Before me, the gaping rear hatch of our aircraft reveals an awe-inspiring view of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, viewed from 3,200 metres in the air. The smell of smoke is pungent from area forest fires.
The hatch of the Hercules J-130 cargo airplane is wide open, and I’ve just learned I’m to be the first of this flight’s guests to be hurtled into space on my first-ever skydive. Fortunately, I have a pro attached to my back as my tandem jump partner – Warrant Office Mike Dwyer, a member of the Canadian Armed Force’s elite SkyHawks parachute team.
I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. Fortunately, Mike knows exactly what he’s doing, and what he’s done for about 970 jumps before.
“Ready?” he says. Before I have a chance to think about the terror of jumping into this void, he says, “Let’s go.”
Instantly, a blast of fierce wind tears at my face, making it hard to take a normal breath. We’re falling towards Earth at speeds of up to 260 km/h and yet I have no sense of the ground rushing toward me. Mike points and I look up to see another SkyHawk pulling up in front of me with a GoPro attached to his helmet. He motions me to wave and make “devil’s horns” for the camera.
This, quite simply, is unbelievable fun.
When the Canadian flag parachute deploys after about a minute of free-falling, we slow down for a leisurely float down to the ground – complete with a 720-degree turn, just to keep things interesting.
The SkyHawks stopped in Penticton, B.C., over the August holiday weekend as part of their annual summer-long tour across the country promoting and recruiting. The day after our jump, they would put on a show for attendees at the annual Peach Festival, complete with smoke bombs to add to the spectacle.
Commander Capt. John Hart says the unit has done about 100 jump days by the beginning of August this year.
“By conducting these performances, where we’ll do various acrobatics in the sky – all under signature Canadian flag canopies – it’s to amaze the crowd and really try to engage them so that we can speak to them about our experiences in the military.”
Hart says the performances are both a promotional and recruiting tool, so I have to ask him – as someone whose age is well beyond those of the team – is there any chance for me to join?
“That’s a difficult question,” he chuckles.
The military offers a wide range of career paths, says Hart, an infantry officer. He notes there are many support trades for those who are looking not to do combat roles.
Dwyer, however, has seen action. As a 20-year military veteran, he has served in Bosnia and twice in Afghanistan. He joined the parachute company in 1999 after completing his basic parachutist course and has been with them ever since.
Members of the SkyHawks come from the Canadian Army, Navy and Air Force. This year, Seaman Jennifer MacKinnon joined as the one female member.
The SkyHawks were established in 1971 and are based in Trenton, Ont. They have performed more than 5,000 shows for a total of 75 million spectators around the world, in places like the U.S., Japan, France and Australia. They even performed at a Rolling Stones concert in 2003.
Yet only a lucky few, like members of the news media, get a chance to jump with the SkyHawks.
“It’s absolutely thrilling seeing people make their first jump,” says Hart. “Especially as they’re on the ramp, staring down 12,000 feet, going ‘Oh my God, what have I got myself into?’”
I know exactly what he means. I’ve been one of those people. And I’m so glad I had the chance.
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