Updated: Feb 12, 2021
As the bus pulled into RAF Brize Norton I gazed out of the window and focussed my will by repeating over and over the phrase “I’m gonna get my wings” like a mantra. All of us part-time soldiers on the bus were starting on a two week course which, if successful would lead to us earning the coveted “parachute wings” denoting acceptance into the famous Parachute Regiment.
I was only 18 and found myself in the regiment almost by accident. Intending to join the army when I left school I decided that the Territorial Army would give me a good idea of army life. But join the Paras? It had only been because they were the nearest unit that I had considered the idea and then I couldn’t bring myself to turn away and opt for a less challenging unit, farther away from home.
So, there I was, riding into an RAF base with a bunch of blokes I didn’t know, whose accents I could hardly understand to be trained to jump out of aeroplanes!
Within 24 hours the pattern of the next 14 days had been set. Up early, breakfast in the “Mess” and into a large hangar where we were made familiar with everything to do with parachutes. We hung from harnesses, jumped from gantries, on wires attached to large fans that controlled the speed of descent, and we generally rolled around on the floor practicing “landings”. We were reliably informed that 98% of parachute drops don’t end in landings but in arrivals, with the soldier hitting the ground like a sack of potatoes.
We should have had our first jump, from a balloon at Weston on the Green, on the first Friday but the weather was against us. It was against us for the next four days and moving into the second week we were all just as anxious that we wouldn’t get to jump as we were that we might. We just kept practicing.
Because we were behind schedule our first jump was not from a balloon but from a C130 Hercules aircraft. As we paraded on the runway checking each-other’s equipment we were all obviously tense. Each man looked to his front and checked the packing and the harness of the man ahead. The reserve parachute, attached to our chest we checked ourselves. Just before we marched onto the plane my hands played with the straps of the parachute on my back. I could feel something silky hanging down. What was it? I couldn’t see but I was worried that my chute was falling apart. I tried not to sound too worried as I called over one of the sergeants. He just laughed, tore off the silk label and handed it to me. I’ve kept it ever since.
The Hercules took off with thirty men ready to jump out of the rear doors on each side. I was to be the second man out of the plane on the left side. I had never flown in a plane before but I consoled myself by thinking that if the plane was going to crash I could still jump out with my parachute.
Over the “Drop zone” we all stood and checked our equipment and hooked a piece of webbing from our parachutes to a wire running the length of the aircraft. On jumping, this static line pulls the parachute out of its pack and it opens automatically.
Then we shuffled towards the door. Number 1 man stood looking out of the open door at the earth rushing past 800 feet below and waited for the red light on the doorway to change to green. Tense, jaw gritting moments. With the door open and the plane flying at around 120 miles per hour a lot of noise was added to the general chaos of feelings. I remember the green light, I know the first man jumped but I don’t remember leaving the aircraft, I must have blacked out momentarily. Next moment I was dropping towards the ground and my ‘chute was opening above me. I looked around and felt a tremendous thrill of excitement, awe and achievement. Less than a minute later I arrived at Weston-on-the-Green.
But there were no more jumps that day. Or the next. By Thursday of the second week we had only done one jump and the course ended on Saturday. So, Friday was an important day. We did two jumps that day and I discovered that knowing what was going to happen can just as easily unnerve you as going into the unknown.
Saturday dawned and we still needed to jump four times to claim success. But this time things didn’t go as smoothly. The plane was very crowded with soldiers and I was number one out of the door. Because there were so many of us we had to move right down into the rear of the plane while checking equipment. This meant I was scrunched up by the tailplane where the fuselage was only a couple of feet in height trying to hold on to my willpower as well as my breakfast while the last men were checked. Back down at the door, at least I could stand upright. But I seemed to be standing looking out of the open door at the scenery for a long time. We got pulled away from the door again; perhaps we had to wait for more favourable conditions. A bit later, back at the door, the red light came on. It was actually a relief when I saw the green light and swapped that crowded interior for a very wide-open space.
With two Hercules jumps done by lunchtime, we had to do two balloon descents to reach the necessary seven. Jumping from a barrage balloon is very different from an aeroplane. Just four men and a sergeant were in the steel basket, and the ascent to 800 feet was eerily quiet. The sergeant explained that number one would stand at the opening and jump and then the other three of us would be invited to just walk out of the basket. The descent was quicker as we fell like lead weights, pulled down even quicker by a container of equipment attached to our waists.
On the ground, pick up your kit, load it on a lorry, climb into another harness, check equipment and up in another balloon for the last jump.
Five O’clock, Saturday.
Up in the balloon we were being swayed about by the wind and I was number one again. I wasn’t worried. All I had to do was get down to the ground to earn my wings. Nothing would stop me from jumping and I even savoured the moment by watching the sun sink over the beautiful Oxfordshire landscape.
There was a short parade at Weston where an officer congratulated us and handed us the coveted wings, then it was all over. I caught the train home and it seemed as though I’d grown a foot taller over the past two weeks.