Jumping out of aeroplanes is only really useful for a few things. With a couple of teeny exceptions such as fighting fires or performing wacky stunts for the media, skydiving is either for having fun or doing war. The skill sets required for these two applications are quite different, but overlap in enough places to keep the people all rubbing shoulders with one another. The war people are good at the war part, and get to use posh equipment and fancy aircraft under special rules – which makes the fun people jealous. The fun people are good at the fun part, which in turn makes the war people envious because war is not for fun. This general proximity means that your average commercial dropzone has a comparatively high percentage of currently serving or ex-military types kicking about, who likely got started with parachutes within their operational training but realised they could pursue skydiving as a sport and a hobby.
The Army Parachute Association was formed in the early sixties and is based at Netheravon on Salisbury Plain in the UK – claimed to be the longest continuously operated airfield in the world. Salisbury Plain is where Stonehenge sits, but is also a huge expanse of rolling green Britain where the military does all sorts of its tank-driving and gun-firing activities. Today, APA Netheravon is run as a non-profit that aims its business at serving the profile of parachuting – and hosts both military and civilian skydiving operations on the camp under its very large roof.
Military behaviour can often seem odd to civilians. Everything has rules. Even things that civvies perceive as not needing procedure has procedure – often down to the smallest detail. This all makes good sense once you accept the fact that any kind of mass human conflict is utter chaos, and the only way to have your war people get things done is by building in structure from the very beginning from the ground up. Although we often pretend to be loose, skydiving works because of rules – and much of the methodology of how we train in the sport can be traced back to its tactical roots.
The intention at Netheravon is that the natural symbiosis between the sport scene and the military organisation means everyone benefits. The weekend sporties get to use the excellent facilities, and the service folk get to kick back and enjoy the sport. The good part is that the place is colossal, indoors and outdoors both – allowing everyone to go about their business without getting under each other’s feet. Getting your admin done on arrival is suitably formal and efficient – a refreshing alternative to chasing an instructor around who doesn’t have time for your gear inspection. The less good part is that there is a gym you cannot use, a climbing wall you cannot climb and the best aircraft mock-up of all time that you are expressly forbidden from mocking anything up in (its locked).
The APA is one of the important places in the UK for skydiving. It used to be considered sort of isolated from the rest of the skydiving scene, with the mil-discount clientele only jumping there and everyone else jumping everywhere else – but this has faded across a string of recent seasons. Now there is a lot going on – with a good level, every discipline represented and with organised progression. The roadshow has had good success here in the past, and with two hastily organised days allowing for very little communication with the outside world – the tents are still busy. Being inside the hangar helps in the middle of Summer, when people are more likely to hide from the sun inside than head over and bake in the (surprisingly hot) British sun. We are still waiting for international travel to set us free, but in the meantime, this kind of thing is pretty good.