Saturday, October 10, 2009

Anniversary and Inaccuracy while Skydiving

Most couples exchange gifts and go out to dinner for their two-year anniversary of dating. Instead, Meg and I are sitting outside the lobby of a guesthouse, waiting to be picked up to skydive. It is 10 o’clock in the morning and we sit silently beside each other while fear and excitement vie for control of our thoughts. By ten twenty our anxiety is replaced by annoyance, and I ask the guesthouse receptionist to call the adventure tourism company to confirm our reservation.

On the tourist trail, there are hundreds of adventure activities to experience because it does not take much money for locals to start a company, and there are always wealthy clients eager to try something new. Some adventure tour operators adhere to safety regulations, while others are just after quick money, and do not. Research can often differentiate the good from the bad, but word-of mouth is the most trusted way of choosing an outfit to trust with life and limb. There is still risk involved, there is always risk, but I always feel a little better about a company when someone I know has patronized the company before, and survived.

Our word-of-mouth recommendation for skydiving in Namibia came from an enormous, and jovial Scottish man, Steve, and his Polish wife, Anetta. Meg and I met the couple on a volcano in Indonesia, only months after they had left Africa. The couple went skydiving in Namibia, and they raved about the company they dove with. Steve specifically told me to jump with his ‘Tandem Master’, Henry. I checked out the outfit on the Internet and found that it met my three necessary criteria, in order of importance: it was cheap, conveniently located, and boasted “an impeccable safety record.” It seemed like the perfect company to help us celebrate our anniversary.

The receptionist tells us that our skydiving reservation was moved from 10 to 11 o’clock because the conditions were not good for jumping yet. Swakopmund is a small, tourist town wedged between the huge sand dunes to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Fog often lingers over the German-inspired buildings in the morning, and dissipates in the early afternoon, and I understand that, but someone should have told us about the change. I start to question putting Meg’s and my life in their hands, and I want some reassurance from the receptionist about the quality of the skydiving company. What I get was not what I expected, or had been told on the Internet.

“Actually, when they first started they did have an accident.”
“Really? What happened?”
She reaches out her arm and points her index finger towards a poster on the wall. The poster promotes the company, and is inlaid with five photographs. Her finger leads my eyes to the photograph in the center of the frame.
“That man in the back is Henry, and he died in a tandem jump. I don’t know the technical details, but I know that he put himself under the woman he was taking, and she survived, but he did not. He sacrificed himself for the client. I am sure you should be fine.”

Meg and I look at each other and force smiles. This is not what I expected to hear after reading about the company’s ‘impeccable safety record.’ Meg and I walk outside to discuss the situation. We have forty minutes to reconsider our decision to dive with them, especially since we have not yet turned over any cash.

Meg’s philosophy on life and death is fairly simple, and despite the recent news her conviction does not waiver. She simply says, “If I am going to go I would rather go doing something fun. This is going to be fun, and we should do it.”
“I am sure we should be fine,” I agree.

A van collects us just before eleven, and we are the fifth and sixth clients in it. No one speaks or introduces themselves as we drive to the company’s office. Meg decides to jump with a cameraman who will film her descent while falling with her, and I opt for the guide to video the jump from a ‘handy cam’ strapped to his wrist as we fall. Once the bills are paid we are all back in the van to go out to the airport.

Actually airport is an overstatement. The van drives west past the town’s small airport, and turns north into the vast, brown desert beyond. After ten minutes we stop at a collection of brown, fabric tents set on wooden palettes behind a ring of green, plastic chairs. In front of the tents, and chairs is a long, narrow swath of worn-down sand marked by a faded, white windsock sticking out of an old oil drum. It is the airstrip.

The six of us sat in the plastic chairs while Paul gave us our safety briefing wearing a bright yellow jumpsuit with gecko printed all over it. He spoke casually, but reverently. He informed us that we would use only state-of-the-art equipment, have an automatic activation device for increased safety, and that every ‘Tandem Master’ we would jump with certified professionals with at least 1000 jumps under their belts.

Then he explains that all we have to do is arch our backs, keep our heads back, and lift our knees to try to kick our tandem master in the ass when we jump out of the plain. “If you don’t do these things you will still survive, but you will have a better time if you do it, so don’t worry too much about it. That is all there is too it. Now I need Meghan and Oliver first.”

While Meg puts on her yellow and red jumpsuit and diving harness a plane lands on the strip of sand in front of the tents. It is a Cessna 206, equipped with a 300-horse power engine that looks like it can hold about five people. The plane has been converted for skydiving by removing the seats and installing a clear plastic door that rolls up like a garage door to open the entire side of the plane. The engine sounds good, and does not sputter. Meg poses for a photo before walking the far side of the plane and getting in last.

I am nervous for Meg as the plane takes 25 minutes to reach altitude and release her into thin air. I am more nervous for her, than I am for myself, and I think about the conversation I would have with her parents if she has an accident. It is not something I want to do, and I don’t think they will find much comfort in me saying, “At least she died doing something fun.”

The heavy morning clouds have lifted, and blue desert sky looms above a light layer of bulbous white puffs. I hear the plane overhead, and then I hear Meghan scream from somewhere above the clouds. It is a good scream, not a terrified scream, and I am relieved to hear the flapping of the parachute, then silence. It opened, and after a minute I can see her canopy come through the clouds, and the two bodies rotating beneath it.

The two bodies approach the landing strip quickly, and at the last minute the tandem master pulls the parachute cords and their momentum stalls inches above the ground, and their feet land quietly on the ground. Their voices, however, are not quiet, and Meg whoops repeatedly with delight, and I can tell she loved the experience. Her tandem master, Craig congratulates her and hugs her, and she comes over to me, still beaming.

Now it is my turn to go up, and hopefully come down as gracefully.

In 2007 Henry Simon was an employee of the Ground Rush Adventure Company of Swakopmund, Namibia. He was an affable and high-energy man of 33 who moved to Namibia from South Africa. He was an experience skydiver, and held a valid license to be a tandem master in Namibia. On the afternoon of April 7th, 2007, he had already completed six successful tandem dives on the day, and had accumulated a total of 1580 successful dives in his career.

Henry’s seventh dive that day was with a 23-year old South African tourist named Chantelle Fourie. Chantelle was only meant to be in Namibia for a week before returning to South Africa, and her life. However, on that April afternoon Henry did not complete his 1581st successful dive, and Chantelle never returned to her life at home. The parachute never opened fully and Henry died on impact. Chantelle succumbed to her injuries in a clinic in Swakopmund four days later.

Following the tragic accident the Namibian Ministry of Works launched a thorough investigation. The Ministry examined video footage from Henry’s handy cam, along with his equipment to determine the cause of the tragedy. In May of 2008 they released their finding; human error.

The report says the Henry and Chantelle were forced into a bad position on exiting the plane that caused them to not be belly-to-earth. This in turn caused the pair to spin in the air. Because Henry was unable to control the spinning motion, the parachute was unable to deploy properly, and the, according to the report the jump was doomed after that. The report continues to recommend more side-spin training for all tandem masters, and increased experience for all tandem masters.

Hopefully, our instructors, and the company took notice of the recommendations, but I do not know about the report as I ascend in the same plane that Chantelle used, because I did not research any further than the statement on the Website claiming an impeccable safety record.

At 8,000 feet Craig slides his body to the back of the plane and tells me to sit on his knees while he connects my harness to him at four points. At 10,000 the sliding Plexiglas door rolls up and the cold wind fills the plane. We crawl towards the gaping hole in the plane against the pounding wind, and I do as I was instructed: hang my legs outside of the plane and cross my hands over my chest. I am not holding on to the plane, and am suspended in place only by the weight my tandem partner, Craig, behind me.

The wind carries my legs towards the back of the plane, and I try to resist and keep them under my body. My view is to the west, to the shantytown north of Swakopmund and the vast Atlantic Ocean stretching to the horizon beyond. I am terrified, but I know it is too late to turn back. I close my eyes waiting for the inevitable push out towards the ground below.

I fight to keep my eyes open as we tumble forward from the plane. The ground and sky flicker in rapid succession like frames on a movie that have been juxtaposed in rapid succession before we finally level out, and my head faces the ground. Moving at 130 miles an hour the ground does not seem to get closer, but the deafening noise tells me that we are moving falling quickly. I try to look around at the beautiful scenery, to store the images in my long-term memory, and not to look down.

Craig directs me to play to the camera but I am too amazed at the scenery to act. The weightlessness of my body falling to the ground, and the speed we are traveling makes any movement difficult. My mouth was open when we left, and now it is as dry as the desert below, but I am having a hard time closing against the force of the wind. I want the feeling to last forever, but after 35 seconds, and 5,000 feet in altitude, Craig pulls the shoot, without warning.

When the canopy fills it feels like we are being pulled up to the plane, instead of only slowing our fall. My harness distributes the force throughout my body, and it does not hurt, but I did not want the freefall to end. Freefall is the most exhilarating experience I have ever had and probably the most fun you can have on the earth. It feels like you are giving up your life for the thrill of the moment but cheat death at the last minute.

The silence of the descent is shocking after the ear-pounding noise of the freefall. We chat while I look around at the 360-degree views of spectaclur desert scenery and blue sky. Craig loosens the grip of his harness on mine, and it feels like I am being loosed to my doom. “You did that, didn’t you, I ask?”
“Yes, don’t worry.”

As we continue to fall slowly Craig gives me the yellow, guide ropes of the parachute, and directs me to pull the strings to steer us. As I pull my left arm down, and the loop with it, our bodies swing to the right. We become weightless as our momentum stalls, our heads listing towards the desert floor below. When and the parachute refills with air and takes our weight again we rotate violently to the right. Then we do it again, this time turning to the right, our bodies becoming almost parallel to the ground below us.

Below us I can see the makeshift airport and tent through a layer of puffy white clouds. As we approach the clouds the air becomes cold and moist. I can feel condensation on my cheeks as Craig takes control of the parachute in case of turbulence. Beneath the clouds Craig guides in towards the tent, and tells me to keep my feet up until otherwise instructed.

Inches above the ground he tells me to put my feet down and ski on the sand until we stop. I put my feet on the sand and slide, but stop more quickly than expected and pitch forward. I end up on my hands and knees, with Craig standing behind me. Not the most graceful landing ever recorded, but, safe nonetheless.

Meg greets me on the runway, and she is still beaming from her jump, and relieved I am alive. We both jumped out of a plane and survived, and both loved the experience. On the ground my blood is still coursing through my veins. I feel more alive than ever before, and I want to jump again. I want to jump all day long, every day. I feel like I can conquer the world and cheat death.

It is not long before I open the celebratory champagne, and Meg and I toast the start of our third year of dating. I know this is not the last of our exciting adventures together, and it may not be conventional, but it is a great way to spend an anniversary. And we survived, so we can definitely recommend Ground Rush Adventures of Swakopmund, Namibia, because there are always accidents, and things can always go wrong, but they did get us up and down safely, and the staff was great fun to be around.


  1. Very well written article. I did a skydive from cape town last month. Was exactly as you described.

  2. Great you enjoyed that skydive. Just a precision to add. Henry Simon who was a great buddy full of enthusiasm was French.