By Redmond O’Hanlon

The sponsored parachute jump event, which is now held on an annual basis to raise money for Ataxia Ireland, took place at Abbeyshrule  Airfield, County Longford, on Saturday,8th June.   As usual, it was expertly organised by Jim O’Kelly from Cork, and his daughter, Kate.   There were 16 parachute jumpers in all, myself included, and many of us are wheelchair bound.  

A large crowd of well-wishers came down to the airfield to offer moral support.   Fortunately the whole event took place in glorious sunshine.   Refreshments were available to all, provided by an active team from Ataxia Ireland  -  a delicious selection of homemade sandwiches, biscuits, coffee and tea, and cold drinks.

Initially, I presumed that we would be jumping in groups of 4-5 people, each with their tandem jumpmaster.   I was somewhat perturbed when I realised that we were jumping one at a time from a tiny Cessna Aircraft.   We had a training session beforehand, which mainly involved watching a DVD of instructions and signing a disclaimer stating that no family members would sue the skydiving company in the event of a parachute jumper dying or getting injured …the word ‘death’ was used a number of times in this instructional DVD, which created an atmosphere of tension!   However, everything became lighter after Raymond Shine enquired as to whether people who had jumped on a number of other occasions could get a discount this time around…the prospect of returning to the ground in one whole piece was once again assured!

We were all kitted out in orange jump suits, rather similar in appearance to the Guantanamo Bay prisoners’ uniforms!   An enormous amount of preparation went into the strapping which would attach us to our tandem jump master.  For safety reasons, all the disabled people had their legs strapped together, with cushioning between the knees, so that the jumpmaster would take the whole brunt of the landing.   It took a considerable time to get us ready.  While this was being organised, my parachute was being packed into its bag by the Thai wife of my jump master, Paul Moran.   She was astonished when I spoke to her in her native Thai language, as I had spent 28 years teaching English to the Royal Thai Airforce in Bangkok.   Coincidentally, Paul had been part of the team of skydivers who made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the highest number of free fallers ever to jump simultaneously –

675 parachutists from all over the world linked arms for this jump, which took place over the Sanam Luang Park in Central Bangkok  to commemorate the Birthday of one of the Thai Royal Family.   I was actually in the Park that day and saw the jump; it was amazing.   Paul was very friendly with one of my former students, who is now chief of Anti Terrorism in Thailand.   The world is really a small place!

When everything was ready for take-off, I was brought to the aircraft in my wheelchair and loaded on board.   Paul was already inside and I was attached to him with more straps, which were tightened once we were in position.   I lay in front of him on the floor of the plane.   Once we had taken off, the door of the Cessna was opened, and the plane gradually circled, gaining altitude until we reached a height of 10,000 feet.   The ascent seemed to me to take hours, when in fact, the whole process only took about 12 minutes.   At that point, the airplane was just a tiny speck in the sky to my friends and family down on the ground.  When we reached our designated altitude, the pilot instructed us to dangle our legs out of the open side aircraft, and when this happened, the fear factor really kicked in.   I realised then that I was at the point of no return!   The pilot cut the engine, Paul gave a great heave and suddenly we were free-falling at an incredible speed – I’m told we were going down at 120 mph! I felt weightless, although I was falling like a stone.   I was wearing goggles, but the wind was roaring around me and I momentarily thought I had become detached from Paul!   Once the parachute finally opened, I was able to relax.   The time from the initial jump to the landing was only about 5 minutes, and I was able to enjoy the spectacular scenic view of the countryside laid out below me.   Paul filmed everything on a digital camera attached to his arm and he subsequently mailed me a DVD of this memorable event.

The landing went very smoothly due to Paul’s expertise and, in my case at least, was totally painless, although we were supposed to roll over to the side on touching the ground, and instead I rolled on top of him, which, with my considerable weight, left him a bit winded afterwards!    Subsequently, one of my younger brothers, Justin, also did the jump and he is completely sold on the excitement of it and hopes to start training to jump solo.   Between us both, we managed to raise a substantial amount for Ataxia Ireland.   We are most grateful to all our sponsors for their generous donations and support. 

The adrenalin rush I experienced when the pilot turned off the engine and I was catapulted out into the sky was truly unforgettable.   It made a great change from the daily monotony of travelling around in my electric-powered wheelchair and I’ll be more than happy to do it all over again next year !   SKY DIVING ROCKS!

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