By Anthony Eve, D8392
It’s bright at 41,000ft – diamond-bright, and diamond-cold. There’s no warmth from the eye-narrowing bite of the sun’s early rays. It’s almost eerie.
Six of us are about to leave the relative warmth of a modified Piper Cheyenne 400LS aircraft: its metal walls; its landing gear; its safe supply of oxygen. The world outside that door is 54 degrees below freezing, and nearly airless.
I am keenly aware of that fact when crew member Paul switches off the aircraft oxygen and, as part of the handover effect, it suddenly becomes almost impossible to exhale. We’d been warned about that alarming “HALO waterboard” – that it would only last a moment, and that it meant that it was officially time to get out into the big, bright, cold world outside the plane.
So I did.
Statistically speaking, most of the people who have done this are military Special Operators. I, myself, am a Project Management Consultant. I saw the Red Devils fly Paracommanders when I was four years old, and from that moment on, I knew this was vaguely where I was headed: great big, blue unknowns. I managed to make a go of it when I was 18, convincing a friend (who, wouldn’t you know it, bailed) to join me for a static line. I went gamely ahead and, as it turns out, an ex-Red Devil taught me to jump. I, of course, loved it.
Then I got married. And I had kids. I was building a career in aviation and engineering (British Airlines, Airbus…you get the picture) and balancing everything life was throwing at me. Around 185 jumps in, I stopped taking the parachute out of the cupboard. I still looked up at any blue sky with the intent to visit, but life was officially in the way.
It took me 25 years to get back.
Suddenly, I was 50. I had been 32 when I put it away. Since then, the kids had grown up and left the nest, leaving disposable income and free time in their wake, and the career I built had served me well. I live less than an hour from Dunkes, and after ticking off AFF Levels three and five – plus five consolidation jumps – I was right back where I’d left off. After some FS coaching, I had my D-licence (under the grandfather system). Before I knew it, another couple of hundred jumps had gone by. I started to realise, one day, that there was nothing left standing in the way of that bucket-list item I’d always wanted.
I had an idea. And I had so far to go: an ocean and half a continent on the X axis, as it turns out, and more than 40,000ft on the Y.
I saw my first HALO (High Altitude, Low Opening) jump in May 1973, when John Noakes, from the children’s Blue Peter programme, did a jump with oxygen from 25,000ft with the RAF Falcons. I’d like to do that, I thought, and put it on the back burner.
HALO jumps have been technically possible since the 1950s, but they’ve historically been conducted by the military. Sure, some civilian higher-altitude jumps have been ticked off as “special projects”, but these have generally involved resources not available to most of us. In recent years, greater demand has resulted in wider availability: generally speaking, in two categories. In the first category, one can jump from up to 25,000ft (where oxygen is available in the aircraft prior to freefalling without it). In the second category, one can jump from altitudes above 25k, where supplemental oxygen is required in freefall. For this second kind of jump, each skydiver is equipped with a complete, integrated “high altitude bailout system” that supplies oxygen in both the aircraft and freefall, including helmet, goggles, oxygen mask, regulators and oxygen bottles. This of course, carries with it greater risk: namely hypoxia, decompression sickness and hypothermia. It also comes with one heck of a feeling of adventure and accomplishment.
I wanted that.
Adventure, after all, is why I skydive. I’m not a formation kinda guy. I tend to jump on my own. I just like leaving the aircraft, watching it fly away, opening my canopy at 5k and enjoying the ride down. I’ve travelled extensively to skydive: Greece; Switzerland; Canada; Thailand; all around the UK. Wherever I go, for work or for play, I try to engineer a way to sneak a jump in.
And now, I wanted this one: a “true” HALO jump, from as far up as they’d let me.
My initial research identified fewer than a handful of potential operators, all of which were in the States. Most of them ended up being red herrings. After many unanswered emails, I came across West Tennessee Skydiving. Bingo! There was a 41,000-ft jump option. After a flurry of emails, I had a date in my diary: 1st July, 2023.