An account of an early parachute display

The Day It Rained
being an account of a Parachute Display
By J.S.W
Sport Parachutist (Vol.1, No 2-1964)

DRIVING through Aldershot the other day I looked at the open grass expanse of Queen's Parade, and thought how our ideas on DZ’s have changed in a very few years. I could clearly recall the time when it seemed all too small for free fallers to land on it, and indeed it proved to be so. But to go back to the beginning…
My Battalion (1 Para) had started the first Army Parachute Club ever to be formed. This was early in 1960, and the Club had limped along throughout that year in the usual way of clubs in those days.  We had two rigs, no instructor, no money, and lots of enthusiasm. 

The winter of 60/61 saw the club drawing a deep breath, and 1961 was positively assaulted by a vigorous and active collection of parachutists.  A recruiting drive had swept many more into the net, including myself, and the higher levels of Command were beginning to show a flicker of interest.  We were getting somewhere, but it was very slow work.  What we needed was a big, colourful, and successful demonstration to the largest possible number of senior officers.  Only then would we get money, encouragement, and concrete assistance.

It didn't take much thought for us to pick on Airborne Forces Day for our demonstration.  Airborne Forces Day is an annual gathering of all who have served in the various airborne units in the past.  It is a day of re-unions, parties, and a large parade.  There used to be an athletics match in the afternoon, and if anyone has anything to show off, this is the day to do it.  It is a day when a fair proportion of the Army's leading Generals are in one place and all feeling in an amiable and friendly mood.

We decided to put on a more or less continuous display of free-falling during the afternoon, and the obvious place for the D.Z. was Queen's Parade.  Obvious though it may have been, we weren't exactly happy about it, and with good reason as it turned out.  It is eight hundred by four hundred yards of level grass, surrounded by trees, and with a hut in the middle.  To our R.A.F. trained eyes it was far too small, and we looked very hard at the trees and the other hazards that seemed all too close. 
Along one side of the D.Z. was the athletics stadium, and we hoped to lure some of the crowd away from the match to watch us. We didn't know how successful we were going to be.

Because of the obvious dangers (?) of the DZ, and the inexperience of the parachutists, we insisted on some practice jumps.  To our surprise we were given one Auster every evening for the week before.  The weather was atrocious, but every afternoon we solemnly loaded up a Landrover and drove fifty miles to Old Sarum, getting back near enough at midnight.
It was July, and twice we ploughed through thunderstorms and flooded roads, only to find that all had cleared at Old Sarum, and we could jump after all. 

We were a happy bunch, cheerfully optimistic, and woefully inexperienced.
Our instructor was Keith, an R.A.F. Sergeant.  He had about 400 descents to his credit, and was quite the best and most competent instructor that I have ever met.
We had the Colonel in our team.  He had trained with the American Army, and was about the only member who could look after himself in the air.  He confessed to being a bit shaky on more than fifteen seconds –delays, but that was good enough for what we had in mind.
Next was Corporal R, he had just gained his General Permit.  Following the experts came the rest of us the - ruck. Private’s Owens, Coke and Williams were just short of their G.P., and Lieutenants Briant and Alisdair had about six jumps each.
Finally there was myself, with one terrifying uncontrolled three second fall off a Tripacer.  It wasn't really a foundation on which to base a display to a high powered audience.

All that week that we pounded down the A30 to Old Sarum, we only got three jumps each.  Our accuracy was appalling.  We had an interesting mixture of equipment, the 'hottest' one being my own canopy with a Czechoslovakian triple blank gore modification.  I still jump this dreadful 'chute, but now I have filled in the centre gore. In its 1961 form it turned very rapidly, scarcely gave any forward drive, and dropped like a stone.  A further complication was that the gores were over the right shoulder. 
I managed to bruise my heel so badly that I could hardly walk.  The Colonel blew up a canopy on his first jump, and we had to give him our only spare.
But no other disasters happened, and by Friday night we still had a demonstration team, and each one still had a parachute.
Keith had been marvellous during those four days.  After every jump he took the parachutist carefully and slowly through every detail of the descent, generally ending up with a rousing 'rocket'.  It was an excellent grounding for the future, but we hadn't time to get up to demonstration standard.

By Saturday, D-Day, I had clocked four jumps.  I was at five second delays and roughly stable.  The others were all right, and whilst none of us could spot we could get to within shouting distance of the target if put off at the right place.  We reckoned we could make it all right, all that was needed was a reasonably light wind.

The programme was due to start at half past two and ought to last about one and a half hours.  We had two Austers, which could take off from the DZ, and we planned to keep up a fairly continuous flow of descents.  Each man would re-pack in front of the crowd. We had asked our R.A.F. section for their help with D.Z. control, but they politely declined to have any connection with us, although they lent us equipment.  In fact R.A.F. disapproval went so far as to insist that Keith must not wear uniform when assisting us.

By lunch time the weather wasn't looking too good.  Rain and thunder were forecast with a maximum ceiling of 3,000 feet.  Lunch was very hurried, and we moved to the DZ in some excitement.  We soon had the target out, the smoke candles ready, and the velometer and radio set up.  Keith went off in one of the Austers to drop the streamers.  Looking back on it I am appalled at our blissful optimism.

The system for dropping the jumpers was simple, untried, and open to unbelievable errors. Keith timed the run from target to opening point using a stop watch. Before the jumper was due to jump he radioed to the pilot the one word "GO". The pilot cut the throttle and thumped the jumper.  All this was estimated to take five seconds. It did. . . sometimes.  Sometimes it took more.  But we didn't know that as we hadn't tried it before.  We had also happily disregarded such obvious difficulties as radio failures and variations in run-in speed and direction.  More significant, we had failed to consider changes in the wind speed!

The streamer-run brought the crowds in their hundreds.
Full of confidence the first plane took off carrying Alistair and Coke.  Alistair made a perfect landing about thirty yards from the target, and on the next run Coke was a bit nearer.  I could scarcely contain myself, I was commentating to the crowd and at this point there was no doubt in my mind that they were the privileged witnesses of the next World Champions.  I all but told them so. Off then with the next Auster! Who cares if there is a black thunder cloud just over the trees! Always reinforce success as the old military phrase goes! And away goes Owens.
Only he lands in the trees over a quarter of a mile away.  This is not so good, and the tone of the commentary drops by a few decibels.

Owens wasn't hurt, but that wasn't the point, we were meant to be putting on a SUCCESSFUL demonstration.  I spent some minutes talking about small DZ’s and tricky winds.
On the next run Williams came out and plonked in quite nicely near the target.  Honour was saved, and with a few uplifting words to the crowd about the safety, simplicity, and universal appeal of free falling I handed over the microphone and got my chutes on.

The whole of the Aldershot area was now covered with low cumulus.  Black thunder clouds hung in the West, and trails of rain draped below them. 
One or two bystanders pointed out the obvious dangers of parachuting in such ominous weather, but we would have none of it.  I had the Colonel in my Auster, me in front.
In the second plane was Lieutenant Brian with Corporal R in the back seat. We were all still using an exit point signalled from the ground.

As we ran in, the black rain clouds almost scraped the cabin roof.  It was like flying just below the ceiling of some vast Albert Hall, all gloom and dark vaulting.  I looked out of the door and miserably watched the rain drops sliding backwards across the strut.  I wasn't really keen at this point.  It was cold and wet outside the plane and patches of mist were appearing below us.  A few seconds of this and my morale was rock-bottom.  Then came the signal to get out on to the strut.  I climbed out and balanced as well as I could, trying to keep my goggles dry.  Almost immediately a furious gloved hand with outstretched thumb was beating at my arm and I let go and flopped off backwards.

A desperate count of five, a blurred vision of sky, houses, clouds, boots, more houses, and I pulled.  O Blessed Peace of floating canopy! What Heavenly relief!
No noise, no movement, no fuss-and no DZ either.  There wasn't a sign of Queen's Parade.  I frantically twisted and turned in my harness.  Suddenly I saw it, a tiny rectangle of green already apparently miles away and rapidly receding further.  In a panic I looked down at the ground.  I was drifting at an appalling rate at more than 90° to my intended line of flight. 

In fact I was having an impressive practical lesson in the wind variations which immediately precede a thunder- storm, but I was in no frame of mind to take an objective view of my instruction.  I was a very worried parachutist.  The barracks and roads of Aldershot were streaming underneath my feet at what I estimated to be a good 30 knots, or even more.  I turned my futile blank gores out of wind and noted in a disinterested way that they made not the least difference. 
I had the whole town downwind of me and it seemed to be coming up at a hell of a pace.

After the initial alarm I began to resign myself to my obvious fate, and thought how sad it was that such a promising free-fall career should end so soon. For some half a minute or so there wasn't a lot for me to do beyond mentally toss up whether I was in for a broken back, or just legs and pelvis.  I found I couldn't make up my mind which sounded worse.
When viewed from the air the Aldershot barracks appear horribly sharp and spiky.
I watched the spire of a church pass at safe distance, and then stirred myself to make a landing somewhere.

A patch of grass appeared and I drove for it, but after what seemed like age's I found that I'd never make it.  I swung round and there right in my path was a barrack square. True it had high buildings all round, and, chimneys, and telegraph poles, and all manner of other hazards, but to me it was the Promised Land.  I drove for it as well as I could.  The asphalt wasn't going to be very funny with my bruised heel, but in I went.

The buildings shut off the wind for the last thirty feet and I touched down as light as any feather with a sigh of relief that almost demolished the Guard Room.  Shaking a bit, I rolled up my precious parachute while the rain pattered round me.
Some newspaper reporters picked me up in their car and took me back to Queen's Parade, getting at the same time a fairly dramatic first-hand account of my adventure.

It wasn't until I got out of the car that I remembered Brian.  He hadn't yet been found, and some highly coloured stories were passing round the D.Z. about his probable fate. In actual fact he had had a far more harrowing descent than I.  He was on a flat circular canopy and found himself quite helpless in the gale.  My curious modification must have had more effect than I imagined because Brian could clearly see me throughout my flight, and he positively zoomed past me to make a highly exciting landing outside a Nurses Home over half a mile downwind from my touchdown.  Not a nurse appeared to succour the intrepid Brian, and he hitched a lift back to the D.Z.

While all this was going on my wife was standing in the pouring rain by the airstrip, quietly having kittens, and listening to the well-meant words of comfort offered by other bystanders.  Such cheering phrases as 'Well, he's missed the spire anyway' aren't as encouraging as the speaker might think.  I got back and had a few up- lifting words with the crowd (usual stuff. . . 'Safest sport In the calendar' . . . 'no harm if you keep your head.'

Nobody really felt like risking his neck a second time.
Then I remembered Mac.  Mac was a Territorial who was staying with us.  He was wildly keen and had borrowed a chute in case of the chance of a jump.  We had never seen Mac perform, but he had a General Permit, and any port in a storm. 
It was raining again, but I shoved Mac into an Auster, put a photographer in the second, and off they went.  It was another disaster, Mac opened at the wrong spot, drifted over the main road, and landed in the tallest trees that he could find. 
Worse, he hung between two trees about twenty feet above the ground and so could be photographed and interviewed by the numerous reporters who had now gathered.

We got Mac down with difficulty and called it a day.  Talking it over with the Colonel afterwards, it was hard to decide whether we had failed or succeeded.  The Press was full of statements such as 'the fearless Red Devils': but the audience was equally full of remarks like 'suicidal bloody maniacs'.  We reckoned it at quits.  We'd done what we said we would, we'd parachuted, and we hadn't hurt anyone. 
We had a monster celebration party.

From such small beginnings… We still demonstrate free falling on Airborne Forces Day. Nowadays we put a single stick out from our own Regimental aeroplane.
Every man has a competition canopy, every man trails smoke, and every man hits the target (well almost!). . . . 'tricky winds, small D.Z.' etc. etc.) over the P.A. system, and was just finishing when to my amazement the Austers appeared above me in line ahead, obviously on a run in.  They had kept airborne throughout our little drama" and were now calmly completing their part of the programme by throwing out the Colonel and Corporal R .  At least it wasn't raining, but it was still windy, and I watched helplessly as two canopies cracked open above the trees.  The Colonel made the DZ, and landed in front of the crowd to tumultuous applause.

Corporal R added further distinction to an already epic day.  He was coming in well for the grass, but at two hundred feet he turned off Shot across the road, and landed in the athletics stadium, bang in front of the Generals, and just as the 440 yards relay way finishing.  He was mobbed, he was cheered, and he was photographed. 
He was practically carried out of the stadium as the crowd poured across the road to see what all this parachuting was about.
We were now in a bit of a fix.  The audience had doubled, all our chutes were wet, and in any case I stay on the ground and give the commentary.  It's safer that way, and anyway I seem to be a bad influence on this particular display.