By Fergus Blakiston
I’m gonna free fall
Out into nothing…
– Tom Petty, Free Fallin’
The sky is big: really big. You have no idea just how mind-bendingly, eye-poppingly huge the sky is. You might think the Sydney Harbour Bridge is big; or that Kevin Rudd’s ego is big. However they are nothing compared to the bigness of the sky. Looking up from the ground the sky seems to go on forever. But no matter how you try to imagine it, you don’t appreciate just how vast the sky really is until you are falling through a piece of it.
To many people, sky-diving seems like utter madness. Why jump out of a perfectly good airplane when you can safely stay inside it and enjoy the view? Or, better still, enjoy the view from an outside table at a café with a glass of, say, sauvignon blanc. However, those options don’t provide the sheer adrenaline head-rush of free-fall parachuting. And on this fine June morning at Fox Glacier, on New Zealand’s South Island I am experiencing the madness first-hand.
Sixteen thousand feet above South Westland, the air is so cold I can see my breath. Sitting in the back of a converted Fletcher top-dressing plane, the view from the perspex window is stunning. The ice-fields of Mount Cook/Aoraki and Mount Tasman gleam in the morning sun. The entire sweep or the Southern Alps stretches to the horizons in both directions. I can see over the Main Divide to Lake Tekapo and, beyond range upon range of snow-covered hills, the Canterbury Plains which swim in a haze of morning mist.
Behind me, my tandem jump-master Mark, owner of Sky-dive Fox Glacier, is going through a verbal checklist of connections and cross-checks as we approach our jump altitude. Aerial camera-man Paul is running a similar checking procedure for his glove-mounted video camera and helmet-mounted still camera. A sticker on the back of his helmet reads: “Sky-diving?…f*#k yeah!!” Beside me, Taiwanese visitor Jean Tsai sits strapped to her jump-master Ollie. We are both remarkably calm considering what we are about to do.
A green light winks on. We are at our ceiling altitude. Paul slides the door open and climbs out onto a railing mounted on the fuselage. Ollie and Jean slide over to the door-way, pause momentarily then disappear along with Paul. Mark gives me the thumbs up. We bum-shuffle to the doorway. The slipstream claws at my yellow and black jumpsuit. The air rushes by with a locomotive roar. I am dimly aware of the Earth, huge and green, far below my dangling feet. I give a hang-ten sign to the wing camera. Then we fall out into nothing.
Gravity is one of the weakest forces in the universe. It takes the gravitational force of the entire planet to hold your newspaper down. But you were easily able to overcome its attractive force when you picked the newspaper up. Nevertheless, once gravity gets hold of you, it will pull you towards the Earth at a surprising rate.
A falling object accelerates at a rate of 19.8 metres per second squared (or 32 feet per second squared: skydivers and pilots work in imperial units, hence our jump height of sixteen thousand feet) until it reaches what is known as its terminal velocity. At this point the effects of drag mean that it cannot fall any faster. A pair of tandem sky-divers, falling belly down, will reach a terminal velocity of 200 kilometres per hour.
As we fall away from the aircraft, the first thing that hits me is the noise. The sound of the air pummels my ears with a heavy, tactile force. It feels like I’m being beaten around the head with a pillow containing a brick of West Coast gold. With each gasping intake of breath, the frigid air rushes into my lungs with a liquid nitrogen burn. I can feel the flesh on my face being pressed flat onto my cheekbones and my lips flapping open into the expression sky-divers call “horse-face.”
My brain is momentarily overload with sensory input. It is all too much to take in. No wonder first-time sky-divers often have a memory blank for days afterwards. But then I have a moment of clarity. I tune out the noise of the rushing air; my breathing slows. I feel Mark tap me on the shoulder to indicate that I can put my arms out as we fly. The adrenaline hits in a rush and I am suddenly whooping and shouting with exhilaration.
If the sky had seemed big before, it is now the Earth which fills my vision. It is huge and round and it is rushing towards me very, very fast. I stare at it as though I’m trying to psych it out; to dare it to come at me and do its worst. It happily obliges. My vision wobbles like footage from a hand-held camera in an action movie.
We have been in free fall for sixty seconds. In that short time we have fallen about 10,000 feet and the universe’s weakest force has proven unequivocally that it’s not just good for holding new down. I hear a sudden whooshing noise as Mark deploys our parachute. The harness around my legs, across my chest and under my arms draws tight and we decelerate rapidly as the parachute fills with air.
Almost at once, we are in a different environment. The air is warm and silent. The sun shimmers in the azure dome of the sky. I flip my goggles up onto my forehead and take in the view which is now stable and bucolic. Lake Matheson shimmers in its frame of rainforest; Hereford cattle dot the patchwork of farmland along the forest margins; a tiny white car moves along the grey scratch of road leading to Gillespies Beach. The Tasman Sea shines like a National guitar and the coastline of Westland stretches south towards Jackson Bay and distant Fiordland.
We descend towards the landing zone at a sedate sixteen kilometres per hour. Mark hands me a pair of straps so I can fly the parachute this way and that. I execute a slow, adagio clockwise turn and the Earth spins beneath us. We line up the landing zone and I can see Jean and Ollie watching us approach.
The ground comes up to gather us and we slide to a halt on the soft grass. Gravity congratulates itself on a job well done and wanders off to make sure everything else in the universe is firmly held together. As Mark and I shake hands, I look up into the sky through which we have just fallen. It doesn’t seem quite so big now.
After my first tandem parachute jump ten or more years ago, I had suffered the same memory blank often experienced by first timers. Afterwards, I had sworn I would never do it again. But this time, I remember everything. The view from sixteen thousand feet, the mind-pummeling adrenaline rush of free fall, and the tingly feeling of being utterly alive which always accompanies a successful adventure.
The sky is big: really big. I understand now just how big it is because I have just been there. So would I do it again? Hell no! Well, at least, not until next time…