The sky's the limit: an extraordinary group of sky diving servicemen
When he lost a leg in Afghanistan, Sergeant Stuart Pearson vowed he would return to skydiving. Now he's part of an extraordinary group of servicemen who collectively have just seven legs – and 13 eyes
Lying in a hospital bed almost six years ago Sergeant Stuart Pearson had just survived a day of unimaginable horror. Caught in a minefield in Helmand, Afghanistan, he and his fellow soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, had valiantly fought to save each other. One by one, they were hit by exploding mines. Three of them lost legs while Corporal Mark Wright died trying to help his friends, an act of such bravery that the 27-year-old was posthumously awarded the George Cross.
Days later, a bloody mess in hospital in Birmingham, Sgt Pearson knew his life was changed for ever but he refused to relinquish it all. "One of the things I said to myself in Selly Oak was, I am definitely going to get back to skydiving," says the 37-year-old.
Sitting at the Army Parachute Association drop zone at Netheravon, he explains he knew the perils of throwing himself out of a perfectly good plane, having broken a leg more than 10 years ago, but jokes it is no longer an issue as the leg has gone.
Surrounding him, his fellow amputees span the history of modern British conflict, from the Falklands and Bosnia to Iraq and Afghanistan. Between the seven of them, they proclaim with a smile, they have just seven legs and 13 eyes.
Yet only weeks after beginning training, most with no experience of freefall, they have been transformed from a group of wounded soldiers and Royal Marines to Britain's first ever disabled skydiving team. Undaunted by the fact that they lack the very limbs that most skydivers use to stabilise their body position in the air, they intend to bring home the medals.
The genesis behind the idea came from army commando Sergeant Dave Pacey, 30, a member of the military's freeflying team Euphoria, and his wife Alana. "We wanted to give something back and we thought we could get a load of soldiers into the wind tunnel [which replicates the sense of freefall] and see how they fly. Then we thought we could turn them into a skydiving formation team," he says.
The idea of allowing severely injured servicemen to pitch out of a plane at 13,000ft was initially rejected as sheer insanity by both the military and parachuting communities. "Putting amputees up in the sky, they were afraid we would hurt ourselves even more," says former Welsh Guardsman, Lance Sergeant Allan Roberts, 32, who lost both legs in a roadside bomb. He continues: "The worst thing about being an amputee is everybody wants to protect you. They don't want to see you injured any further. We want to show them that we can still skydive and do it well."
Sgt Pacey and his team approached the British Limbless Ex-Service Men's Association (Blesma) and they agreed to sponsor the project and find seven members willing – or some might say mad enough – to give it a go. But, as they explain, fear is not a new emotion to them.
"I have had more scary situations being shot at. It is just a different sort of fear," says Corporal Glynn McNary, 34, who recently left the Royal Marines. In 2009, he was hit by an IED (improvised explosive device) in Afghanistan, which killed a friend and seriously injured three others. He lost his right leg below the knee and, he adds with a grin, his left arse.
"Since being blown up you do get more fearful, more hesitant. The worst thing was that I thought, 'That is my job over, that's me done.' It was not a job, it was my life. Most of us miss that military camaraderie, that peer pressure. It is the job we do. It is dangerous but it is exciting and it gives you that adrenaline rush. By doing this you are facing your fears and getting that confidence back."
The first test for the new team was to put them out strapped to tandem instructors at Netheravon, Wiltshire, Sgt Pacey explains: "It was to make sure they were happy jumping out of a plane and get them used to landing a canopy. That was the bit we were worried about without legs. But they did an awesome job. Just to see the look on their faces, it felt like they had got a part of their lives back, that adventure, that freedom."
The group then moved to the Airkix wind tunnel, a facility that replicates the feeling of dropping through the air at 120mph. Sgt Pacey, a veteran of three Afghan tours, along with Sergeant Deane Smith – a fellow medal-winning skydiver from 24 Commando Engineer Regiment who had recently returned from Helmand – were challenged by their fellow soldiers in a bet that they could not do it themselves with their legs strapped up.
Their success failed to impress, as former Major Dave Scott, 50, who lost his leg after an elective amputation following a mine accident in Bosnia, jokes: "If they had been really committed they would have hacked their legs off." But through patience and negotiation, the team managed to find a way to balance themselves without all their limbs – a compromise between the usual training and what they could achieve. "Their attitude was extremely positive, they were always listening, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed," adds Sgt Pacey.
Earlier this year they headed out to Elsinore, California, where the Americans welcomed them with baffled admiration as they progressed through their AFF (accelerated freefall) training. Despite the bravado among the group, each one had his moment of trepidation in the jumps towards achieving the coveted qualification.
"There is that fear that you are going to do yourself even more of an injury, damage what you have got left. You could see when somebody got a bit quiet. Everyone went through it. We would just start joking like typical squaddies," explains former L/Sgt Roberts.
He was on just his sixth jump out of a plane when he faced every new skydiver's greatest nightmare. His parachute malfunctioned, he was spinning and had to go through his drills to pull the reserve canopy. "There was no flapping. I just realised I was going to have to buy the beers," he says with a nonchalance that seems inconceivable until you hear about the day in March 2010, while working as a private military contractor assisting reconstruction projects in Baghdad, that a bomb hit his vehicle.
"It was like slow motion, the bang, the heat and then I looked down and thought, one out of two legs isn't bad." But the second leg was beyond saving.
"During the trip, their stumps would start swelling and their prosthetic would be uncomfortable. They would be tender and sore," adds Sgt Pacey. "But they have all been through more than that before so they could cope, keep fighting through it."
"As an amputee you are in pain constantly. But the best thing about this sport is there is no pressure on your legs, you are pain-free," explains L/Sgt Roberts. "Once you are up in the sky you forget about the disabilities you have. I forget I have my leg," adds Sgt Pearson.
Now back in the UK they have a long battle ahead, not only in hours of training but in finding more sponsorship. But the team Blesma Trans4mers – which also includes former Marines Vince Manley and Jez Scarratt as well as Para John Reeves – are adamant they will compete at the Armed Forces Parachute Championships in July, four as a formation skydiving team and three others performing accuracy jumps. Then they will be ready for the national championships in August and, they hope, the podium. It is simply another hurdle for men who have had to teach themselves to dress again and learn to walk once more.
As L/Sgt Roberts insists: "I thought I would give skydiving my best shot. When I was injured I was going to prove to the world that I could set these goals that seemed out of reach and actually reach them and go beyond. And, when you get there you think you can do anything."
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