Jane Buckle-Hopkins has devoted her life to skydiving, she even married a fellow skydiving instructor who skydived to their wedding day. Jane herself has been jumping out of planes for 34 years
In that time she’s completed over 8,100 jumps, been the British Ladies Classics Champion, and set the mark for women in skydiving firmly on the map when she became the first female advanced instructor, and then the first female tandem and AFF instructor, in the UK.
Until Jane explained I didn’t know what all of these meant either, but I soon learned when I agreed to have a go at skydiving myself.
Travelling from 0-120mph in just ten seconds of leaving the plane, Skydiving is an adrenaline sport that can see you diving in any direction from your feet or belly to falling headfirst.
‘At 21, I was living in Headcorn, Kent, and I read in the paper that a skydiving club was going to open so I went along just to give it a go really,’ Jane, now 55 said, ‘I loved it and I realised then that actually skydiving is more than just a one off thing, it’s a competitive sport.’ Today Jane is the manager of that very club: Skydive Headcorn.
Selling her car and leaving home Jane went to America: ‘I wanted to progress in the sport and out there they had bigger planes and bigger groups of people could jump at once.’
There are different types of skydiving, (unfortunately for me they all involved jumping out of a plane!), a tandem skydive, which is what you can see me having a go at in the video above, involves being harnessed to an instructor for the entire jump.
As a competitive sport skydivers compete in different disciplines from individual tasks where they are tested for their accuracy under the parachute to competing in groups of four and more where they are market for their formations.
‘When I came back to England I was skint and unemployed so I thought, I know, I’ll become a skydiving instructor,’ Jane said.
And this is exactly what she did. Embarking on different training courses, in 1985 Jane became the first female advanced skydiving instructor in the UK.
As new methods of training and experiences were invented, including the tandem and accelerated free fall (AFF), Jane continued to get the qualifications to teach them. A year later, in 1986, she followed in her own footsteps and became the first female AFF and tandem instructor in the UK.
It was before then, in 1981 that Jane first met her husband Del Hopkins.
He was just 18 when he came to the club to do a jump but neither of the pair thought one day they would not only be working at together, but married too.
In 2002 Del started working as an instructor at Skydive Headcorn. Jane and Del were married in 2011.
Del and six fellow skydivers and friends skydived into the big day suited and booted.
Jane said: ‘It’s club tradition when a skydiver marries to jump into the wedding. I wanted to jump too but Del said it’s like a Yorkie chocolate bar – not for girls. In the end I decided not to.’
But unable to resist arriving by flight, Jane took a helicopter as her method of transport.
‘There is definitely some playful rivalry between del and I,’ she says, ‘but he only has around three and half thousand jumps so I beat him by far.’
Following in the family Jane’s twin daughters Amy and Ella (17) did their first skydive on their 16th birthday, the legal age to take part.
Sticking safely to a tandem skydive attached to the professional, the girls went straight in for the full thing alone and each completed their AFF Level 1.
I asked Jane how her own parents felt when she told them she wanted to take her one off jump further.
‘My mum must have worried to start with, sometimes she tried not to acknowledge it, I would come home talking about an amazing jump I did that day and she would just ask about the dinner or something, but I know my family all supported me because they could see I loved what I was doing’.
Jane said: ‘I think my dad secretly wanted to be there with me. He would love to do a jump but you have to be in good health and he was too old to have a go.’
Generally once you are older than 55 you cannot learn to skydive. Anyone can do a tandem jump, though over the age of 40 requires a declaration of fitness from their GP.
Jane said: ‘I don’t have to watch my weight as such because we allocate the parachute accordingly, though a first time skydiver has to weigh under 14 and a half stone.’
‘The best practice is to do the real thing,’ says Jane, ‘but besides the airfield we train using a wind tunnel.’
The wind tunnels, in Bedford and Milton Keynes known as AirKix are rooms similar to a giant upright tube. A huge fan underneath you circulates air creating a flight chamber.
But despite all Jane’s training she has had her near misses.
In 1999 Jane was jumping with a small group.
‘We were jumping feet first and at about 6,000 feet we had to move onto our bellies. I collided with someone else in the team and it knocked me out.’
Jane says she can’t remember any of the accident. She survived with two broken ribs and concussion thanks to her ‘auto activation device’ which released her parachute for her.
‘I was still unconscious when I hit the ground, that’s what caused most of my injuries.’
I asked Jane if she still gets nervous before a jump, especially after such an ordeal: ‘I worry about my parachute not opening. We always have a reserve parachute, if there’s a problem with the first you cut it away and release the reserve.’
(And this all takes place mid free fall!)
Jane said: ‘Last time this happened to me was about 7,000 jumps ago so you do kind of think there’s only so much luck and so long you can go before the next time.’
Jane said she also gets nervous for the students she is jumping with because she is there as the instructor to make sure they do everything right.
The 2012 Skydiving World Championships in Dubai was one of the largest air sport meets ever.
Jane said she doesn’t know why skydiving isn’t widely known of as sport.
‘I think people just assume it’s something you do once and there’s nothing more to it but as a sport there is so much variation. It takes a lot of commitment, time and money.’
In 1984-85 Jane was the British Ladies Classics Champion, a discipline combining free-fall and style which Jane describes as ‘doing gymnastics in the air’.
‘We’ve tried to make the sport more available, we would like to see it at the Olympics but that’s been trialed before and was unsuccessful. I think the problem is that it’s not a great sport for the spectators.’
The Headcorn team also skydive into events. Jane recalls some of her favourite experiences: jumping into this year’s Epsom Derby, skydiving into Stamford Bridge, home to Chelsea Football Club, and landing on the snowy mountains of Yugoslavia at night.
Jane said: ‘I’d say to anyone, if you think you might like to have a go at skydiving then don’t just think about it, get out there and do it while you can because you will probably love it. It is very rare for someone to say they didn’t enjoy it.’
You can visit Skydive Headcorn here
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