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BBC Television’s 21st anniversary parachute jump

Posted in Aviation, Communications, Historical articles, Sport on Monday, 1 July 2013

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This edited article about BBC sports commentators originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 308 published on 9 December 1967.

“I was so pleased at having actually jumped that for a moment everything else went out of my head. There was no sense of falling . . . I thought, ‘I am enjoying this!’ ”

Ronnie Noble BBC Television, October 30th, 1957

Ronnie Noble fastened the last strap on his parachute harness, put on his crash helmet, and climbed into the small aeroplane. The instruction which, a few days before had been received by every producer in the Outside Broadcast Department of BBC Television came, unbidden, into his mind: On no account endanger your life or risk personal injury in the course of duty.

Surely, it seemed to Ronnie, a single parachute jump could hardly be classified as dangerous? During the war he’d photographed hundreds of soldiers as they jumped from airborne troop-carriers. He’d watched the parachutes billow out, and float gently and silently to the ground.

“I’d often thought,” he said, “that I’d like to have a go at it myself.”

Ronnie Noble was producing a short series of television films called “Holiday Girl”, featuring the Olympic sprinter, June Paul. Viewers had been invited to “Learn to Water-Ski with June Paul”, and to “Come Trout-fishing with June Paul”. In the third of these out-of-door programmes, they joined her as an expert taught her how to handle a small yacht.

“So many people appear to enjoy the programmes that it seemed a pity to stop after only three,” Ronnie told me. But what could he ask June to undertake next?

Then he had an idea. This was October, 1957, and BBC Television was celebrating its 21st anniversary. The series “Sportsview” was looking back over 21 years of televised sport. What about giving viewers a glimpse of something new – the sport of the future? Would June like to make a parachute jump?

Yes, said June – it was a terrific idea. She would like to try it very much.

Arrangements were put in hand. At Fairoaks Aerodrome, near Woking, Surrey, two aeroplanes were hired – one, from which June would make her jump, and the other for the cameraman who would make a film-sequence of her descent.

In the next few days, June learned how and when to operate a parachute. She was shown how to make a safe landing. Her instructor was Major “Dumbo” Willans, founder of the British Parachute Club and a man who liked nothing better than to make delayed “drops” – jumping, and waiting until the last moment before opening his parachute.

In the day fixed for rehearsal and filming, the weather was perfect. But it was then that Ronnie felt a slight twinge of conscience.

“You see,” he told me, “I had promised June I wouldn’t ask her to do anything I wasn’t prepared to do myself.” He’d been thinking: wouldn’t it give June greater confidence if she watched her producer make a jump before her own turn came?

Ronnie – 13 stone or thereabouts – realised that he was not in such superb condition as was the athletic June. But he knew the drill, and there were no points that ten minutes’ tuition would not put right. Besides, Major Willans made it all look so easy.

It was lucky that, before he left home that morning, Ronnie had put on the nylon top-jacket he’d brought back from Korea, and a pair of Canadian marching boots. Not, he told himself, that at that time he’d the slightest intention of making a parachute jump . . .

The extra jump was arranged. The small aircraft climbed to 1,500 feet. Ronnie, looking down on the small green fields, soon picked out the white marker on which he was to land.

As he moved to the open doorway of the plane, he repeated the words of the instructor: “Jump out – count three – pull – don’t worry if the thing doesn’t open – there’s relief equipment on your tummy – that’ll get you to the ground.”

Don’t worry if the thing doesn’t open . . .

The hand resting on his shoulder was suddenly lifted. It was time to jump. Ronnie found he could not move.

“You’ll have to push me,” he said. But he didn’t know he’d spoken the words out loud.

Then he was tumbling down through space, hurtling earthwards – head first! “Just like a sack of potatoes,” one onlooker described it.

“I was so pleased at having actually jumped,” he said, “that for a moment everything else went out of my head. There was no sense of falling – no fear at all . . . I thought, I am enjoying this . . .”

Then, with the earth rushing up towards him, he found the ripcord and pulled – hard. His parachute opened and for a brief while he enjoyed “a delirious feeling of floating”. Then, before he was ready, he hit the ground. There was no time to think about how he ought to land.

He knew he had hurt himself. But uppermost in his mind was the thought that on no account must he let June know. He must pretend it had been a delightful experience – that everything was all right.

By the time June and Major Willans dashed up in their jeep, Ronnie was able to smile and say: “I’m fine. Don’t worry. You’ll be all right, girl.”

A few minutes later, June, clad in silk poplin overalls, ski boots and crash helmet, made a perfect jump. As for Ronnie, he was rushed to Woking Hospital, where an examination revealed that he had a cracked pelvis . . .

Ronnie Noble was in hospital for two weeks, and it was not until nearly two months later that he walked, rather stiffly into his office at the BBC.

He didn’t explain his stiffness. His chief had been told that Ronnie had been away with complications following a bad attack of ‘flu. It never occurred to him that his ace-producer would disobey orders!

The film that was taken of Ronnie’s jump is, to this day, shown to parachutists in training.

“It’s a perfect demonstration of how not to make a parachute descent,” Ronnie told me, with a smile. “Apparently I ignored every instruction in the book. When would-be parachutists are watching the film, the instructor says: ‘Look at that man carefully. Avoid everything he does, and you’ll be all right.’ ”

It was Ronnie Noble’s first descent by parachute, and his last. It was an experience he’s never been tempted to repeat!

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