Lessons from Lady Diana .. on the way to Skydiving School

Lessons from Lady Diana .. on the way to Skydiving School


Skydiving was something my friend and I talked a lot about. An adventure we both wanted to take for a very long time. We were so excited about it that we talked about this becoming a regular hobby and not just a one-time thing. With this in mind, we decided to jump on our own instead of tandem (strapped on to a professional skydiver’s back).

I did my research. I called several skydiving schools in and around Toronto (as I was living there at the time). Every place basically cost the same – $200. As I was only making $24,000 a year as a receptionist and admin assistant it took me two months to save. I felt confident in our choice of skydiving schools.

Knowing this was a dangerous sport, when making my calls (remember, the internet was really just starting and not a resource I could use at that time), I asked each place how long they had been in business, if they had many accidents, and how long they had been teaching. The place we picked was north of Toronto near a town called Bradford.

I spoke several times with Kim, one of the owners. The business was owned by her and her brother. She told me that they had been skydiving for more than a dozen years, teaching for approximately 10 years, and that they were both on National Skydiving Teams. This all sounded great to me!!! I asked how long they were in business. She told me they were in this business for several years and that their current location was open almost 2 years (this is significant as I tell my story because the truth turned out to be different – they were actually a new business running for less than a year and undergoing a stressful business climate). I made our reservation and everything was set.

September 6, 1997 – I remember it well. Waking up early that morning we were full of excitement. Today is THE DAY! I had thought about it for at least two years and saved for it for 2 months. We were going skydiving to celebrate my long time friend’s birthday. I had worked late the night before as I had recently started working a second job at a restaurant to help me pay to go back to school. I wanted to go to University of Toronto for Business and Marketing.

I finished work about 1:00 am and my friend picked me up. We had been extremely close friends for over ten years and he was like a part of my family. It must have been at least 3:00 am before we went to sleep that night.

We had to be at the Skydiving school for 9:00 am to register and begin ‘class’ (I use the word very lightly – I am not sure what training is provided to jump out of a plane these days, but in 1997 it was pretty sketchy in my opinion).

We were on the road at 7:30 am. It was a very solemn morning as Lady Diana’s funeral was that day and broadcasted on all of the radio stations. This played a role in the conversation taking place on the ride to the skydiving location.

Here we were listening to the funeral of one of the most loved people on the face of the planet. A woman who had done so much for so many, with her philanthropy and time. A woman who motivated and inspired millions. She lost her life far too soon at the young age of 36.

We decided that we were going to live life to the fullest. Take chances, live our dreams – and yes, jump out of an airplane. Looking back I am happy if I learned from such an incredible icon about the importance of making the most out of life – living my dreams and taking CALCULATED AND MEASURED RISKS…. Jumping from an airplane is no longer my idea of living life to the fullest. (but, I respect that it is for some).

We arrived at the school around 9:00 am. The location was just west of Highway 400 in a huge old farm field. I am pretty sure there were several corn fields nearby. It was so close to the 400 that one of the first questions I asked was if anyone landed on the highway (the answer was no).

Sitting in the middle of the field was an old trailer. It looked like it must have come from some work site. It was about as long as a mobile home, but the inside and outside much more reflected a work trailer.

We registered, paid our money and signed the much talked about ‘waiver’. I knew what I was signing. I felt I was ready for the risks I was taking (but I certainly wasn’t ready for the consequences of those risks). Almost every conversation I have with people about ‘my accident’, people want to know about the waiver. It usually goes something like this. “Wow, are you for real? You really survived that? Did you sue? No, you couldn’t sue because you signed a waiver”.

Class was now about to begin. My friend and I joined 6 other people for a full day of skydiving school (well….. what was expected to be a full day of skydiving school).

We were told that if the Skydiving School provided us the opportunity to jump out of the plane and we decided not to jump (because we changed our minds, because we chickened out), there would be no refunds. If at any point, we decided to back out BEFORE they provided us with the conditions and opportunity to jump; we would get 100% of our money back.

This is one of the first things they told us in skydiving school. They then went on to teach us about skydiving: what the parachute looked like, the various pieces and parts of the parachute, how the system we would be using worked compared to other systems used in other places. Basically in our parachute there was the main parachute and the reserve parachute. A small piece of rope hung out of the packed parachute, connected to it was small piece of canvas (or whatever material the parachutes are made of). It was like a small parachute about the size of two large fists. The idea being that when we jumped out of the plane, the wind would catch this small two large fist sized parachute and the force it created would open the main parachute.

We would each have a one way radio (we could listen to our instructor on the ground but he could not hear us). Once jumping out of the plane at 3,200 feet we would free fall for approximately 3 seconds before our main parachute would open. We were taught to then look up to make sure the parachute looked like that shape they showed us in a picture. On the breast straps of the parachute’s pack, there is something called a toggle on each side. From my memory, they looked like weaved straps with plastic rings. Once your parachute was wide open, the jumper would take hold of the toggles and use them as a steering mechanism to guide them to land safely in the correct spot. In addition to them helping the jumper steer, they also controlled the speed of the landing.

We spent a good amount of time talking about the reserve parachute – when to use it and how to use it. The ring attached to a cord that pulls the reserve parachute was located on the left shoulder of the parachute pack. When you need it, you look for it, grab it with your right thumb and pull it. The instructor on the ground who is talking to you over the one way radio will VERY CLEARLY tell you ‘LOOK THUMB PULL’ if you are in trouble and need to pull the reserve/back up parachute.

The words ‘LOOK THUM PULL’ are forever etched in my mind. When I hear them, say them, or think of them, my breathing changes. Sometimes my eyes water or I feel like I need to catch my breath (even writing this now I have to take deep breaths and squint to see through the tears in my eyes) Those three words will always mean PANIC to me.

During training, it was very uncomfortable inside the trailer. For seating, I remember there being an old sofa or two, maybe an old living room type chair. If my memory serves me correctly, there may have been one or two ‘students’ sitting on the floor.

It was so hot and stuffy inside the old trailer; I had a hard time keeping my eyes open, especially as I didn’t sleep much the night before. My friend even nodded off a few times. After this happened about twice, the instructor asked him how much sleep he had. He answered maybe 3 or 4 hours. He was told that if he fell asleep again he would have to come back another day.

(Telling this story and looking back, I kind of feel like somewhat of a fool sometimes. Seriously – an old broken down trailer that had furniture my grandfather could have used. Telling my friend that if he FELL ASLEEP AGAIN!!!! he would have to come back another day. Really, I sometimes laugh at myself for how naive I was.. but I was 24 years old and catching every adventure life sent my way).

After about two hours in class we were finally (and thankfully) brought outside to do a ‘test jump’. “Wow a test jump”, I thought. I was excited and nervous at the same time. While walking out of the trailer I was envisioning jumping from a platform at least 10 feet high or more and tumbling into an air pillow or really cushy matts. I was really hoping that I could make this practice jump correctly and not get injured so I would be prepared for the REAL JUMP!

Well, the practice jump was about 10 feet from the entrance to the trailer. It was a wooden platform about 2 feet wide and 1 foot long (just enough room for one person to get on it and crouch). The distance from the platform to the ground was a staggering 4 feet. The landing was the grass. I was disappointed and remember asking ‘Is this all we need to practice to jump?’ (I specifically remember this as I was really shocked and under impressed by the test jump apparatus). I was told that it was standard and all that was needed.

I waited my turn, got up and crouched on the small platform and jumped off (just like millions of kids around the world do on play grounds each day – I wonder if they are prepared to jump out of planes too?). I was not surprised when I was told that I passed (seriously, it is like jumping off a step????).

It was now about noon and time for lunch. When we returned we would take our test. Yes, already time to take the test to evaluate the skills we learned during our ‘full day of training’ (training that started at 9:00).

After lunch (around 1:00 pm) we returned inside the trailer and were given a test that was about 6 – 8 pages of short answer and multiple choice questions (I am positive I have a copy of it somewhere from the legal process and investigation that happened afterwards and when I find it I will post it). After I handed in my test, that also included my signature stating that I had completed the training set out by the school and understood the risk I was taking, I was thrilled to see that I only got one question wrong!

While I can’t remember the exact words of the question I got wrong it was in relation to the toggles. The best I can remember it was – once you jump what is the first thing you do? I answered that I should take toggles to steer myself. I was told the answer was wrong. That first I had to look up and check my parachute. (In no way – on paper, during instruction, or at any other time did they tell me that if I prematurely touched those toggles in ANY WAY my reserve parachute would be in trouble). Not only did I get this wrong in the test, but when we were in training and ‘practice’ I would always reach for my chest where the toggles were. This happened at least 4 – 5 throughout the full day (err.. morning) of training.

Once we reviewed the tests, were given our marks and our answers corrected, we all passed. We were now ready to head to the airstrip (about 10 mins away), crawl inside a small Cessna and jump!

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.        Mark Twain

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