Sport Parachuting - but not for long! - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Sport Parachuting - but not for long!

One Friday, a letter appeared on the Officers Mess notice board inviting applications to become founder members of the newly-formed RAF Sport Parachuting Club at RAF Weston on the Green, a satellite grass airfield near RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. It was probably the effect of several beers at Happy Hour, but I and another young officer put our names down. I cannot think of any other reason, other than alcohol-induced courage, why I might have been interested in taking up parachuting. Early next morning I decided to cross my name off the list but found to my dismay that the letter had gone from the notice board. I half-hoped that the letter had been a spoof – but it wasn’t. Very sadly, the young officer who had put his name down at the same time as me to join the Sport Parachuting Club, was killed instantly a few nights later when he failed to negotiate a 90-degree bend in a minor road on the way back to RAF Gaydon in his new sports car, which he was so proud of.

It turned out that the newly-formed club was run by the professionals of the RAF Regiment who trained the Army Parachute Regiment. I was warmly greeted because, I was told, I was the only officer amongst the first dozen or so who had volunteered. Almost immediately the instructors set about teaching us the basics of parachute landings. I played along because I didn’t want to chicken out publicly and I assumed I would later be able to find some sort of excuse to give the Club explaining why I no longer wished to be a member.

On my second visit, a week later, we were told that the weather that day was ideal for static line jumps. Without really thinking what I was doing, I donned a parachute so that we could practice on terra firma the technique for leaving the aircraft. Suddenly, along with five others, I found myself being led, still in a sort of daze, towards a de Havilland Dragon Rapide aircraft which already had its engines running. We took off and slowly climbed to 3,000 feet. That seemed an unnecessarily high altitude to jump from until I realised that 3,000ft or 1,000 ft would make little difference if the parachute didn’t open. Circling overhead Weston on the Green the dispatcher shouted to the six of us, “Shall we let the officer go first?” Naturally, they all thought that was an excellent idea. There was then no way I could refuse to jump - even had I wanted to.

On the given signal, I clambered awkwardly out onto the wing of the biplane, standing on the lower plane and holding on tightly to one of the wing struts. “Go!”, shouted the despatcher. As briefed, I made a little jump, allowing my body to arch backwards in the 90 knots slipstream, and then let go. It was a static line jump, so my parachute opened almost immediately, and I was then able to enjoy the ride down. I landed with a decent parachute roll feeling pretty pleased with myself. When we had all gathered together on the ground congratulating each other, the chief instructor shouted, “Put on a new parachute and we’ll take advantage of this excellent weather and you can all go and do another jump.” The dispatcher made me jump last on this second occasion, so I had the dubious privilege of watching the other five climb onto the wing one by one and leap into the unknown.

The next two weeks were disappointing because adverse winds meant that it was not suitable for learners to parachute. Instead we were taught how to pack our own parachutes. On the fourth week we made another static jump from 3,000ft and, just as I was leaving the aircraft, I had the sudden alarming thought that I had packed my own parachute this time - albeit under supervision. On our next visit, we were told, we would be making a jump without the static line so we would have to remember to pull the ripcord!

But there wasn't to be a next visit because the following day I was summoned by the Chief Instructor at Gaydon. “You didn’t ask permission to go parachuting," he said. "Do you realise that the club at Weston on the Green is not officially recognised by the RAF so if you have any sort of accident, however minor, that prevents you carrying out your flying duties, it will be construed as self-inflicted injury and you will immediately lose your flying pay.” That was unthinkable. Without flying pay (I think it was 10 shillings a day at the time (for my overseas readers that is £0.50) to supplement the meagre salary that a flying officer received in the 1960s, I would barely be able to live and certainly I would not be able to run my beautiful new MG Midget (see image below). I sent a letter to Weston on the Green resigning from the club for “service reasons”.

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