Dizzy heights a thrill for ex-parachutist

Talk of the Town - - News - BOB FORD

As a young man, a love of heights led to John Knep­scheld re­al­is­ing one of his dreams – jump­ing out of an air­craft with a para­chute from 10,000ft.

But, Knep­scheld, a rel­a­tive new­comer to Port Al­fred, had an ac­tion-packed ca­reer lead­ing up to this.

Born in the for­mer Rhode­sia, but ed­u­cated in the Transkei and East Lon­don, Knep­scheld, by his own ad­mis­sion, was a rebel at school. By the time he had passed Grade 10 he had had enough of school and left at the age of 15.

Look­ing for “some ac­tion,” he vol­un­teered to join the army and was as­signed to the en­gi­neer­ing corps in Beth­le­hem. How­ever, it was soon dis­cov­ered that he was un­der age and was dis­charged and sent back to what was then Queen­stown (now Ko­mani), where his fam­ily lived at the time.

How­ever, more drama was to fol­low as there had been er­rors made on his papers and he was im­me­di­ately ar­rested on ar­rival in his home town and charged with go­ing Awol. But his fa­ther had con­nec­tions in the army and af­ter a few days in prison, he was re­leased and sent back to Beth­le­hem to un­dergo train­ing, start­ing in 1981.

Mil­i­tary life was bet­ter suited to Knep­scheld as he com­pleted his 10-month train­ing stint with fly­ing colours and was pre­sented with a “Nine Flame Award”. This was awarded to only nine of the top trainees out of 1,000.

By now he had spe­cialised as an ex­plo­sives tech­ni­cian and spent the next 14 months in the army on the An­golan bor­der lift­ing land mines. This also in­volved go­ing into An­golan ter­ri­tory. He re­called be­ing flown into the west­ern area of the bor­der where a land mine was det­o­nated by a mil­i­tary ve­hi­cle, killing 11 of the troops. His job was to en­sure that the sur­round­ing area was clear of fur­ther land mines to en­able medics to move in.

“This was nerve-wrack­ing work, but we were so well trained that we did not make any mis­takes. You couldn’t af­ford to,” he ad­mit­ted.

It was while he was in the army that Knep­scheld’s in­ter­est in parachut­ing grew. Part of their train­ing as ex­plo­sives tech­ni­cians in­volved do­ing a course sim­i­lar to the one un­der­taken by para­troop­ers, but not as in­tense. Although he com­pleted the course, he was not per­mit­ted to qual­ify as he suf­fered from shin splints.

But his de­sire to do para­chute jump­ing was still strong and his op­por­tu­nity came dur­ing a stint in Bloem­fontein. He had per­ma­nent force friends in the army there and he per­suaded them to let him jump. Af­ter a re­fresher course, this was or­gan­ised and he did his first jump in 1984 with the old­fash­ioned round para­chute.

“These were horrible things and un­con­trol­lable. If the wind got hold of you, you could land up any­where as far as eight or 10 kilo­me­tres off course. You also then had no con­trol as to what you would land in if there was bush or trees in the vicin­ity,” he said.

On com­ple­tion of his days in the army, Knep­scheld re­turned to Queen­stown and en­rolled to do an ap­pren­tice­ship as a me­chanic and spe­cialised in work­ing on big ma­chin­ery such as graders, ar­tic­u­lated ma­chin­ery and big light­ing plants. Af­ter seven years work­ing for dif­fer­ent firms in the town, Knep­scheld broke away to work for him­self.

He had to wait un­til 1993 be­fore he could con­tinue his love of parachut­ing. He had friends in the town who were do­ing this in con­junc­tion with a club from nearby Gra­ham­stown. This proved to be far more en­joy­able than his army days with the equip­ment be­ing far more ad­vanced and safer. He first jumped solo from 3,500ft with a static line and a rec­tan­gu­lar mod­ern-day para­chute.

“These were very steer­able and their brak­ing sys­tems were good, en­abling you to land safely and gen­tly on a spot. The view from that height is also spec­tac­u­lar.”

It did not take Knep­scheld long to ad­vance to jump­ing from 10,000 feet. He ex­plained that this was done in freefall and one only opened the para­chute at about 3,500 feet. He said the sen­sa­tion was dif­fi­cult to ex­plain as one was fall­ing at such a speed that all one could hear was the wind rush­ing past. But once the chute was opened one had a feel­ing of com­plete free­dom. An in­crease in costs of this sport forced Knep­scheld to re­tire and he took up the more se­date ac­tiv­ity of play­ing darts.

Pic­ture: BOB FORD

PAS­SION FOR HEIGHTS: Port Al­fred res­i­dent John Knep­scheld, whose love for heights en­cour­aged him to jump out of air­craft with a para­chute from 10,000ft

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