On cloud nine

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By Skydiving is the latest craze among New Age thrill-seekers, says Susmita Saha
  • Published 20.01.13
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When Australian Kevin Gardiner leapt off a Pilatus PC-6 aeroplane at 29,000ft near Mount Everest, the temperature was hovering around -20°C. With the world’s tallest mountain swimming before his eyes, he did an extraordinarily long freefall lasting two minutes before touching down on a super-high drop zone at 12,000ft.

For Gardiner it was the ultimate challenge. To acclimatise, there was a breathless trek to and from the drop zone before the jump, constantly battling unforgiving weather and a treacherous terrain. But once he became comfortable with the oxygen- deprived atmosphere, he plummeted from the plane wearing a pair of high-altitude dive goggles and an oxygen face mask.

“You don’t feel the strain because you are busy watching the Himalayan spectacle. And once the parachute opens at 16,000ft,you have already lost your mind,” says Kunal Goel, MD and CEO of ThrillsExtreme, a leading Gurgaon-based commercial adventure tourism company that organised Gardiner’s skydive in Nepal last summer along with a local outfit.

In Pondicherry, at another corner of the subcontinent, Mumbai-based advertising professional Michael D’Souza also took the plunge in September. D’Souza hurtled down from 10,000ft after pausing for a fraction of a second on the wing of a Cessna aircraft. Then he came down in a rapid blur, his eyes taking in images of the Auroville architecture besides a forested landscape. “It was just like a Google Earth picture,” recalls the awestruck 50-year-old whose dive was facilitated by Kakini Enterprises, a Delhi-based adventure and aero sports facility.

Skydiving is the latest craze among New Age thrill-seekers. A new generation of well-heeled Indians, bred on a diet of high adventure, is steadily contributing to the increasing traffic in high-adrenaline escapades. Also, taking to the skies are foreigners who are enrolling with Indian adventure companies to savour one-of- a-kind experiences. Says Goel: “Indians are zeroing in on activities that pack a formidable punch.” In February, ThrillsExtreme plans to help 50 people board a Cessna Caravan in several batches and jump to open patches of land in Haryana.

It’s a macabre joke amongst skydivers that if at first you don’t succeed, you don’t get a second chance. Yet across the country, recreational parachutists are paying for a slot at skydiving camps.

Ask Dr Aanchal Khurana, managing partner of Kakini, about the big hook offered by skydiving and she says, “It provides a mad mix of pure adventure, thrill and pleasure.” Kakini began operations in 2009 but has turned on the heat since the beginning of last year when it conducted more than 15 camps in Sagar (Madhya Pradesh), Pondicherry, Mysore (Karnataka) and Raigarh (Chhattisgarh).

Of course, skydiving isn’t the only adventure sport that’s gathering steam in this country. Other disciplines like skiing, paragliding and mountain biking are also rapidly gaining popularity. According to Goel, the Indian adventure tourism market is worth Rs 1,500 crore and it’s growing at an awesome 35 per cent every year. In fact, there are ample pointers to how hot the market is right now. In the last year or so, brands like Levis, Wrangler, Timberland, Woodland and Harley

Davidson have all jumped on the adventure sports bandwagon.

Another factor that has brought the sport out of relative obscurity is patronage by educational institutions and multinational companies. Yet there are challenges. “Being a relatively expensive sport, it puts off a certain strata of the society,” says Mukul Ronak Das, CEO of Waltair Escapade Thrills LLP, which promotes commercial skydiving in India with operational support from ISPA (Indian Skydiving & Parachute Association). Waltair offers a static line course with the inclusion of one jump at Rs 20,000 while a tandem jump will cost Rs 30,000.

But these daredevil entrepreneurs are clear about one thing. No matter what the price, it’s a feeling of incomparable rush they offer. Enter Aamby Valley City which launched a nine-week programme using its own airstrip. Promoted by actor-director Farhan Akhtar who threw himself from an airplane in Zindagi Na Milegi sDobara (ZNMD), the Aamby Valley sprogramme goes on till February 16 this year. “Skydiving will be the future trend sport in India,” says Akhtar.

Despite interest picking up only recently, skydiving does have a background in India. Sports parachuting in the armed forces started way back in 1987 with the Airforce

Adventure Cell, an outfit practising something very different from military parachuting. As opposed to the military svariation, sports parachutists do not jump at night with equipment or weapons and avoid landing on unfamiliar and challenging terrain.

But it’s only now that civilians have helped raise the profile of the sport. New Delhi-based Archana Sardana, who has received a USPA (United States Parachuting Association) B license after logging 52 jumps in her first outing to Perris Valley, California has even parachuted her way to terra firma from a hot air balloon to mark her 335th jump. Since then she has graduated to riskier options like BASE jumping.

In her latest avatar, Sardana tumbles out into the void from edges of cliffs, buildings, and other towering heights rather than moving aircraft. For her, it’s a high-performance sport where terms like boredom do not apply. “Every jump is different. Since I can’t skydive in India (she’s trying for a USPA PRO rating that will qualify her for skydiving exhibitions into challenging landing areas) there are gaps in between my trips abroad. It is as if I am starting afresh every time,” she says.

Drifting in the sky, arms and legs spreadeagled, may look easy as pie. But in reality, it involves flinging yourself off from small airplanes/helicopters and freefalling for seconds before the parachute comes to your rescue. The sensory overload is rounded off by landing on the ground at a controlled speed.

There are other corollary reasons why skydiving is picking up swiftly. Technology has paved the way for lighter yet stronger equipment while the idea of jumping with an instructor has made it possible for novices to try their hand at the game. “In tandem jumps, the coach ferries you across the sky, controlling every parameter including your exit from the aircraft and landing,” explains Gandhi.

Solo jumps, on the other hand, are a different ballgame. “It’s taken up by those who seither want to be a licenced sky diver or want to learn sparachuting professionally,” says Goel. In the static line sformat, the chute unfurls the very moment one makes the plunge to Earth, leaving little room for freefall.

But there’s also another category that wants to push the envelope constantly. For these intrepid souls, there’s AFF (Accelerated Free Fall). “AFF is for the truly braveheart. It feeds a huge appetite for risk by allowing a jumper to plunge headfirst with two instructors who hold him only for a brief period of freefall,” says Khurana.

Every organiser points out that while it’s all very well to go cartwheeling into the air, a battery of safety measures need to be in place. Aamby Valley has roped in the services of Art Of Extreme (AOE), a skydiving crew from Spain which originally trained the actors of ZNMD. Wolfgang Rausch, AOE’s technical director, operations, has more than 15,000 jumps and 30 years of skydiving experience under his belt while his colleague Barbara Holzer has been advisor to marquee skydiving competitions throughout Europe and the sMiddle East.

Waltair’s crew, on the other hand, are all USPA (United States Parachuting Association) certified, with each one logging more than 1,000 jumps across seven continents.

As much as skydivers enjoy the act of standing at an aircraft doorway, the wind whipping up their hair, a crucial part of that experience is training. “It’s not something that you do on a whim,” says Wing Commander (retired) Sanjay Thapar, president of the Indian Parachuting Federation (IPF), the first outfit to promote sports parachuting in India from the early 2000s. It has been organising three to four camps sannually in Hissar and Bhiwani in Haryana as well as Dessa in Gujarat.

IPF follows the conventional method of training where camp participants start with static line jumps and then graduate to free fall and skydiving. “We schedule three days of ground training and dedicate two more days to facilitate five to six jumps for an individual,” he says. The training is divided into three parts — learning how to exit the aircraft, shandle a parachute and eventually land.

Skydiving has all the makings of an adventure sports success story in India. Despite the fear factor, fatalities are relatively rare and the views like highflying panoramas. But for potential skydivers fitness is part of the job description. “He or she should be able to jump off a dining stable unassisted and run for 100m,” says Thapar. Waltair too does not srecommend this discipline to heart spatients, pregnant women and people with spine ailments.”

But at the end of the day, it’s the thrill of whooshing across the sky. That’s probably why scores of people put their feet outside an open aircraft door and scream all the way down to earth. Says Goel: “Several people pass out smoments after being harnessed to their trainers but surprisingly manage to land on their feet.”