He shoots - he breezes; the man who free falls for a living

There can’t be many public servants who actively anticipate falling to their death some day, and even fewer who have the confidence of training not to worry about it, yet this is the office of outrageous that Lt Denis Gowran, a 1,000-jump veteran of the Black Knights - the Irish Army’s parachute display team - operates on a regular basis.

“I’ve never had to pull my reserve [parachute], but you’d be surprised how common it is,” he replied sanguinely.

The Advertiser had just enquired whether he’d ever had a canopy malfunction, and an ensuing encounter with Mr Newton that requires the blue moon usage of the chest-worn get-out-of-jail-free card.

“A malfunction is more down to bad packing. There’d nearly be one at every jump-off. I’m the only one in the team that hasn’t,” he explained matter-of-factly.

And in case you think there is a touch of profligacy in these straitened days with a publicly-funded 24-year-old jumping out of aeroplanes for his jollies, Lt Gowran and his 11 teammates fund all overseas training trips themselves, and even pay for all additional ’chutes above and beyond their one Government-issue. At €5,000 a pop!

Lt Gowran was last in action in the Midlands returning a highly respectable time of 1:23 in the TriAthlone last month; however the former pupil of St Finian’s College, Mullingar has had to curtail any such further exertions for the time being after a tear-inducing, coccyx-first landing in Brazil requires he keeps off pointy saddles for a while.

Earlier last month The Black Knights travelled to Rio de Janeiro to compete in the World Military Games (Conseil Internationale du Sport Militaire ), and came 11th out of 40 nations. Considering there are 28 nations in NATO, and the Irish Army has no tradition of paratroops, this was a very creditable result.

“The CISM is the military Olympics. There were about 6,000 athletes, as well as triathlons, parachuting, boxing, shooting,” said Denis.

“A lot of these would be looking to go to the Olympics and would be full-time athletes,” he pointed out.

“We’ll do 300 a year - they’ll do up to 1,000 jumps a year. The US team has over 15,000 jumps and the Belgian team lives in a drop zone in Spain. They’ll win the world championships [in Dubai in November]. They’re fully pro, but we’re getting there,” he added.

He went on to explain how there are two types of parachute competition. The more common is formation skydiving from 3,200 metres (10,500 feet ), where the team of jumpers try to make the most number of choreographed moves whilst falling, and then have their jump video judged on terra firma.

The second discipline, at which Lt Gowran competes, is accuracy jumping from 1,100 metres (3,500 feet ) on to a 2cm disc. Yes. That’s two centimetres - less than an inch - from a vertical kilometre. And even with Lt Gowran’s bum-py landing on his final jump, 29 teams still finished behind them.

Denis has been jumping for five years, and was selected for the Black Knights in Jauary 2010.

As part of the cadetship, each candidate had to do a fortnight of adventure training, and Lt Gowran found he was less apprehensive jumping out of an aeroplane than strapping on an aqualung, and: “Clonbullogue was nearer [the Curragh] than Kilkee”.

Because of the weather here the team can only manage about 30 of their annual jump quota of 300 in Ireland.

“We’ve aggressive, high performance canopies and you can’t jump if they’re wet,” he explained.

“I’ve been caught in rain and hail and it’s very painful,” he said.

If you can imagine the shape of a raindrop, and then imagine the fellow falling at 180 kph onto thousands of the pointy ends, you get the picture.

“We got caught in a thunderstorm in Russia and that was fairly dangerous. It will throw you around like a washing machine, and the thermals will keep you up a bit longer. It is very much not advisable,” he quietly pointed out.

The Advertiser asked why would he go to jump in somewhere like that if a quick weatherfront threatens to turn you into a lasagne.

“We do 10 or 12 jumps a day. It’s €13 a jump in Russia, €15 in the US, but it’s €22 in Ireland. After a 100 jumps it all adds up.” Particulary if you’re self-funding.

At the moment Lt Gowran takes tandem jumpers and advanced free-fallers for training at the national parachute club in Clonbullogue in Co Offaly to help pay for his sport.

“I’ll do my advanced training in Spain later this year. At the moment I can coach experienced freefallers but not novices,” he said.

The Advertiser asked how the various customers reacted to the opening of the door and that breezy perusal of some real geography.

“Some people freak, and there’s loads you have to give a dig to persuade them out [of the plane],” he told.

“Then, my girlfriend went up in Brazil and was as cool as a cucumber. I certainly wasn’t,” he admitted.

Between training, competitions, and display jumping, Lt Gowran serves with the 5th Infantry battalion in McKee Barracks in Dublin where he is a live fire training officer, and thus qualifies as the first person on this page to actually do shooting and the breeze.

However, apart from voicing a hope to serve in the blue beret in Lebanon next year Lt Gowran, like all proper servicemen, was thoroughly reticent about any operational applications of his very specialised skills and so the war stories will have to wait til sometime after the 30-year rule expires.

Lieutenant Denis Gowran can be next seen in Westmeath falling rapidly into the AIT athletics track for the opening of the national Community Games next week.

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