We get it. You’ve seen it all already. On those posters, fliers, brochures, facebook ads and friends’ profile pics: the screaming, freefalling, sometimes cleavage-heavy adrenaline portraits of the young and daring tandem skydiver, plummeting through the air at 200km/h strapped to some tattooed weekend-base-jumper with a maniac grin plastered across his Oakley-sporting face.
If hanging around drop zones for the last 5 months has taught us anything (and it’s taught us WAY more than we could have possibly imagined), it’s this: Yes, that backpacker-thrill-face is part of our daily subjects as we cling to our cameras whilst trying to not get hit by landing humans on the beach. However, as with the added knowledge about the sky, the clouds, the physics of parachuting and the aviation industry in general, we were surprised by the people we met who we’d never expect to be in any way connected to what is perceived to be such an ‘extreme’ sport. Filmmaking gives you amazing access to people’s experience, ideas and worlds, and here are our top 5 surprises:
1) Don – the unintentional expert
Don is a tandem master with over 9600 jumps to his name. “It all started back in the 80s, I had just got divorced and was looking for a new social group”. He was introduced by a friend and as he really enjoyed hanging out with everyone at the drop zone, he ended up jumping. It actually took Don 20 jumps to start enjoying himself properly.
After years of experience and training, Don gained his tandem qualification in 1991. In his typically calm, collected and approachable manner, he explains that he loves taking people flying, and especially enjoys tandems with paraplegic passengers or people with cerebral palsy. “You’re up there in the air with them, and there’s nothing for your legs to do, so letting your passenger fly a parachute around feeling weightless and free is just amazing”.
Don also teaches the AFF (accelerated free fall) course to people who want to learn to fly on their own. “It’s rewarding to the max to see people I taught flying on their own and having fun or challenging themselves in competitions”. We ask him if this is day job. “Oh, no, this is how I spend my weekends. I’m a postman during the week!”
2) Alan – the birthday boy
There seems to be a popular belief that skydiving is the realm of 20-something year old people without a real job. We must admit that we were a little surprised ourselves to learn that, unlike driving your car without regular tests, the upper age limit for skydiving is non existent. We first met Alan as he was assisted off the landing area as he had difficulty walking. “I’ve always wanted to skydive, but my wife wouldn’t let me!” he laughs out in a brash Aussie twang. “Well, unfortunately she died before I was 80, so on my 80th I booked in to skydive. I’ve treated myself on my birthday every year since!”
Alan has difficulty walking, but so long as you can lift your legs up for the landing, you can go skydiving without any special equipment, yes, even if you’re in your 90s or above (and it’s been done!). “We had three elderly ladies booked in Cairns”, Hannah who organizes front of office explains, “and as they all put down the same address, I thought they lived together. Turns out it was the address of their nursing home. They had a fabulous time up in the air and wouldn’t stop telling me all about it whilst they waited for their photos.”
3) Allie – the fast rider
Allie is probably the most likely out of all our unlikely people because she does things that you would expect from a skydiver, and at that, one thing in particular: Allie races motorbikes. What is completely unexpected is how humble she is about her amazing achievements on the racecourse and in the sky. “Many of my skydiving colleagues would never ride a sports bike, because it’s ‘too dangerous’” she smiles knowingly. “I’m the ground safety officer here and make sure everyone lands nice and safely after jumping out of the plane. So I absolutely agree with them. Looking at the statistics, you’re more likely to get hurt driving in your own car to the drop zone than falling out of a plane.”
Her knowing smile holds another story though, as Allie is afraid of flying. “It used to be awful, I’d have to take a Qantas flight here or a Jetstar flight there and whilst everyone was sitting around chatting about the coffee being terrible or zoning into the in-flight entertainment, I was clinging to my seat, sweaty palmed.” Most people think the riskiest part is outside the plane, but everyone we know in skydiving is much happier once they leave the plane. “Those things are way more scary than jumping out. I used to take my parachute on as hand luggage so I knew that if anything happened, I’d be fine in mid air”. Allie successfully manages her nervousness when flying these days but it gives her valuable insight into what first-timers feel like and how to re-assure them. “It’s not about being fearless, it’s about feeling it but helping yourself to do it anyway. You’ve got to go out there and enjoy life.”
4) Sammy – the wiz-kid
“There’s lots that determines your coolness-factor at school. One of them’s your pencil case. Another is your mum’s restraint level when you just don’t want a cuddle. I totally nailed it. I jumped out of a plane.” Sammy isn’t 18. He isn’t 16 with parental consent either. Sammy did his first skydive at 13, one year older than Australia’s 12+ age limit. Surprised? Well, in New Zealand, so long as you can get strapped in, you can fly, no matter how young you are.
“It’s like when you’re in bed, and you’re having a dream that you’re falling, and you wake up with a jolt, BUT IT DOESN’T STOP” he explains mystically to his older sisters. “I was a bit nervous, not about the plane, cause it was going to be my first flight ever anyway so I thought I’m gonna love it. But going on this bus full of adults I don’t know to get to the airport was a bit daunting. But Dave my tandem master explained everything really clearly and then kept on joking about stuff so we ended up sniggering all the way.” Sammy’s mum was also a little bit nervous but the knowledge each rig contains a main and backup parachute as well as a computer that deploys the chute automatically at a certain altitude was reassuring. “He had such a good time, it was all worth it. Someone’s got a new fridge photo to put up and show off.”
5) Greg – the aviator supreme
You’d be surprised to not find a pilot at a skydiving gig. These mystical creatures, shrouded in starched shirts, mirrored aviators and banter only air traffic control pretends to understand, are often the only clean-shaven face in sight of a plane’s petrol docking station. You may have had the privilege of catching a glimpse of a pilot walking through the VIP lane at airport security or flicking switches and checking charts with the co-pilot through the crack of the nearly-closed cockpit door as the stewardess opposite you motions to you to take your seat at the back in row 29 and refrain from holding up the queue any longer.
But when you’re cramming 17 people into a small plane with two seats and a Perspex shutter instead of a door, things get cosy and you have the chance to get a good look at a real-life pilot. Greg as been flying since 2011 and completed his training for skydiving piloting 2 years ago. He’s flown a lot of different types of planes in all sorts of environments, but flying parachutists requires quite a unique combination of skill and experience. “Unlike a normal flight, everyone’s really excited to be there. You have to get up to altitude as fast as you can and then maintain a track, altitude and air speed whilst losing about 1400kg out of the door in the space of about 50 seconds.”
Camera fliers make things really interesting for Greg as they cling to the outside of the plane creating a lot of drag until they suddenly drop off at the same time as two other people. “You have to compensate with the plane, which is fine with 1 camera flier but when there are fun jumpers involved, we’ll have up to 13 people hanging on to the outside of the plane.” All this experience means that when you apply for jobs with a commercial airliner, having worked as a skydive pilot is great on your CV as you’ll have honed your skills to keep a plane steady and secure as well as being awesome at takeoffs and landings. “In a normal situation, you may do 3 or 4 takeoff and landing combinations a day. When you’re working in skydiving, you’re doing 10 to 20 a day, which means you get really, really good.”
When the door of the plane opens, it gets a bit scary, we say. “You don’t need to be fearless, just skilled, and the physics involved are amazingly supportive. One pilot I work with is scared of heights, but he loves flying once he gets to a certain altitude, so he just deals with his fear and he’s fine. He’s applying for a major airline at the moment and he’s a fantastic pilot so will do very well. It’s when you see beyond your physical reaction to the possibilities life holds that you really start to enjoy yourself.”