Best view ever?

The Algarve looks pretty from above, as anyone who has ever flown into Faro airport and sat in a window seat will agree. But some people aren’t satisfied with looking down from behind a thick aircraft window; they want to experience the view while being surrounded by the elements. Experienced skydiver Ian ‘Milko’ Hodgkinson is one of them. Enjoy the Algarve talks to the skydiving instructor about his love for floating in the air.

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine September 2016

Why would you want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane? For Ian ‘Milko’ Hodgkinson (45), chief instructor at Skydive Algarve, the answer to this question was charity. Somebody asked him to jump in order to raise money for a good cause, so he took a course in Langar (UK), 25 years ago. “At that time I didn’t know anything at all about skydiving. I thought it was something only the military did; jumping out of a Hercules aircraft with a parachute strapped to their back before going to war.” In the eight hours of classroom training, Milko learned a lot. The weather was too windy that day, but he came back the next weekend and jumped four times. He was hooked. Now, 25 years and 22,000 jumps later, he still is.

In fact, skydiving is the reason the English Milko moved to the Algarve in 2014. “Here the weather is very stable, allowing us to jump on average 300 days a year. Of course it can be bad as well, like the horrible rains last October and November, but on a whole, it’s great. In the last three months, June, July and August 2016, we’ve jumped every single day,” he explains. In the winter, when it’s too cold, snowy or rainy in most of Northern Europe, experienced skydivers come to the south of Portugal to train. From September to May, low season for nearly every other Algarve-based business, Skydive Algarve is crazy busy. Last year, 43,000 jumps were done from the drop zone in Alvor; in 2016 this number will be somewhere around 50,000. In summer it’s mostly tourists doing tandem jumps in order to tick ‘jump out an airplane’ off their bucket list. Because let’s face it, that’s quite cool.

… then you open the parachute, everything slows down and you can see for miles, it’s surreal

“In freefall, you’re falling towards the Earth at 200km/h, but it feels like you’re floating on the air. It’s fast, windy, noisy and cold, but then you open the parachute, everything slows down and you can see for miles, it’s surreal. Five minutes later you’re on the ground, packing up your gear so you can get back to the plane and do it all over again.” Milko tries to describe the feeling he still gets during every single jump; the urgency in his voice betrays he can’t wait to get in the air once the interview is over. Apparently, this stuff doesn’t get boring.

Milko, who owns about every skydiving qualification there is, spent the last 16 years jumping for the British national team. He was also part of the largest ever formation jump in Thailand in 2006, which included 400 skydivers. Formation jumping is when you build certain predetermined shapes in the air with a group of skydivers; it can range from producing as many different formations as possible with a team of 4 in just 45 seconds to getting 200 people together and do just two different sequences, as happened in California (USA) in 2015.

You have to respect the fact that the ground is very hard

No matter how nice it sounds to gather some friends and create awesome figures in the air, there is a risk involved. “Yes, skydiving is considered a high risk adventurous sport,” Milko agrees. “But it’s easier to break a bone while playing rugby, horse riding or running. The thing is: if somebody makes a mistake when skydiving, the injury is likely to be more severe because of the high speed.” Compare it to the consequences of driving your car into a wall with 10 or 100km/h. To reduce the risk of crashing, every skydiver has two parachutes. Don’t worry, chances of being involved in a traffic accident are higher than chances of having to use the reserve parachute. In the 22,000 times Milko has jumped alone, he had to use his spare chute only five times. In the over 5,000 tandem jumps he instructed, this happened another two times.

So if the equipment is of that high quality, why do fatal accidents still happen? “Generally, because people don’t pay attention,” Milko, who has never gotten hurt while skydiving, sighs. “You have to respect the fact that the ground is very hard. We do everything to limit the possibility of mistakes and make it as safe as possible, but there’s one thing I can’t control and that’s the individual and their willingness to follow the rules.” He continues: “Accidents within skydiving generally happen when people are underneath the canopy; they’re very rare in freefall. My goal is to get to the ground safely so I can walk away and do it again. For me, the parachute is a means to an end. However, some people do this purely for the parachute flying and open the canopy almost as soon as they exit the plane. They take the chute to the max, flying it as fast as possible. Canopy designs have changed a lot in the last few decades. It’s like comparing an average car (the parachutes in the 1970s) to a Ferrari. Every novice driver can get into a Ferrari and drive it home safely. It’s when you drive that car to its maximum capacity that you should be afraid. It’s not the parachute that’s dangerous, it’s the person.”

The infrastructure here is perfect, with sea, city and mountains at 10 minutes’ drive

Milko himself is never afraid when jumping. “No, afraid is the wrong word. But I am always apprehensive, because I want to perform to my best abilities when competing. And when teaching, I want my student to have the best possible experience. This puts a pressure on me – it’s a different sort of fear based on personal expectations.” His students, though, are certainly afraid, especially when it’s their first time. “Your first jump is probably one of the scariest things you’ll ever do. Still, 99.99% of the people who get into the plane, jump. As an instructor, you play a big part by reassuring them and calming them down. It’s a very gratifying job: every tandem jump with a first-timer, it’s almost like I’m experiencing my very first dive again. I feel their fear, excitement, relief and happiness; a whole array of emotions in a short time.”

Add to this thrill all the other adventure sports that are possible in this region, plus gorgeous beaches for those needing some relaxation after the excitement, and it’s clear why the Algarve is one of the busiest places in the skydiving industry. “It’s the perfect environment for jumping, one of the best in the world!” Milko exclaims. “The infrastructure here is perfect, with sea, city and mountains at 10 minutes’ drive. It’s not like most other drop zones, where you find yourself half an hour away from the nearest town, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by donkeys.” Milko knows what he’s talking about as he regularly jumps abroad; this year alone he’s visited over 10 different countries. “That’s the beauty of skydiving; I get to go everywhere.” Still, he’s always happy to return to his house in Penina, which is located between Alvor and Lagos, and, as Milko enthuses: “Only four minutes away from the dropzone!”

From Alvor I see past Monchique in the north, Sagres in the west and Faro in the east

“The Algarve is a very beautiful part of the world, but it wasn’t until I first jumped here, that I realised how pretty it really is. It was like someone had opened my eyes. On a clear day, I can see comfortably for 50 miles in every direction; from Alvor I see past Monchique in the north, Sagres in the west and Faro in the east. Being 4,300m high is incredible; you’re above the mountains, above the birds, even above people flying their aircraft. It’s lovely.” Anyone still hesitating whether to try skydiving should ask Milko about his passion and just listen – this man lives and breathes in order to jump. “I knew from day one that I’d enjoy it, but I didn’t know 25 years ago that I’d be still doing it now. I want to still jump when I’m 80 – which is possible with skydiving; there are people in their 70s and 80s doing this on a regular basis.” So what does jumping out of a plane exactly mean to him? A short pause before he answers: “It’s not just a hobby, it’s not just a job, it’s a way of life.”

Pictures courtesy of Skydive Algarve


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine September 2016

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