“The peace of floating in the sky is amazing”

News Article / November 16, 2017

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By Honorary Colonel Dan Hennessey

Honorary colonel takes leap of faith with Canada’s best.

The concept of taking off in an airplane but not waiting for the same airplane to land to get off may be unusual for most, but it had been a personal dream of mine for a long time.

While flying in commercial airplanes, and even the military aircraft that I have flown in since taking on the role of honorary colonel of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 14 Construction Engineering Squadron, this necessity has, fortunately, never materialized. But hanging out with the SkyHawks and doing it their way is something totally different.

The SkyHawks, the Canadian Armed Forces’ parachute team is Canada’s only military parachute demonstration team. Supported by the Canadian Army, the team is based out of 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario, at the Canadian Army Advanced Warfare Centre. The SkyHawks’ members are from various occupations of the Army, Navy and Air Force, both Regular and Reserve Force.

I was excited to hear the Atlantic Canada International Air Show was being held at 14 Wing Greenwood, Nova Scotia, on August 26 and 27, 2017, and that the Snowbirds aerobatic team and SkyHawks parachute team would both be taking part. I took a chance and sent off a message to the SkyHawks team saying that this honorary colonel would be honoured if they would entertain strapping my old body to one of our nation’s very best to step out into a world only a small percentage of the world has experienced.

14 Construction Engineering Squadron’s Master Warrant Officer Mike Welsh, a former member of the Airborne Regiment, told me he never regretted his time “under canvas”, even though wear and tear on one’s body is inevitable over a long duration. He encouraged me to keep asking to be included. After a number of messages back and forth, my request turned into a formal request. It was all very exciting, but there was still no guarantee it would happen.

The team’s public relations non-commissioned officer (NCO), Sergeant Zack Jacob, began asking a few questions to move ahead my request. I was happy to discover Sergeant Jacob was a member of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry; I had been involved with paying tribute to three Patricias who made the ultimate sacrifice and had a fond relationship with the regiment.

The first request was that if I was over 50 I needed to get a note from my doctor saying I was fit to jump. My wife handled that, telling our family doctor, “Dan needs a suicide note!”

The next request: “What is your height and weight, sir?” The answer to the question would determine which tandem instructor would jump with me. This is probably not something you want to lie about: “Oh, I am 6’4” and weigh 138 pounds.” As we hurtled to the ground at mach 1, the tandem instructor would certainly know I had lied. So I responded with the truth.

By mid-August, the air show executive director had to give his endorsement. Colin Stephenson responded to the request for approval with “Please give me a call tomorrow and we can chat”. My heart sank, thinking this was going to be a nice chat, but the approval would not happen. In fact, he thought it would be a great thing.

August 24 started brilliantly, with a slight breeze and beautiful blue sky. I arrived at Greenwood 90 minutes before I was to meet the team, but I had a great view of the aircraft we would be using for the jump. The SkyVan has been the favourite aircraft for the team, and they affectionately refer to it as a “toaster with wings”.

Eventually the team arrived and we headed off to the jump area.

Waivers were the first thing on the schedule, followed by a pre-jump review. This was incredible to watch, as the SkyHawks rehearsed over again in their minds any possible scenario that could occur, and what action each would take to rectify the situation after leaving the aircraft.

As it turned out, Sergeant Jacob was my tandem partner. As he has close to 400 jumps this year alone, and is a demonstrator, tandem instructor and the public relations NCO, I knew I was in great hands.

The first step in preparation was to get me into the harness that would eventually be attached to my tandem partner. Next, I was instructed on how Sergeant Jacob and I would hook up together in the cramped space in the aircraft and what our body positions would be when we exited the aircraft and during free fall. We also talked about how to exit the aircraft itself; it’s really not much more than a leisurely stroll – but with one big step at the end! Finally, we covered how to position myself for the all important touchdown.

The SkyVan took to the sky, and I watched my altimeter start to move to the jump altitude of 12,500 feet [3,810 metres]. I had a chance to study the jump team and could see the members are a family. There was the regular teasing and banter among them all, but every few moments each would scan the jumper next to him and tuck in a loose strap or tighten a clip.

Sergeant Jacob gave me a tap and said it was time to get hooked up. The back ramp opened, and everyone on the aircraft stood, made their way to the ramp and, one by one, disappeared into the clear blue sky. When I heard, “Go!” in my ear, I also took that one last big step.

I have to say, this was most surreal feeling I have ever experienced.

We did a 360-degree roll and came back up in our free-fall position in what felt like hurricane-force winds. I remembered what position I was instructed to take and, even though our average speed was 130 miles per hour [209 kilometres per hour], we hardly seemed to be moving.

Once I settled in for the ride, I saw a SkyHawk with a camera directly in front of me, asking for the thumbs up and a smile. Then another team member slid in to get some video.

We were in freefall for 45 seconds – it seemed like the blink of an eye to me! The parachute canopy opened at 6,000 feet [1,828 metres] and we were under full canopy at 4,800 feet [1,463 metres].

I realized how beautiful it is, and why jumping could become so addictive. The peace of floating in the sky is amazing. We chatted as if we were standing on the ground. Looking down, I could see our LZ (landing zone); it looked so small from our altitude. I was then asked if I would like to fly the chute, and I “jumped” at the chance to move us left or right with a gentle tug of the riser. We then did a spin, which was equal to any carnival ride I have ever encountered.

By then was time to start preparing for our touchdown on the spot that was now getting larger by the second.

The landing was as soft as you could imagine, as we both slid along the grass on the seat of our pants to a gentle stop.

“Did that just happen?!” I asked myself.

It was an experience that I’ll never forget. I jokingly told the team members that the next time I fly on a commercial airline, they may have trouble keeping me on the aircraft!

Honorary Colonel Dan Hennessey is honorary colonel of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 14 Construction Engineering Squadron, which belongs to 14 Wing Greenwood, Nova Scotia, but is located in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia.

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