Edward Gardener

Founder of The Red Devils Free Fall Team


In 1961 Gus Martin and I attended one of the first so-called Military Free Fall courses run by No 1 PTS at RAF Abingdon. Our instructors had relatively little experience themselves (mainly learned from the French at Pau) and the training system on early jumps was hardly conducive to stability: 3 second delays out of the side door of a Beverley with arms folded in (the right hand clutching the ripcord), then closing the legs for the pull. However by the end of the 20 jump course we had progressed to 20 second delays by day and night and even learned simple turns. While on the course two of our instructors, Peter Hearn and John Thirtle, became the first two British parachutists to pass a baton in free fall by (as they described it) contriving a mild collision. While by then quite a regular occurrence in the USA, it was a notable achievement over here.

On completion of the course Gus and I were able to make 10 sport jumps and were deemed to be so experienced that we were granted BPA Assistant Instructor ratings with little formal testing and rejoined our battalion (3 PARA) in Bahrain. We persuaded the powers that be that we should run free fall courses for members of the fledgling battalion club, using Army Air Corps aircraft in Aden, where we spent much of the first half of 1962. How we never killed or even injured any of our students remains a mystery.

For our own advancement Gus and I determined to learn more of the gentle art of “Relative Work”. However we had no one to instruct us and the only books available at that time (such as Bud Sellick’s “Skydiving”) gave little guidance. So it was a case of learning the hard way by experimentation. Some half dozen times we hurled ourselves our of the aircraft, tried to adjust our rates of descent until we were roughly level and then proceeded to track towards each other with horrendous closing speed. Fortunately we never collided. Then finally, on 8th May, due certainly more to luck than any skill, Gus ended up just above my back; I reached back and passed him the baton I was carrying (a sick bag rolled up with masking tape) before we spun apart.

It was only later that we discovered that this was the first such achievement by two members of the British Army. 22 SAS had by this time done quite a lot of training with the Golden Knights but all such manoeuvres had apparently been between British and American parachutists. But it would be another five years, while on an exchange tour in the States, before I finally received proper instruction and learned to do it safely and with any degree of certainty.