Having been a freelance journalist since 1985 I’m occasionally asked to cover a story about something of superficial interest to me.
That’s how I found myself inside a plane, owned and operated by the now-defunct Siam Air Sports in Sri Racha, flying around 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) above sea level ready to jump out of the said plane to report on the wonders of skydiving. Assuming I survived of course.
Before setting out on this task I wanted to know who to blame for placing me in this situation. Apparently, in 1793 a Frenchman named Jean Pierre Francois Blanchard- acknowledged as the inventor of the parachute- jumped out of a balloon wearing his invention. The people at Siam Air Sports mentioned they would be acquiring a balloon so enthusiasts can jump out of it, just like that nutter Blanchard.
Further investigation revealed the Italian inventor and artist Leonardo da Vinci was experimenting with parachutes way back in the 1480s. He was smart enough not to attempt a practical demonstration, painting the Mona Lisa instead.
On 1 March 1912 Albert Berry, a United States army officer, became the first person to use a parachute from a moving aircraft. He lived to tell the tale.
The Siam Air Sports company operated out of the Sri Racha airfield, around 30 minutes drive from Pattaya. Englishman Rob Henry was one of the principals of the operation. He also an the Sky Dive Bar in Soi 6 in Pattaya as a base for enthusiasts and newcomers alike. Henry was later found murdered near his home outside Pattaya, opening up a long investigation which revealed some serious criminal associations in his hometown of Coventry in England.
Siam Air Sports was the first civilian-orientated skydiving business to become operational in Thailand; previously aficionados not connected with the military would have to travel to places like Hong Kong and Indonesia to go parachuting.
The day I went, I met a group of people who’d come up from Singapore and another group who’d come down from Hong Kong. They told me both Singapore and Hong Kong did not have drop zones and so enthusiasts were forced to go to Jakarta or take a five-hour bus ride into mainland China.
One aspect that really impressed me was the genuine friendliness and camaraderie between the various jumpers. Almost everyone went out of their way to make you feel welcome and all were happy to chat freely about a sport they clearly loved.
Indeed it was this openness and willingness to talk about the sport that put me well at ease before I went up for my jump; so much so I felt almost nonchalant when it came time to leave the safety of the aircraft.
Safety, naturally, is a major consideration. Yolanda, a Swiss girl who came up with the Singapore group, told me that even if the tandem master and I happened to become unconscious for any reason after leaving the plane, the “parachute will automatically open at 5,000 feet because of an invention called Cypress.”
Yolanda also said the master rigger, Jo Scott-Williams, who packed the parachutes used for novices is, “the best I’ve seen.” I discovered she’d been doing this for 29 years.
The company had four tandem masters in their employ, all Thais and all with a vast amount of experience. The victim is strapped into a harness and then the tandem master demonstrates what you are required to do once in the air. The procedures are very simple and straightforward.
David Mellor, an Englishman in his sixties who lived in the Bahamas but was a regular visitor to Pattaya, quipped, “this is the only place in the world where they say get your kit ON!”
The twin-engine plane owned and operated by Siam Air Sports held around eight jumpers. The climb to 10,000 feet (around 3,000 metres) above the surface of the earth took about 30 minutes and there are no comely stewardesses offering in-flight service, just your own thoughts as the plane starts to first enter and then break through above the clouds. It is cramped, but looking out the window I thought I could see my old home…in Sydney. It might be over 30 degrees Celsius on the ground, but up there with the Valkyries it’s quite chilly.
Then it was time to leave. As I was in a tandem situation, we were the last to exit the aircraft.
The first few seconds were a blur; I felt strangely calm as we hurtled through space, fascinated by the speed of the free-fall descent. I was only concerned about coming loose from the harness. Given the stringent safety precautions and professionalism of the tandem master we had left the plane trussed up like Siamese twins, so there was no way we were going to be easily parted.
The first 5,000 feet (1,500 metres) takes around 40 seconds and the rush of the air as you plummet through the stratosphere is unexpectedly loud.
When the parachute opens the experience can, if you are a male, be a bit nut-tightening if you haven’t made sure your baby-making faculties are safely tucked away.
From the incredible 190 kilometres-an-hour fall and the whoosh of cold air in the first part of the drop, the second section is almost angelic as you drift slowly towards the patchwork quilt that is the earth, at about five metres per second. Most people can run faster than that.
The one element of the jump that concerned me the most was the landing. I could just see myself approaching terra firma with all the aplomb of a large house brick. The fear was to prove unfounded. The landing proved to be an anti-climax; I’ve had harder falls coming off milk crates.
The whole experience takes around six minutes, but it is 360 seconds of a pure adrenaline-powered high (if you’ll pardon the pun).
I can well understand why so many people become addicted to the sport of skydiving. If they had asked me to go up again I would have happily been the first in line.
(Note; the original of this rewritten article first appeared in Pattaya Expat magazine in October 2002)