On October 7 last year, at the Royal Hospital party, we rashly thought it would be a good idea to jump out of a perfectly serviceable aeroplane and do a tandem parachute jump to raise funds for the charity.
We readily admit our bravado was fuelled by alcohol but were true to our word and despite the jump being cancelled twice due to bad weather we finally made it to July 9, and a date with The Red Devils at Old Sarum Airfield in Wiltshire.
We were given clear, simple instructions about what to do and what not to do. How to cross your legs when you jump out of the plane and keep them up when you land. Which I forgot instantly. Which is what they said would happen. "Don’t worry," they said. "We'll tell you again later," and they did... only for me to forget it all over again.
Kitted out with flying suits, fitted caps, goggles and a harness - I looked like Atom Ant’s granny. Then we four (Taxi Charity chairman Ian Parsons, his wife Anne Parsons, Taxi Charity volunteer cab driver Michael Calvey and myself), our Red Devil tandem instructors and a group of photographers and cameramen piled into an unnervingly small plane and took off.
Climbing through the clouds we reached 13,000 feet. The instruction came to put on our goggles and wait to move to the now open door. Sitting on the edge of this little plane and staring into the clouds beneath us, for some insane reason I thought it would be like jumping onto a 13 tog duvet covered with cotton wool and shaving foam.
Then off, and the cold clean air hits you. Lungs, skin, brain all tell you this isn’t normal. You aren’t a bird. You really don’t like heights that much. What was I THINKING? You can’t do this... and then you DO!
In that wonderful film, A Matter Of Life And Death, David Niven’s character - a WWII Lancaster bomber pilot - orders his crew to bail out of their stricken plane, knowing as he jumps that he himself has no parachute. His number should be up but falling through thick fog he misses the escort assigned to conduct him to heaven, lands on a beach and to his surprise wakes up alive.
As we leapt off the plane into clouds and the infinite silence with cold air rushing at us and the air in our lungs rushing out I remembered that scene and could only think ‘maybe this is what it must be like to die’.
And then the clouds are gone, the canopy opens and and below you is Wiltshire in perfect miniature.
I thought of all those young men at Normandy, Arnhem and Italy who had jumped with only one ‘chute to take them down to oblivion, real and imagined. One less manouverable, less robust and an easy target for enemy guns below.
Here I was, falling safely and serenely secured to Steve, one of the best of the best - through clouds and sunlight over the Wiltshire countryside. There were no guns trained on me hanging beneath the canopy - which, had it failed to open, would be cleverly replaced by a spare, triggered by a tiny computer.
Steve briefly handed me the controls for the canopy and we spun round.
As we drifted down I could marvel at Salisbury Cathedral far below. Fields, farms and towns stretching off into the hazy distance. I only had to worry that if I was pretty deaf before I was now totally deaf and couldn’t hear a damn word Steve might be saying to me. We would land safely and comfortably - if I could only remember the instructions.
Tucked in my suit was Ted Pieri’s beret and with it a small picture of him taken last year in Holland. Looking again at the photo before we went up, I realised sitting behind Ted were Frank Pendergast and Tom Schaffer - Paras both - and Ray Whitwell; Airborne. Between them veterans of Normandy, Arnhem and Italy. I was in excellent company.
Thank you to the fantastic Red Devils; to Ian Pieri for entrusting me with his dad’s beret for one last parachute journey and to all those wonderful, generous souls who sponsored our jump. We raised over £7,000 and in doing so had an incredible time on a summer afternoon floating far above Wiltshire.
We rang Frank Pendergast just before I jumped. "What advice can you give me Frank?" "Just enjoy it!" he replied. I did, Frank. I DID! And would do it again in a heartbeat.
How great to see your pictures and the jump successfully completed. My dad would have been absolutely thrilled and proud of you all, I am sure.
It was a pleasure for me to shared my dad's beret and wonderful and emotional to see you with his picture and his beret. It made my week. What a brilliant total you all raised. What a superb charity and people it has supporting it.