Barcelona: A life in freefall

Barcelona is famous for its Gaudi architecture and great football club. But it's also handy for one of the world's best skydiving schools. Iain Fletcher checks his harness and heads for the exit
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The Independent Travel

The aircraft rushed past my vision as I tumbled down and then I arched my back, spread my arms and legs, relaxed and let the science of physics flip me on to my front. The ground was 12,000 feet away, the town of Empuriabrava on the Costa Brava north of Barcelona laid out like a model, framed between the sea of the Bay of Roses and a mountain range.

It was then, giggling with exhilaration, that I started belting out "Money can't buy me love"as loud as I possibly could while I accelerated towards terminal velocity: 120mph, or about 1,000 feet every five seconds. A quick glance at the altimeter and 9,000 feet flashed past, then 8,500, then 8,000, and I started the second verse.

Looking down, the ground seemed to be getting closer very quickly - "ground rush" is the official name of this experience - and it was only then that I got a perspective on how fast I was falling. At 6,000 feet I was supposed to lock my eyes on the altimeter and wait for 5,500 feet, which is when I, as a novice, had to start the small sequence of actions that released my para-chute. Forty-five seconds had elapsed since I had left the safety of the plane. It's odd how long 45 seconds can seem. Or how short.

I can't remember finishing the second chorus, but once the canopy above me was fully inflated and the rush of freefall had been replaced by the serenity of gentle flight, I started again. This time I completed the entire track, landing over Dorian's head as he laughed at this rather plump turkey approaching a landing spot metres from him.

I gathered the handkerchief for giants we call a parachute, glanced quickly at the sky, the canvas of my recent expedition, and then I burst out laughing. Not quiet, "oh that was quite amusing" laughter, but bellowing guffaws that emanated deep from my diaphragm, where my stomach was resettling.

"Unbelievable!" I screamed. "Utterly magnificent, without compare," I continued.

" 'Awesome' is the more usual response," replied Dorian, but I am not a young follower of fashion, choosing words to fit in. I am a 34-year-old, slightly portly journalist who had just willingly, gleefully even, thrown himself out of a plane.

The thrill - and it is one heck of a thrill - of falling from many thousands of feet is in the speed, the control that you can have once relaxed, and of course the danger. It seems ridiculous to jump out of a perfectly good aircraft for no other reason than fun, but, and this is the issue I kept returning to during my Accelerated Freefall course, every time I landed I wanted to get back on a plane and do it all again.

A small lift of a shoulder or straightening of legs and you move around the sky as if steering a car and pressing the accelerator. The speed is intoxicating as the houses on the ground increase in focus. Fortunately, the training drills home in on the importance of altitude awareness; it would be easy to become immersed in the spectacle, and the initial jump out of the plane leaves internal organs in parts of your body they are not usually associated with. It was this part, the abandoning of life for a few seconds' freewheeling through the air as the senses adapt, that I learnt to love.

Others enjoy spinning the canopies around in spirals and tight turns, or dancing in the sky in sitting positions, or just tumbling for thousands of feet, enjoying the experience of loss of control - an illusion, in fact, as all you have to do to regain it is relax and arch your body.

For me, the best part is the first seconds of the jump, watching the plane bank round above me. It is then that I understand complete, unadulterated freedom, responsibility to no one or any thing. Nothing can impose on my mind in those seconds. The nagging worry about my parachute opening is at least 30 seconds away, where and how to land even longer. Everyday problems - mortgages, girlfriends, a sticky clutch on the car - are dismissed as irrelevant. It is an abdication of everything that is considered normal in life. A drunkenness where the senses are alive, not dulled.

It was not always thus, though. Five days earlier I had completed a single day's ground-school training, and was waiting for my two instructors to join me on the aircraft. Surrounding me were six other skydivers of varying degrees of experience, including a daytripper from Barcelona.

Now Catalunya's capital is a fascinating place, and justly ranks high in the list of European cities favoured by tourists in search of a memorable mini-holiday, but the locals are equally entitled to a break, and skydiving at Empu-riabrava has become a popular option. This young woman was attached by a harness to the front of an instructor. He would fall out the plane, she would scream and then he would control their freefall descent until pulling the chute. It's called a tandem jump, and it's the perfect introduction to skydiving.

She looked nervous, and rightly so, but not as nervous as me, sitting squeezed into a corner wondering why I was about to jump out of a plane at 13,000 feet with two men I had only just met.

Because I wanted to? Partly. I was not terrified, because if I was I would never have jumped, but I was very anxious. Yet the knowledge that my main instructor, Kevin McCarthy, a former European and British skydiving champion with 22 years and more than 9,500 jumps to his name, was considered by those in the know to be one of the best instructors in the world, if not the best, was of considerable help. That is why Richard Branson, a man whose billions give him a great deal of choice in just about everything, chose McCarthy as his instructor before one of his balloon adventures.

I soon discovered, in the sneaky manner of journalists around the world, that his reputation was merited.On arrival I surreptitiously quizzed other skydivers, students and ground crew about the man who was going to keep me alive, and not one hesitated to laud him. So he talked me through the harness, the drills of opening the chute, the body pos-ition to adopt in the air to be stable and, most importantly, what to do if there is a malfunction. That is, if something happens to the main chute, forcing you to use the reserve chute.

These occurrences are exceedingly rare, thankfully, but are the reason why ground school is so important, because if you follow the taught procedures then all should be well. Time and time again you have to replicate the actions, developing a muscle memory so that when you need to do it for real, it is second nature. I was sceptical that this could be achieved in a single day, but the constant repetition of the manoeuvres works.

Wandering around, coffee in hand, McCarthy would come up, chat amiably and then ask what to do for a malfunction. By rehearsed instinct the words "Look; locate; peel; pull; punch" would come from me, accompanied by the required hand actions. In a matter of seconds my main chute would be cut away and my reserve deployed. It is a simple manoeuvre, one easily learned by rote, but it was reassuring to know that in less than a day my reactions to a potential disaster were not deliberated but achieved in a Pavlov's dog manner.

My first three jumps were with the assistance of two instructors. They hold and release you depending on your stability, and ensure the process of deploying the parachute is done correctly. From then on it is one instructor, and the responsibility on the student increases. Turns, tracking across the sky in a straight line, getting stable, all have to be learned and performed. They sound daunting, but you only need to do them once to understand how to do them again.

The last jump with an instructor involves a set sequence of actions - getting stable, doing a somersault, two 360-degree turns and some tracking with the ever-demanded altitude awareness - and then that's it, the end of the AFF course.

You do have mementos, though, as the instructors all sport cameras in their helmets, and a DVD record of each of your jumps in included in the cost. If you prefer something more bespoke, Bruno Brokken, a Belgian considered one of the finest skydiving cameramen in the sport, and who has many awards to prove it, will take whatever stills or moving images you require. It's a casual arrangement; just negotiate with him at the aerodrome.

The next 10 jumps are solo, earning an international licence to jump. The security blanket of the teacher has gone, and all that remains is a man at the door of the plane telling you to jump.

A young lad from Bath, Nik, volunteered to jump from the same plane as me. "It's nice to have a friendly face on board," he explained. He was right. The first solo jump is a test of the head. A smiling, encouraging face across the seat is a great help. The Beatles were right, money can't buy you love, but it can buy you the next best thing, and that's a freefall jump from 13,000 feet.

How to get in the zone on the Costa Brava

The Accelerated Freefall Course run by the FreeFall Company (www.freefallco.com) at Empuria, which has the largest drop zone in Europe, consists of seven stages and costs £1,200. Good students can complete all of them in seven jumps and three days, weather permitting. After 10 consolidation jumps, an international licence is awarded which enables you to jump anywhere in the world. Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) and Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) fly to Barcelona and Girona, two hours and one hour away respectively by road or by rail to Figueres, then taxi. Prices vary, but can be as cheap as £15 one way. Local hotels from 30 euros (£20) a night; the bunkhouse at the drop zone costs between 12-15 euros (£8-£10)a night.

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