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

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Active -

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)

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