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Gold at the Armed Forces Parachute Championship

Blue skies are a skydiver's delight and offer perfect conditions for jumping out of planes. LCpl Thelma Goddard of 135 Geographic Squadron Royal Engineers, a keen skydiver with 530 jumps under her belt, recently swapped the clear blue skies of Afghanistan (where she was on operational tour and skydiving was not an option) for the typically cloudy Wiltshire skies during the Armed Forces Parachute Championships at JSPC Netheravon.

This annual competition sees military and civilian skydivers competing for medals in the various disciplines of parachuting. Four-way formation skydiving is one of those disciplines and involves a team of four people exiting the plane together at 13,000 feet and, during freefall, making predetermined patterns as quickly as possible to score the most points before reaching "pull height" and having to deploy your parachute.

LCpl Goddard’s four-way team was all female and included Flight Lieutenant Thea Westly of the RAF, Major Anna Scott also of the Royal Engineers and Lieutenant Freddie Huntley of the Royal Navy. The name of the team was Virtus, named after the Goddess of Military strength however as the team included all three services and a reservist it was pointed out that they should have been called “Future Forces 2020”.

Operational commitments had meant that team Virtus had only been able to get together for one weekend of training jumps before the competition was due to start, so expectations of success were not particularly high and the main thing was to have fun, enjoy the experience and to develop skills for the future. Over recent years the wind tunnel has become an increasingly popular tool for skydivers training for competitions; a vertical tunnel big enough for a four-way team and with a giant fan at the bottom. It allows freefall conditions to be simulated without having to undergo the time consuming aspects of skydiving, such as taking a plane ride to altitude or using (and then packing) a parachute after every 60 seconds of freefall. The team therefore made the effort to get to the recently opened tunnel at Basingstoke for three sessions prior to the competitions, where they underwent a total of two hours training with a coach - the equivalent of 120 skydives worth of free fall.

The wind tunnel sessions went well and by the end of the third session a number of moves had been practised and tips picked up from their coach. The girls were beginning to have a little more confidence in their abilities, but still the emphasis remained on having a good time.

The competition got off to a good start with the weather being co-operative over the first weekend, so a number of teams were able to complete the first few rounds. The formations to be achieved in each round are picked in a draw on the eve of the competitions. Practising on the ground involves “dirt diving”, first of all standing up and learning which grips you need to pick up (arms or legs) and which way you need to face in relation to the other members of the team for each formation. The next stage is to lie it down on trolleys (which look a bit like skateboards) in order to practise the movements horizontally as you would in the sky. This gives teams a good visual representation of what the angles should look like and the referencing they need to make between each point. Next the exit is practised in a mock-up of the plane door so that the four team members have the greatest chance of staying together, rather than pinging off to all four corners of the sky.

After the first few rounds the scores started to go up on the boards and the Virtus girls realised that they were gaining some solid scores and putting in a competitive performance. The jumps are filmed by a camera man who flies above the formation and records what goes on for the judges to watch from the comfort of a TV screen. Sadly though the weather took a downward turn over the next few days and they had to wait until Thursday to do their final three rounds.

Army Apex and REME Lightening were their closest competitors and at one stage REME lightening were beating Virtus by one point but on the final day of jumping, Virtus managed to snatch it back and take Gold in the category. Next Team Virtus is heading to the Nationals at the end of August where we will have to wait and see, if their success can be repeated.

LCpl Goddard, 135 Geo Sqn RE

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