Skydiving is certainly not for the faint-hearted, nor for one particular member of the team with a genuine fear of heights and flying, Sansum’s HR Manager Rachel Porter. We were all here as the result of a meeting one morning at the beginning of May earlier this year discussing events on the calendar through our chosen charity Children’s Hospice South West. I suggested rather jokingly to Jason, ‘well there is always a skydive if you’re up for that’. Laughing at the thought and not for a minute anticipating the next response, Jason, with his enthusiastic, determined and opportunist outlook on life, quickly returned with ‘o.k yes, but I’m not doing it on my own, let’s call Rachel in’. ‘Rachel, fancy doing a skydive for charity’. Rachel, in shock, ‘what? Are you serious’, also laughing thinking this was a joke, replied ‘alright I will, but only if you will’, Jason then turned to me and said ‘great and you Jen’. Gemma Sansum, Company Director was then summoned to the office and before we knew it, we had at that very moment, committed ourselves to the jump completing the necessary online application, which at this stage was just over 4 months away.
Fundraising to sponsor our skydive in aid of Children’s Hospice South West commenced via a JustGiving page, as we all prepared for our jump which was originally planned for Saturday 25 September. But as the date approached, adverse weather conditions meant it was not safe to go ahead and the event was postponed. Although disappointed, we planned a second date soon after, which again was postponed due to inclement weather. Eventually on the morning of 21 October, it seemed this time, the weather conditions were perfect for our jump to finally go ahead. The three of us Jason Woodcock, Managing Director, Rachel Porter, HR and Payroll Manager and myself, Jennifer Wilson, Business Development Manager, were about to take part in, what some may call, an adrenaline junkies sport, Skydiving at 15,000 ft from Dunkeswell Aerodrome in Honiton.
Approaching the Dunkeswell Aerodrome with my colleague Rachel Porter that morning of the 21 October in her car, the first thing we noticed were the small Cessna style aircraft situated on the airfield.
Nerves immediately began to kick in. Upon arrival at the Aerodrome, Rachel and I met with Jason at the Aviator’s Café for a 10:00 am check-in time. Skydive Buzz informed us, that they were short on instructors that day and that we should be prepared for a wait, as they were busy scheduling those that were jumping before us. So we sat, chatting for a while with fellow virgin Skydivers in the café, talking excitedly and nervously about our expectations of what we were all to experience that day, over coffee and a bacon sandwich or two.
A few hours later, as we watched others who had jumped before us, with their bright coloured parachutes spiralling through the bright blue skies parascending above the Aerodrome landing spot attached to their tandem instructors, it was not until 1:00pm that day, that we were finally attending a safety briefing preparing for our turn to jump.
Our safety briefing, included the ‘banana’ position, which we all had to practice in the café at Terminal 1 (the pre-boarding terminal), much to the amusement of spectators who had come to support their families, friends and relatives taking part in skydiving that day. The banana is achieved bending your knees, leaning back a little, hips thrust forwards, head back and arms criss-crossed over your chest. The purpose of the ‘banana’ was to teach us the correct position to assume on the plane at point of exit. At which point, we would be strapped to our instructors, our legs hanging over the edge of the plane, knees bent and tucked under the aircraft, just before being hurled out. There were approximately 18 of us in our 10:00am check-in group, who were jumping that day, so you can imagine all of us practising the banana in this little café at Terminal 1. Following this, we also had to practice sitting with our legs out in front of us and then leaning back slightly, whilst engaging our core and raising our legs off the ground with our feet bent towards us. This, we were told, was to prepare our ‘landing’ position. For those of you who follow our Sansum Facebook page, it will be no surprise that the management team regularly engage in CrossFit activities at lunchtime during the working week, to which Rachel joked amongst the laughter, ‘thank goodness for CrossFit’.
Following our safety briefing, we were kitted out with our yellow jumpsuits and harnesses in preparation. The Bee movie suddenly sprang to my mind, although we would not be about to embark on a mission to save the planet from a lack of flowers to be pollinated by bees, though we all looked the part. No! we were about to board a Cessna, climbing 15,000 ft, before jumping and experiencing a freefall of 120mph lasting up to one minute.
Our mood became more sombre as all three of us turned our attention to the real reason we were all up here, raising vital funds for a local charity, the Children’s Hospice South West. Sansum had chosen this local charity in realising the adverse profound impact that the pandemic would have caused, particularly for children with life limiting conditions and their families at such an unprecedented time. With these children no doubt at greater risk of being debilitated if they caught the Covid-19 virus, their families would have had to endure limited time with their child, with the necessary restrictive measures in place. The three Children’s Hospices in the South West each provide a caring, nurturing, safe and supportive place for a child with a life limiting illness, providing special activities, respite breaks and support which includes siblings and families, as well as crucial end of life care and bereavement counselling for when that sad time comes.
As we boarded the plane, together with our Instructors Ryan, Chris and Andy of Skydive Buzz, the reality of our impending jump hit us. This truly was it. Crammed in like sardines, we were back to back, sat on the hard aluminium floor of the plane, as we taxied off the small runway of the Aerodrome to take-off and begin our ascent.
My breathing became erratic and I felt my heart thumping against my chest. Rachel and I were the first on the plane, which meant we would be the last two to jump, whilst Jason was just before us in the queue of jumpers. With my heart rate sky-rocketing at 148 bpm, according to my Garmin fitness watch, I turned to focus on taking some deep calm breaths in efforts to bring my heart rate back down.
As I felt the control of my senses beginning to return, I started to contemplate the jump. It was such a mixed feeling of nerves, excitement, trepidation and pure fear of what we were all just about to do. Skydiving is, after all, a risky sport and our jumpsuits all had warnings in red on the back which said there was a ‘risk of death or serious injury’, yes I read it!! I reminded myself though, that the odds were very, very low statistically and that these days, with the amount of jumps that take place within a proper establishment where strict safety measures are in place, that it really should be quite safe with my tandem instructor, shouldn’t it? At this point Chris, my instructor, began giving me further instructions, shouting above the loud noise and hum of the small aircraft’s engines. ‘When I tap you on your shoulder, I want you to put your hand on my thighs and lift yourself up so that I can tighten your harness and clip you to me, o.k’? I gave a thumbs up, then started to panic thinking, oh gosh, how can I place my hand on his thighs, there is literally no room to move (and there really wasn’t), my legs were sandwiched in front of me with the next instructor in front, I was squashed right up to my instructor already as it was, it was not comfortable and there simply was no room. I started going over his instructions in my head and thinking what my strategy would be to lift myself up enough, that he could strap me securely to him before we exited the plane.
Believe it or not, for me, this part of the plane journey up consumed my thoughts, rather than the actual fear of the act of jumping out itself. Trying to take my mind off this, my thoughts turned to checking in on my colleague Rachel, to the right of me, to see how she was coping. Rachel, with her fear of flying and heights, was welling up with tears. The fact that Rachel had agreed to do this charity skydive at all, despite her fear, made this all the more challenging for her. I felt a pang of awe and respect for her as a fellow colleague and friend and reached out to grab her hand, shouting over the hum of the plane ‘You’ve got this Rach, you really have’, to which Rachel blubbed out barely audibly ‘Oh my gosh Jen, we are really doing this’ amid her tears. Jason, usually bounding with such determination and enthusiasm, the MD of Sansum having brought us all together to take part in this, was situated in front of us with his instructor and was also very solemn and quiet and pale, no doubt also going through his own mental thought processes contemplating what he too, was about to do. It really was getting very real for all of us.
As the plane started to level out signifying the end of our ascent, my Instructor tapped my shoulder. I went to place my hand on his thighs as instructed, but it didn’t go too well. I couldn’t get a grip! So, I shuffled a bit and then found a small amount of space between my legs to push myself up with my hands just enough, so he could clip me to his harness and tighten all my straps. And tighten they did, as I now felt very snugly attached to him. The same process was happening to Jason in front and also to Rachel at the right of me. The roller door of the plane then moved up in readiness, greeting us with a rush of cold air creating a wind tunnel in the hull of the plane.
Each jumper, together with their tandem instructor, started shuffling forwards to reach the edge of the plane before exiting. The calm I had restored on the ascent, suddenly began to leave me again and I felt my breathing quicken and pulse rate soar again. I didn’t have much time to contemplate this feeling, as Jason had already exited the plane, we heard the ‘aaarrrgh’ as each person was gone and then Rachel was shuffling out before it was my turn, the last to go. I saw Rachel clasp her hands together in prayer, shouting ‘oh my gosh, oh my gosh’ repeatedly and then she was out. It all happened so quickly with no time to think. I turned to focus on my banana position, head back, arms criss-crossed against chest, legs under plane, hips forward as I braced for my turn. I felt the cold wind rush over my face, not daring to look and we were out!
Freefall had commenced and after a couple of seconds I opened my eyes and I was flying. I actually felt like I was flying and I didn’t feel scared at all. My Instructor Chris tapped me on the shoulder again to signal that I could bring my arms out from the criss-cross position. I stretched my arms out wide, opened my eyes and looked at the earth beneath us, soaring through the sky like an eagle spreading its wings elegantly catching the updrafts of the wind and it was the most awesome feeling. To see the earth like that and be so high, yet it didn’t feel like we were falling at 120mph, in fact my body became weightless and free.
As we ended our freefall, the parachute deployed and there was a jerk as we suddenly slowed from our freefall descent and I could see my legs suddenly appear beneath me, yet still so high up in the sky peering at the earth and all its landscape beneath us. Chris gave me the toggles so that I could experience navigating our parachute and I am so pleased I did this. Chris pointed out my friend Rachel and I turned and saw her, with her instructor Ryan, a short distance away from us. I couldn’t see Jason’s parachute because he had jumped out before both of us. As we continued our gentle descent back toward the ground, Chris took the toggle controls back from me and made some sharp spiral turns, which did make my stomach go a bit and made our descent a lot quicker.
I could see the ground rushing up to greet us and braced myself for my landing position, lifting my legs up before we oh so gently just touched the ground. This too, was not what I expected. I expected to go skidding along the ground on my bottom and drop with a bit of a thud, but we didn’t. It was gentle, almost gracefully done. Perhaps credit to my expert Instructor Chris.
We all had a team photo shoot at the end as I met up with my colleagues Rachel and Jason. Hugging Rachel and congratulating her on having overcome her fears and Jason too, we certainly shared an amazing and unique experience that day and one that we will never forget. To also have accomplished this and feeling good about giving something back to an important Charity, the skydive has left us all feeling renewed, inspired to achieve more in life and with a new founded respect and gratitude towards each other having shared this experience together. Jason, the Managing Director also unexpectedly surprised us by paying generously for the photos that were an additional cost, taken by Go Pro cameras by our instructor’s capturing the timeless moment when we each exited the plane.
Thank you to all our sponsors for donating to this fantastic cause. If you have been moved by this piece and wish to donate more, our JustGiving page is still open and any further monies raised will be for a direct benefit in supporting the Children’s Hospice South West, link here Sansum Solutions is fundraising for Children’s Hospice South West (justgiving.com)