Clouds can ruin Ann Beckitt's weekend. The teacher of autistic children needs clear skies for her other life, as Harvey McGavin reports
It's another wet weekend in Lincolnshire and Ann Beckitt is grounded. Sitting in a cafe by a windswept airstrip, she looks at the drizzle and prepares for the onset of Sunday Afternoon Syndrome.
Bad weather is the bane of British parachutists and Sunday Afternoon Syndrome is the sinking feeling brought on by two days spent looking at cloudy skies instead of falling through clear ones. Ann, who makes the pilgrimage from her home in Manchester to Hibaldstow near Scunthorpe near enough every weekend, knows it well. "If you come out for the weekend and don't get a jump then going back to work on Monday is..." and she pulls a weary grimace.
The symptoms won't last long, however, because in a few days Ann and her cameraman partner, John "Goody" Goodyear, jet off to the blue skies of Florida, to practise for the World Air Games.
Ann, a teacher of autistic children, and John, an electrician, are the British freestyle freefall parachuting champions. They won the title in May this year, the first time national competitions were held. Before that, freestyle was a kind of outlaw sport, frowned upon by the authorities and practised only by the adventurous.
Traditional skydivers jump out of a plane, adopt the classic face-down, hands-up, knees-bent posture and link up to make shapes in the sky. Freestyle skydivers spurn the status quo and turn conventional freefall on its head - often quite literally.
"When freestyle started about seven years ago in America, it broke every rule about sky diving," says Ann. "People thought you couldn't do the things we do." Freestyle took the sport to new extremes, ripped up the textbook and created an anything-goes aerial gymnastics. The only concession to mainstream skydiving is that you land in one piece, or as Ann puts it, pointedly, "save your life". John, a veteran of 1,500 jumps and one very lucky escape, has a doctor to thank for saving his. When his reserve 'chute failed to open on an exhibition jump near Preston, he fell into a tree, breaking his leg and back and puncturing a lung. Luckily, the tree happened to be in the grounds of a hospital.
"Statistically," says Ann nonchalantly, "you're more likely to die playing squash than parachuting." Whatever the risks, freestyle skydiving is not a pastime for the faint of heart. After jumping out of a plane at 14,000ft, conventional skydivers have about a minute before they reach for the ripcord at 2,000 ft. Their reduced wind resistance means freestylers move much faster - at anything up to 200 miles per hour - so Ann has just 45 seconds to perform a dizzying repertoire of spins, tumbles and layouts while John swoops and manoeuvres around her, capturing her moves to best effect on the camera mounted on his helmet.
Freestyle looks like trampolining in a wind tunnel but it is scored like figure skating, with a number of compulsory elements in each routine and points for artistic impression and technical ability. Because it all happens several thousand feet above them, judges rely on the video tape of the dive and a quarter of the marks are for camerawork. John helps to subsidise their hobby by filming traditional formation teams, but videos of their own practice dives are closely guarded in case the opposition get ideas.
When the weather puts the dampeners on things, Ann and John review tapes of past perfomances, looking for new ways to amaze. Watching Ann corkscrewing through the sky feet first in a crucifix position, it's hard to believe that as a child she was too scared to go on fairground rides.
That all changed with her first jump - in aid of the mental health charity, Mencap - seven years ago. "I had always wanted to do a parachute jump since I was a kid and saw John Noakes do one on Blue Peter. I did four jumps that day and I was hooked." She went from static line jumps (when the parachute opens as soon as you leave the aircraft) through progressively longer freefalls until she reached category 8, the level of competence required for unsupervised parachuting.
"That took me ages and ages - I really struggled to get there. I was never good at falling in the traditional way, I liked to twist and turn. So as soon as I started doing freestyle I was a natural."
Her fast and furious displays of mid-air acrobatics take shape on terra firma, dirt-diving (choreographing moves), mind-diving (visualising them), and working out in the gym.
"It took me years to learn how to do this because there was no one to coach us. It is like gymnastics but more aggressive and dynamic. And it is quite physically demanding because the wind is constantly buffeting your limbs. You get out of the plane, the wind's blowing in your face and it's really noisy. Then when the parachute opens it's peaceful and calm. You see the ground rushing up at you and when you land safely, it's a real rush."
After all the high altitude high-jinks, "surfing the turf" (landing well) is always preferable to "spudding in", the painful alternative. "It is quite mentally demanding. You get sensory overload and can't remember much, it all comes back to you days later." Right now Ann and John's minds are set on the Air Games in Turkey next month. Ann is taking time out from her job at Inscape House special school in Stockport to compete.
"Most of the staff are really supportive and the kids are quite interested, I show them videos and they really sit up and watch."
The thrill remains - even after 700 jumps - and the quest for the perfect dive continues. "I still get an adrenalin buzz every time; it's not something you get in other areas of life."