Parachutists - are they human?

I never had a problem with parachutists, indeed my encounters with them in the air were rare. I never thought of them as super – human, more as almost human and I never had any desire to join their ranks.

First encountered at Tarrant Rushton, we had no parachutists there, but, every Christmas, we held a party for member’s children and Compton Abbas always came to our rescue. They had power flying, gliding and parachute clubs operating cheek by jowl out of a very small flying field.  Father Christmas parachuted into an area of the T/R where the landing could not be observed from the clubhouse and a couple of minutes later a red clad figure with a sack full of goodies emerged to join the party. A great time was had by all and the Children’s entertainer, Sammy Sunshine, stayed on and joined the fun until, many pints later, he put on another show as Sammy Smut.

We had a very good relationship with C/A and many of our members flew there during the week. Never any serious competition between us for members, as both Clubs were quite different and served a different market.

An article in S&G told how Russian glider pilots had to do a solo parachute jump from a glider before being turned loose in one. This was always done from a Blanik. C/A Gliding Club used a Blanik for their own flight training and decided that anything the Russians could do, they could do better.

Permission was obtained from the BGA and other bodies to allow a parachutist to jump and for the whole exercise to be filmed and a video distributed to interested Clubs.

There was quite a crowd assembled on the day and the CFI took the first launch, flying without the canopy and carrying the parachuting supremo, Bill Boot, who was also a gliding instructor in the back seat. The tow was to 3000’ where Bill climbed out of the back seat, sat on the wing and did a forward roll off, to land safely on the field. There were two camera planes circling the action and the cameramen half hanging outside the door in a special harness. The video cameras then were huge things, extremely heavy and unwieldy.

There was much discussion after the first flight and another pair took the second flight which was a virtual repeat of the first.

I was doing some instruction at C/A then and used to flying the Blanik and the CFI asked me to take the third flight. On reflection , I must have been mad, but I agreed to do it. The tow was dreadful without the canopy, but I coped. We had agreed a number of hand signals and when we reached 3000’, I trimmed out and flew upwind of the field until the jumper was happy, then he climbed out onto the wing, I was then fighting the controls to fly straight and level. He tapped my shoulder and disappeared.

The trim change was horrifying and I thought I was about to stall when I managed to get things relatively normal and looked around for the parachute which I found was heading directly to the target drop zone. The drag was far greater than normal and I had to make a rapid descent to be sure of landing back on the airfield.

I was asked if I would like another go, but declined. I don’t think any other instructor did more than one flight. The parachutists loved it, of course.

The irony of the tale is that after a full day of flying and filming involving about eight or nine flights, not one inch of film showed the parachutist exiting the glider, just shots of aero-tows and landings and dangling parachutists; it could have been taken anywhere.

Don’t know if the Russians still do this, but I believe it to be a rather pointless exercise.

The next encounter was at Dunkeswell . I found myself at about 2000’ when freefall chutes were popping open all around me. It was a bit disconcerting for me as a stranger, but the locals took it in their stride.

Not sure when it was now, but I was spending a few hours at Lasham during the nationals when in a very hazy sky and a stack of about 60 gliders in one thermal, the call came in over the linked loudspeakers at the start gate, “MID AIR COLLISION” Gliders appeared from the stack, hastily flying in all directions and then after what seemed like a lifetime on the ground, two parachutes popped open. The worry then was, should there be more, as there were a number of two seat gliders competing. It was two single seater’s, however. We then watched one glider spin in to the ground and the other came down in an adjacent field in what seemed to be a very leisurely inverted flat spin with straps and sundry cables dangling. A dreadful sight, but two pilots lived to tell the tale.

Lastly when we were at Old Sarum, a planeload of charity jumpers landed on the field. They were on the other side of the field, but we all heard the crack of someone’s leg breaking.

Look after your parachute if you expect it to look after you!

Dennis Neal