"Why on earth would you want to be a Tandem Instructor? You're a woman — and a small one at that! You should stick to doing AFF and cameraflying..."
My jumping career began in
1990, while I was studying
at Swansea University.
I'd never been on a plane
before and jumping from
2,200ft on a static line round was the
most exhilarating experience of my life.
I was totally hooked, right then and there.
I made three jumps that day and I've never
looked back since. Twenty-six years and
7,300 jumps later, I'm just as enthusiastic
and passionate now — if not more so.
All through my years in the sport, I couldn't help noticing how male-dominated skydiving is. However, looking back through history, many of the pioneers have been women. Take Georgia 'Tiny' Broadwick (5ft tall) who, back in 1914, was the first person to intentionally freefall. Today, we have Dilys Price OBE, who is the oldest qualified female skydiver ever and a true inspiration to us all. We are pretty unique; ours is one of the few sports in which male and female can compete on even terms. Why, then, is the ratio of women to men so low? For the record, it's roughly 15:85 among experienced jumpers although it's closer to 50:50 among tandem students —where do all the girls go?
While at uni, I qualified as a teacher and spent 20 years in the profession but was always living for the weekend and life on the DZ. Naturally a teacher, I gained my CSI — and, fairly recently, my AFFI rating as well — and have been proud to qualify new people, especially women, into our sport. My ability to coach in the wind tunnel has been a useful training aid helping me to accomplish this and led to my next challenge; becoming a qualified Wind Tunnel Instructor.
Now, if I thought the AFFI course was hard, this was something else! I was met with initial scepticism but, after joining my local gym, many hours of gruelling tunnel training and a lot of sheer grit and determination, I succeeded in passing the course. If a small girl could do that, then why not become a TI too?
Anything you can do ...
With today's multi-cultural society, there is an ever-increasing demand for female Tandem Instructors. Working full-time as an AFFI and cameraflyer at Beccles, I was fortunate to have a CI willing to recommend me. "You're on the course in September," he announced, a few days after I mentioned my aspirations.
So the preparations began. I contacted the few women TIs I knew and asked for their experiences and advice. All were very positive and encouraging. The gym membership was re-instated and the addition of a personal trainer for the final month was organised. He was invaluable and structured a programme specifically to meet my needs.
The BPA lists a number of requirements to attend a TI course which include having at least 800 jumps, eight hours of freefall, two years in the sport, a TBI/AFFBI/CSBI rating and completing the TI Proficiency Card. Although I already met most of these requirements, I still had a lot to learn such as giving briefs, fitting the harnesses and packing a tandem parachute. Practising tandem suspended harness drills (all 19 of them) until you dream them in your sleep and studying the Ops and TI manuals are all essential too.
Then there was the problem of the tandem rig actually fitting me — I couldn't even reach the drogue! Andy Page came to the rescue and adjusted two sets of kit to fit. Sorted!
One advantage I did appreciate was the opportunity to fly a full military tandem kit drogueless in the tunnel and then to fly in tandem with another Tunnel Instructor acting as a student. This did wonders for my confidence, as I now knew what it would feel like to be attached to another person and that I could control this aspect of the skydive.
Kit and Kaboodle
Time seemed to accelerate towards the oncoming course and three months passed in a flash. Monday morning at BPS Langar saw the five of us TI candidates sat amidst a sea of equipment going through the usual start to any BPA course — the kit and docs check.
I'd attended previous courses on the other side of the fence as a cameraflyer for candidates and seen the whole process building up from bag jumps to those with live students; the tension in the aircraft, the concentration on their faces as they shuffled to the door and their relief on landing. But now it was all becoming real for me.
Then things kicked off with the opening address by Jeff Montgomery, the course director. BPA courses are highly professional and the examiners are very supportive, informative and encouraging but, even though this was a 'coaching course', we were under no illusions. Any screw-ups and you were on your way home. There was no compromising safety.
Reg Green, who was in charge of TI candidates, drilled us in suspended harnesses first thing every morning. Then there were specimen lessons and lectures by Advanced Candidates, which were often interrupted as the weather played ball and the jumping programme kicked in.
I remember our first bag jumps really well. The nervousness and concern that we would remember the systems checks and skydives and complete everything correctly stand out, but my main concern was: 'Would I be able to flare the canopy?'. At 366 sq ft, it was more than three times the size of my Katana and I would be carrying the additional weight of the bag on the front. However, that did not prove to be as much of an issue as I'd thought. Landing on our bums, however, did. Many of us got reprimanded for standing up our first landings; it was sliding them in from now on or else!
Each skydive must be performed exactly by the book with a series of objectives to be completed over a minimum of nine and maximum of 12 jumps. Dives are videoed and debriefed ASAP with comments noted on the candidate's record sheet. Does that sound familiar?
With four bag jumps completed successfully, it was time to take our first live students. While waiting on the weather, we were shown a delightful collection of video nasties and, if we hadn't realised the enormity of what we were about to undertake, there was no uncertainty now. As a TI, YOU are responsible. This person's life is entirely in your hands from leaving the flight line to arriving safely back at check-in.
With four live jumps safely under our belts, it was time for our tandem parachute packing session; we would be jumping our own pack jobs for our hop and pops. No pressure there, then. Unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse so we spent the remainder of the Thursday giving specimen briefs and undertaking our written exam instead. With Friday's weather looking even more horrendous, we knew there was only a slim opportunity to complete the course with a tiny weather window late in the evening. The Langar staff were exceptional, pulling out all the stops to get all our remaining jumps completed in time.
It was a very proud moment when I stepped up to receive my certificate and shake Jeff 's hand.
Supply and Demand
Friday saw me back at my DZ and I didn't have to wait for long before taking my first three students, all of whom were asking for a female Tandem Instructor. The DZ Manager has continued to be supportive, building my confidence by carefully selecting students, gradually increasing the weights and taking the wind and weather conditions into consideration.
On every jump, I am consumed with this intense feeling of my responsibility for getting a student down safely and giving them a very positive experience and insight into our sport — one they'll never forget and hopefully for all the right reasons!
Only seven of our 333 current BPA TIs are female — that's just 2%. If you've ever dreamed of becoming a TI, what are you waiting for?