Looking back on it if I’d passed FS1 back in Spain I might never have gone to Hib, met Cath, entered the Nationals, made loads of new skydiving friends and become a better skydiver in the process – so perhaps what I thought at the time was misfortune was actually serendipity.

We’d entered the FS (Formation Skydiving) part of the annual National Skydive Championships.  FS is a beautiful and thrilling sport to watch.  At competition level there are 4-way (4 person), 8-way (8 person) and VFS (Vertical Formation Skydiving i.e. head up in the sky as opposed to belly to earth) categories.  The aim of the competition is for the team to come together in the set formations for each round as many times as possible in 35 seconds, gaining a point for each successfully formed.  At rookie class level there are 16 formations to learn and 3 for each of 8 rounds.  There is no qualification required as such for the Nationals – however you do need to be a licenced skydiver with FS1.

1st Training weekend: July 13-14

After our success at the wind tunnel I’m really looking forward to jumping with my 3 team mates on team Hib Hub Four Play (Oksana came up with the name!).  We also meet our cameraman, Mike, as each team has to be filmed from above and then the film is submitted to the judges.  Mike is a member of the SOS (Skydivers over Sixty) club and a real character!

My position is Inside Centre, John’s Outside Centre (on the outside of the door and he has to key the exit), Simon is also outside in Tail position (at the back of the plane) and Oksana is jumping Point at the head of the formation.  We can exit in any formation we like – but we’ll only get a point if it is the first one in the round.  As the rounds are randomly generated we won’t know what they’ll be for the competition and Cath suggests we launch H in practice.  I’m supposed to bunny hop sideways on exit and find this extremely difficult, gaining several bruises in the process, not to mention banging into poor Simon a lot of the time.  There’s very little room in the door for 4 skydivers – I have no idea how the 8-ways manage it.

One of the many challenges of FS is fall rate.  John is much bigger than me, Simon & Oksana so the three of us all have to wear weights – I start off with a hefty 10lbs, which is cumbersome on the ground but makes me fall super-fast in the sky!  This is gradually adjusted to a more comfortable 6lb – but there’s no precise calculation and skydivers have to adjust their own body position in freefall to stay on a level with their team.  We aim for 6 jumps a day but only manage 6 in total over the weekend due to unsettled weather.  A World Class team might manage 25 points a jump, but at the end of the weekend we’ve scored a grand total of nil points, but have all managed to get together, just not at the same time!

2nd Training weekend: July 27-28

The second training weekend is a total wash-out weather-wise.  We hang out with our team and the other rookie team keeping ourselves entertained as we wait for clouds to disperse.  We practice the formations again and again – both standing up and lying down on creepers (a sort of large skateboard used by skydivers to replicate the position in the sky).  We have a few creeper races too (mostly won by John) and watch some skydive videos.  After dinner we play cards and drink Corbie’s mean cocktails.  By Sunday afternoon we’re all fed up and head home.


The night before the Nationals

In the run up to the competition the weather has got better and better.  On Thursday while commuting to work, the radio station ClassicFm asks what people are planning to do for the Bank Holiday weekend, so I text in to say we’re competing at the Skydive Nationals, and they read it out on the radio!

When we arrive at Hib on Friday evening there are loads of people setting up their tents and it has a festival feel.  We find a good spot to pitch ours and are temporarily adopted by a loving Siamese cat in the process – prompting one skydiver to ask if we’ve brought our cat to the Nationals!  We meet up with everyone in the bar and at 2000 the formation draw is electronically generated amid lots of applause.  Once all the formations for the various classes are displayed, everyone rushes outside in the dark to start practicing with beers in hand!  It’s hilarious and exciting!  Rich and Ellie (a skydiving couple who’d helped me in the past with FS) kindly help our team practice (they themselves are competing in the top level AAA class with Cath).

Day 1 and point 1 of the Nationals

I’m proud to put on my team t-shirt in the morning and we prep with Cath at 0730 ready to be on lift 5 at about 1030.  With perfect weather there are no holds envisaged and it’s so cool to see our team name up on the electronic boards.  Unfortunately we’ve lost Mike to another team and have acquired a new, equally colourful, cameraman Marcus.  We have a brief conversation on the plane: Marcus: so have you been practicing for this for long?  Me: no I’ve only just got FS1.  Marcus: Fuck yeah!

For competition we have to jump from 10,500 feet (I’m used to jumping from 15,000) and it goes super quick getting to altitude.  Our rookie team is out last and Marcus seems to know we’re all nervous and leads us quietly and calmly to the door.  Because I’m Inside Centre I’m the last to get into place for the exit and there’s something satisfying about being the last person on the plane to leave.  Sadly the exit funnels (breaks apart) and we don’t get back in time to score any points, but I have a good landing and am happy.  Jump 2 is an improvement but still no points and we break for lunch.  I keep bumping into FS coaches or people I’ve jumped with and everyone congratulates me on getting my FS and coming straight into competition jumping.  One chap tells me the story of Pyjama Pumas who scored 1 point at the Nationals the first year they competed, then won their class the following year and competed internationally the third year!

On jump 3 I manage to hold the exit and much to my surprise we come together in Q formation scoring our first point!  By the screams on landing you’d have thought we’d won Olympic gold!  We do 2 more jumps in the scorching heat and I’m tired by jump 5 – we don’t manage to score any more points but I’m happy – in fact I’ve never enjoyed jumping so much before!

Day 2 of the Nationals and a toe tail

We have 3 more jumps to do today.  Although I’m loving it, I know Simon is down because we’re not doing better.  Personally I couldn’t care less about the score, but I make a mental note to be clearer on my team mates’ goals in future.

There are nil winds today and on the first jump we land fast and I flare late and catch my toe on a tuft of grass which causes me to flip over.  I leap to my feet thinking no harm done, but as we walk back I realise my right foot hurts a lot.  Rich is first aider and checks it out, then gets the army doctor from the international women’s skydiving team NFTO, to look at it.  She thinks it might be fractured but advises if I want to carry on I should get some ice from the bar and strap it up with a bungee! I sit in the bar with my foot up on a chair but it doesn’t look good and bruises quickly.  Strangely I don’t feel too disappointed.  Yesterday was fantastic and just being at the Nationals has been an amazing experience.

We have Cath registered as our reserve and she steps in to do the final two jumps with the team bringing our points up to 6 and putting a smile on Simon’s face.  We have a lot of fun watching the videos of everyone’s jumps which are constantly replayed in the bar.  There’s a party in the evening but we decide to pack up.  It’s our 20th wedding anniversary on Wednesday and we’re going to London on Tuesday, so heading home now gives us a day in hand to get organised and have a well-earned McDonalds on the way home!