The Fastest Three Minutes of your Life
In streams the sun and it gets quite chilly and very bright as the instructor opens the door. I’m second in line.
When the loud double blast from the horn sounds, the first jumper leaps out. A short pause, and then I feel a firm pat on the shoulder and spring firmly out into the air. At first there is a moment of quiet as I escape the turbulence and propeller wash, and spread my arms and legs into a freefall position. I’m not spinning, and have a stable attitude, and can see number 1 hundreds of feet below me, the orange drogue from his chute rippling in the slipstream.
A quick glance at my altimeter to make sure it is functioning in the descent, just to be on the safe side, although I’m counting the seconds off as well. The air is now a roaring blast as I reach 30 metres a second free-fall speed. Time for a quick 360 turn right, then one left. The view is amazing, with Russia’s vastness spread out below me. Time passes quickly, and at 40 seconds I’m checking my height again, watching the horizon rising higher and higher. After another couple of turns, I’m near 1000 meters. I’ve already seen the first jumper open his chute, and I’ve looked down to make sure I’ve got the D-ring firmly in hand.
At 800 meters, a firm pull, and suddenly the brakes jerk on. Look up and check to make sure the ‘chute looks good, a quick all-round scan to make sure no-one else is going to collide with me, and then it’s time to look at the wind sock on the airfield, and make the right turns to land in a good spot as briefed. After a couple of minutes of gentle descent, I’ve prepared to land into wind, which is firm but comfortable, as I tumble through the grass. Time to pick myself up; unstrap, pack the ‘chute into my canvas bag, and plod across the field for a cup of tea!
People ask me why I jump out of planes. And I still can’t really explain it. The short answer is that I get a massive buzz out of leaving a doorway, drilling a hole in 2,000 metres of fresh air, and then pulling a handle very hard and feeling my parachute open. People also ask me if I get scared. I can honestly say that every time my instructor gives me the signal to stand up and walk toward an open door with lots of nothing outside, I do get tense, but I don’t feel afraid as such – just very, very hyped up.
Parachuting is very exhilarating, and doing it in Russia is, like so many things, just that bit more special than it would be at home.
The parachuting set-up in Russia is governed by ROSTO, the Russian Sport Technical Organization, (the successor to DOSAAF, which in the Soviet-era was a semi-military sports organization that taught potentially useful military skills like flying and parachuting to young people). ROSTO retains some of the attributes of DOSAAF, but these days it is more like a privately funded club as you might find in Europe or America.
In Moscow Region, ROSTO has several airfields offering you the chance to go and do a first jump for less than 1,000 rubles, and if you decide you like it, you can take up a full course.
The facilities and equipment at most of the clubs in Moscow are pretty much the same. The standard aircraft in the Russian parachuting world is the venerable Antonov An-2 biplane, known to the Russian public as the Kukuruznik, because of its role as a crop-duster. Although the design is almost sixty (yes, 60!) years old, the An-2 is still going strong, and is well respected as a solid, easy to operate machine that is eminently suited for parachuting.
Likewise, the parachutes used by first-time jumpers are Soviet- era round-canopy type parachutes like the D-1-5 and D-1-6. If you’ve seen World War II films like A Bridge Too Far, you’ll recognize them. Although these are seldom used in Western countries anymore for sport training, they have some advantages – they are very reliable, easy to maintain, and easy to use, meaning you only go down and don’t have to worry much about steering the thing.
Unlike most countries, where you have to undergo long periods of rather excessive pre-jump tuition, you can do a first jump in Russia the same day you turn up at the airfield, and you don’t need to pre-book, though it is always worth calling the day before to make sure that the weather is ok and the aircraft will be serviceable.
At the Aeroclassica Club at Vatulino, near Ruza, west of Moscow, (www.parashut.com) first-timers arrive at around ten in the morning, and sign up to jump. Almost anyone can jump, as long as they are over 15, healthy and fit, not more than 100 kg in weight, not intoxicated, and wearing sensible clothing and suitable footwear (boots or sports shoes).
Training, which follows a quick medical check, takes several hours, and consists of an explanation of how the parachute is operated, its technical characteristics, actions in the event of an emergency or malfunction, and a few jumps from a platform to simulate landing. It’s all in Russian, of course, though the staff are happy to let foreigners jump as long as they have sufficient understanding of what is going on (you speak it, or have someone to translate for you). The instructors are all highly experienced and very professional – if you’ve ever done anything like this abroad, the culture of flight safety and ‘doing it right’ will be familiar to you.
If you don’t feel quite up to jumping alone first time, you can also do a tandem jump, in which you are attached to an instructor by a harness, letting him do all the work. The jump, with a wing-style parachute, is a one-minute free-fall from 3,000 metres and costs around 3,000 rubles.
For those who are bitten by the bug, once you’ve done three jumps with a simple D-1-6 canopy you can move onto the more advanced PTL-72, which has forward speed and faster turning speed, and start making progressively longer free-falls, in increments of several seconds, going up to a full minute from 2,800 meters.
If you really want to progress further, there are two advanced courses that will lead to a qualification giving you the right to do free-fall at any airfield in the country with a sport parachute. Probably the most appealing for expats is the US-designed Accelerated Free-Fall course, which is offered by the Stupino Parachuting Club. The cost of the course is around $1,000 for a basic qualification, gained in around eight jumps. The advantage of AFF is that you learn with two instructors on each jump, and jumps are made from a high altitude, so you can cover a lot of ground on every hop. Also the qualification gives you an internationally-recognized license, which is useful if you decide to jump when abroad. All jumps are made with a wing chute from the start.
The other option is the ROSTO Programme No. 6 (more commonly known by the old Soviet designation of Programme No. 2, or ftoraya programma), which offers a similar level of tuition over a longer period, using round canopies to begin with, and working up to wing parachutes of higher specification as the course progresses. Most of the clubs around Moscow offer this course, except Stupino. The reason that they offer this course, as opposed to AFF, is that only suitably approved instructors can train for AFF, and also the air corridors over some of the airfields prohibit the aircraft from climbing high enough to give the longer free-fall times necessary for AFF jumps.
It’s debatable whether one course is better than the other, although AFF is a lot quicker to qualify from. Programme number 2 works out a bit cheaper, with a cost of 4,000 rubles for the initial theory training, and then 500 rubles per jump, with an average student needing 40-50 jumps to qualify.
Another question always asked is, “Is it safe?” Parachuting in Russia is as safe as parachuting anywhere else. A few people have died or sustained serious injuries in the last decade in Moscow Region in parachuting accidents, and a quite a few every month go home from their first jumps with a sprained ankle or bruise from a bumpy landing – usually the result of waving their legs around when landing (you have to keep them together – firmly!). Considering how many people die on the roads, or from cigarette smoking, I’ll take parachuting any time, thank you.
The thrill you get every time is unbeatable. Guaranteed!
The website www.dropzone.ru gives all the details of each airfield in the area, and the latest on weather, prices of jumps and how to get there.