We made the first jump from the Skyvan without any problems. There were six of us in the next stick – myself, Geordie Barker, Morris, Gill, Dave, ‘Tug’ Wilson, who was one of B squadron’s sergeants, and an RAF man, Don.
Geordie was a sergeant who had come from G squadron. I’d first got to know him on a demolition course, in 1980, when he had instructed me. He knew a lot about demolitions, and he had helped me get up to scratch. Any time after that, when I was going out on a team job and needed to teach demolitions, I would go back and see Geordie to make sure I knew what I was talking about.
Geordie had been posted across from G squadron because he was a first-class sergeant, whereas the two we already had weren’t quite up to the job. He was one of the first examples of the cross-fertilization that started taking place in the squadrons around the time. He was just what we needed in the troop, a breath of fresh air, an excellent leader who listened then delegated, and he kept Tug Wilson firmly in check.
Geordie was about five foot eight, stockily built, with a light-colored hair. Although he came across as a quiet northerner, he was a great story-teller. Once he got going, he could sit and keep you in stitches for hours on end. One story he told about himself was typical: he’d been out drinking heavily one night, before a HALO jump scheduled for the next morning. He got up in the back of the aircraft, and his stomach started playing up. He had the spew-bags out, filled a couple, and then he developed the shits. Just before the stick was due out, there was a horrible stench. Everyone moved away.
‘F***ing hell, Geordie,’ someone said. ‘A rat’s crawled up your arse and died.’
‘Bollocks,’ said Geordie, ‘I’ve shit myself.’
In free fall, Geordie went head down, reached terminal velocity and did a few spins. When he got to the ground, the others stood and looked at him. The air pressure had forced the shit up around his neck and on to his face, it had squirted out of his cuffs and over the tops of his boots – anywhere it could come out, it had.
That was Geordie.
On the way down, Geordie and Gill practised doing a free-fall link-up. I was just above them and off to one side, observing. Geordie took out his drogue and held it in his right hand. (Holding the drogue parachute bunched up in your fist and throwing it away into the air-stream when you wanted the main canopy to come out was common practice.)
The drogue had a bridle-strap attaching it to the main parachute’s pin. Made of closely woven nylon, this bridle-strap was a couple of centimetres wide. There was a problem with this, as we were about to discover.
At around 600 metres the two men separated, ready for the pull. Suddenly, Geordie went head down. There was something wrong. I could see that his main rig had come partially out but, instead of streaming clear, the canopy was somehow caught up around his back and legs. He’d thrown the drogue OK. I could see that wobbling about in the air, but the main rig was seriously out of order. I put my head down and dived hard towards him. As I came up close, I flared slightly to keep station with him. His main rig was plastered over his back-mounted reserve chute and all around his legs.
That was a disaster. He was in mortal danger.
We were below 300 metres now, still in free fall. Glancing at my altimeter, I tracked a little closer as Geordie struggled and kicked. I didn’t want to watch this man die. I had to get hold of him, grab his rig and pull it clear myself or, if that didn’t work, hold on to him and let him share my chute. I sensed the others around me in he air trying to do the same. I got ground-rush, then, and knew it was too late. We’d run out of ceiling: it was time to dump or die. With everyone else, I dumped. For a second, I was disoriented by the massive upward jerk. I looked around frantically, counting the chutes. Including my own, there were five: five orange-white canopies against the blue sky.
Six of us had jumped in the stick.
As we came in to land, I saw Des McAlpine, the RAF jumpmaster, driving like a madman across the desert in the Land Rover. Then I saw what I’d been dreading, a lone swathe of tangled nylon, strung out across the hard-packed sand, at the end of which was Geordie. I landed nearby. Des was walking around in small circles, repeating the phrase, ‘He’s gone in. He’s gone in. He’s gone in,’ over and over.
I said, ‘Shut the f*** up, Des.’ Dave and I ran across. Geordie was lying face down in the desert. His twisted reserve parachute was laid straight out, like a pointer, from his head. He had his right hand tucked in underneath his body; his left hand slightly forward and out, with the palm turned up, as if in supplication. His legs were bunched up, hidden under the nylon folds. His helmet had come off and rolled away.
I looked across at Dave. ‘We don’t need a doctor, do we?’ He shook his head slowly, and sadly. Another friend who had run out of lives. Aother name on the Hereford clock tower.
For three hours, we sat there at the dead man’s side, keeping him company until a doctor came out to certify him dead. Then we gathered him up and took him over to the Skyvan on a stretcher.
Examining Geordie’s gear later on, we discovered that the airflow tugging on the drogue’s bridle-strap had pulled the pin out of the main parachute before he had chucked the drogue. The main canopy had come half out, caught the slipstream vortex behind his back, and promptly tangled. Geordie must have been horribly aware of all this. But he had been unable to free the mess that had eventually killed him.
The next day we burned his parachutes.
Shortly after this accident, drogue bridles throughout the armed forces were replaced by thin, round paracord, which induces negligible drag. But for one good man, it was a change that came too late.
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with free fall. Not long after joining the SAS, I had very nearly been killed training in Canada: the old TAP parachute failed to come out, I couldn’t pull the reserve because I was head down and in a spin, and when I did finally succeed in getting the main rig out it jerked me upright with such force it put my heels on the back of my head, cracked my vertebrae and ripped three panels out of the chute. Result: several days flat on my back in hospital, and lucky not to be paralysed or dead.
And yet, when you’re jumping in the beautiful mountain country around Pau, in the Pyrenees, where the French forces have their main training ground, falling free as an eagle between those spectacular peaks, there’s no other feeling in the world like it. You land and think, I want to do that again – straight away. It’s worth the risk.