The closest you get to flying
Nicholas Roe meets the all-female team that has turned dropping through the air at 120mph into an art form
If you want to get some idea of the allure of one of the most hair-raising sports in the world, listen to Sarah Smith, the British champion sky-diver. “It’s cramped inside the plane,” she says, “and when the door opens and the air rushes in you immediately feel the adrenaline pumping. You know you’re going to jump and you don’t want to let your team down. We make eye contact with each other as we stand in the airflow and we count, so that everyone knows it’s time — then we go.
“You feel the impact as you switch from the shelter of the aircraft into the big, open sky, which is vast and loud and very, very exhilarating. When you land you feel as though you could do anything.”
Smith is a member of the all-female team that is currently training to represent Britain in the world sky-diving championships in France next year. Sharp, bright and aged around 30, the four members of Bodyflight Storm ooze fitness and ambition. There’s Hannah Betts from Cardiff, Kate Stephens from Huntingdon, Claire Scott from Bicester and Smith herself, who is from Nottingham. Together, they form Britain’s top four-way sky-diving team.
Sky-diving is organised into several sections including freestyle, accuracy and sky surfing. But the most popular element is four-way, in which a quartet jumps from a plane at 10,000 feet and adopts as many set-piece linked-body formations as possible in the 35 eye-bulging, fearinducing seconds that follow before they pull the cord.
“I still get scared,” admits Scott, “especially if it’s somewhere different or you’re carrying an injury, which you often are when you compete. But also you’re nervous because of the competition. You don’t want to mess up.”
If one member of the teams makes even the tiniest mistake, the judges will notice, because a fifth parachutist — in Storm’s case it’s Gary Wainwright from Nottingham — jumps alongside and videos the whole show. It is then judged in minute detail back on the ground.
Remarkably, although Bodyflight Storm only got together this year, the team managed to fit in 700 practice jumps before easily winning the British National Championships at Hibaldstow, Lincolnshire. The female crew has even defeated all-male teams in a sport that’s notoriously testosterone-soaked. Only 15 per cent of Britain’s 5,000 regular sky-divers are women, although there’s no real reason for the gender bias. “You do have to be reasonably fit and strong,” says Stephens. “It’s an explosive sport, like a 35-second sprint.” Despite winning Britain’s Open class, the team has opted to compete in the all-female section at the world championships next August, and is favoured to triumph. But why do they absorb such pressures, given that they’ll have to make at least 1,000 practice jumps between now and next August, during which they will quite possibly pick up broken ankles, torn ligaments and dislocated shoulders. “It’s the closest you can get to flying,” says Betts.
Our national honour hangs now on the women of Bodyflight Storm, who have given up their day jobs in order to feast on adrenaline 20 times a day as the ground rushes up to meet them at 120mph and their lives hang by threads.
That’s what I call flying.
For more information on Bodyflight Storm and their charity fundraising, see www.stormskydivingteam.co.uk.
All-time high: the four-strong team Bodyflight Storm in action (top right) and safely back on the ground (below)