The agonies of falling out with Ox: Esther Oxford descends to Earth with only a parachute and an Army expert to help

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The Independent Online
THE MAJOR justifies parachuting by saying (in staccato): 'Experiencing a fierce situation is good training for members of the armed forces.'

But tumbling out of an aircraft from 12,000 feet was not frightening at all; I was strapped to a male built like an ox. But it was painful. My ear drums and lungs felt like they were about to explode.

'Give us a kiss then,' said Ox once we'd touched Earth with the feather lightness of a fairy couple. I looked at him, this man, who had carried me half-weeping, shrieking with pain back to earth. For the benefit of the cameras I did. If they hadn't been there I would have said: 'Look. Yellow sponges in my ears would have been nice.'

Next month Sergeant Steve Thomas (Ox) will be one of five members of the British Army Competition Parachute Team to go to the World Parachute Championships in Shengdu, China.

Ox's success must in part be due to his charm. Forget about the tandem jumper who died last year, he said persuasively. 'This centre is dedicated to safety, has the most up-to-date equipment and the best instructors.'

Climbing the 12,000 feet before launch he asked: 'Feeling nervous? Frightened yet? Feeling a bit shakey?' I said: 'No, No, No.' Later, as the photographer crawled out of the aircraft, I grew concerned that my instructor might feel put out. 'I'm frightened now,' I said in a rush. 'Good' he said.

The point to remember, yelled Ox, over the roar of the engine, was to arch your back. With that we tumbled out, head over heels, head over heels into nothingness.

It was sky then fields, then sky again. And there was a pain in my ears, so excruciating that the drums felt ready to burst. My lungs felt like saggy rubber bags which had already exploded.

For 50 seconds we fell through the air. Then there was a violent tug and the parachute unravelled. For three soft seconds, there was relief.

But there was not a moment of silence. The second stage of the fall was taken up with a landing drill. 'Get your head into position, bend your knees, pull the toggles. Now let's practice again,' yelled my instructor as we headed towards Earth. 'What about my ears?' I whimpered. Just blow your nose, was the reply.

I could see the faces looking up. Then the expressions. Then the ground - whoosh.

Steve wanted his kiss, the photographers wanted their shots, a reporter wanted his shoes back, the next parachutist wanted my kit. I was deaf. I felt blinded too. The tears were rushing down my cheeks. Caroline, the woman who did it before me, had a question: 'Wasn't it out of this world?' she demanded, her eyes widened with a new love.

'Yes,' I said on cue. 'It was.'

(Photograph omitted)