficient on the first attempt. When I realised that the chute hadn’t deployed, and this realisation took a mere fraction of a second, I reached again but my secondary instructor had already pulled the chute for me.
At this point, both of the instructors let me go and I was whipped upwards, or so it felt, as the chute gradually opened. It was the most beautiful sight in the entire world; the patches of colour spreading across the sky above me, catching me as I fell. It was a truly amazing feeling. I was caught. I was safe. I would live.
Being a novice, my body positioning was not as good as it could have been so when I pulled my chute my body was turning ever so slightly. This translated into my lines getting twisted above my head. Thankfully, I knew what to do. The required manoeuvre is one we have all practiced on the swings in the playground, when we spin the swing around and let the ropes or chains twist above us and then kick out really fast to enjoy the spin...that’s what I had to do this time as well, only this time I was 7,000 ft above the ground.
When I kicked out of my line twists I shouted out with joy. The silence up there was fantastic, but my elation meant I had to break that silence and whoop and cheer and laugh and wave my arms and kick my legs. I was alive. I was more alive than ever before. I did my safety checks, I orientated myself, I noted the wind direction and I worked out my landing pattern. It was my first time doing this, but I figured it all out perfectly. It was all going so well, until I thought to myself I wonder how to judge exactly when I will touch down so I can pull my breaks exactly when I....splat! Ouch. My landing hurt quite a bit.
Thankfully I hadn’t broken my leg, but I managed to bruise my foot and inside my leg so badly that it lasted for weeks. In fact, it got to the stage where I had forgotten that my foot wasn’t always purple. Then it turned yellow. But again, nothing was broken. An hour or two later, I went back up in the plane and I did my second jump. I completed my training that week and after eight jumps with instructors I graduated as a solo skydiver!
I’ve now done 37 skydives and I have loved every second of each. I have tumbled, I have somersaulted, I have mimicked the ‘falling off the roof’ scene from Die Hard as I fell backwards from the plane. I have had a lot of fun. But mostly, I have soared. I have jumped from the plane and just relaxed for the entire 60 seconds of freefall, feeling both the warm sun and the cold breeze on my face. I have rejoiced in the solitude, I have felt truly at peace. I have felt more in the moment than ever before.
I sometimes think back to some of my more adrenaline-filled moments; Moments when things went wrong, moments when I was the only person there to solve the problem, moments when if I didn’t solve the problem there was a very real possibility that I might have died. I think back to those moments and I remind myself that I did that, I figured it out, I was strong enough, I was good enough, I was quick enough and I did it! I did it. This has given me a lot of strength at times when I needed it most, and it’s not something I set out in search of, I’m just happy that I found it.
Lena Doherty, from Dublin, Ireland contributed 'The Sky's the Limit' to the 'Subjectify This!' campaign to help us celebrate here at Endangered Bodies how our bodies give us the gift of life and living. To learn more and contribute too click here and here.