The challenge was not simply to go the extra mile for the 2014 RMBI Festival, but to go an extra 3 miles, vertically, and then jump out of a perfectly serviceable aeroplane! No less than 38 intrepid volunteer brethren, plus a surprising number of wives, partners and sons and daughters rose (literally) to the challenge.
After assembling for an 8:00am safety briefing at the Old Sarum Airfield on Saturday 4th May, the first team were kitted out with smart blue overalls and skydiving kit and told to stand by ready for a five minute notice of the impending take off. Friday 3rd had been a glorious sunny day with high white fluffy clouds and the forecast for Saturday had looked similarly promising. A cursory look at the local weather forecast for Dorset at 6:00am before leaving home on Saturday morning (when to the eye it looked to be less than promising) suggested that early morning gloom and occasional showers should diminish by 6:30am and be followed by sunshine and predominantly blue skies. Seems however that this didn’t apply to Old Sarum in Wiltshire, as I arrived at 9 o’clock with the windscreen wipers in full swing!
Would the jump be on? No one was really sure. Safety demands that the Dive Marshalls have an uninterrupted view of the landing area from 15,000 ft and with huge black clouds at 1,000 ft, frequent heavy downfalls and no signs of blue on the horizon, things were not looking too promising by 10 am news came over the Tannoy for the first group to stand down and remove their ‘chute harnesses but to be on 5 minute standby for any sign of a break in the cloud. If any of our team were nervous to start with, the delays certainly weren’t helping!
Then, just 30 minutes later, we saw a small break in the clouds, a tiny glimpse of blue, and the 5 minute warning was signalled to get the kit on and assemble ready to board the aircraft. The first group climbed aboard the Cessna 208 Turbo Prop Caravan aircraft which then taxied down to the beginning of the runway. The anticipation amongst the spectators reached fever pitch as the aircraft revved up and prepared for take-off... only to shut down again 30 seconds later as the wind direction suddenly changed and the patch of blue disappeared behind yet another rain cloud.
15 more anxious minutes passed with the skydivers, having vacated the plane, standing alongside staring up into the gloomy sky as a heavy cloudburst passed over and suddenly, they were all scrambling aboard again and the plane hurtled down the runway then climbing rapidly into the clouds. 25 minutes later, we could hear the plane but it was completely obscured as anxious eyes scoured the one patch of blue for the first glance of the first of our intrepid team.
A cry of 'There they are!' was heard from the crowd, and armed with the longest telephoto lens I have, I picked out a couple of tiny dark 1mm size pinpricks of an image in a sea of white hazy nothingness! Safety regulations demanded that no one was allowed near the landing site – just taking a worthwhile photograph was going to be a challenge in itself! After free-falling the first 10,000 ft, reaching 120mph in the gloomy sky, at 5,000 ft the parachutes opened and the gentle descent to terra firma began.
One anxious mum asked, 'Are all the parachutes open yet?', 'Can you see a green and black one yet?'
'Yes, I replied, it was the second-to-last one to leave the plane'. 'OK,' she said, 'I’ll look up now!'
So after 2½ hours of waiting for a weather slot, then a further 25 minutes of climbing to altitude the incredible adventure was all over in the less than 5 minutes it took to reach the ground. Judging by the beams of delight as our teams left the coach which had transported them back from the landing site, everyone enjoyed the exhilarating experience with hugs and kisses all round from the anxious and waiting supporters.
Quotes from the team included:
'It is some experience... without doubt the most thrilling thing I have done in a very long list of thrilling things!'
'The buzz you get as you exit the plane, the adrenalin rush of free-fall is amazing, once the canopy opens any nerves melt away, and the excitement of the view of Stone Henge from 5,000 ft, the ground plan of Old Sarum, and then the airfield where you know all your family and supporters are staring up wondering which chute is yours, then you get to wave at the crowds below, it is such exciting experience!'
'Then it’s all over, and all you want to do is to go straight back up again', 'But there always another year!'
All together a fantastic day and huge congratulations are due to the 38 jumpers representing 26 lodges who between them look to have raised in excess of £10,000 for the RMBI Festival and to Ray White for organising the event.