The thrill of freefall

As a young man, a love of heights led to John Knepscheld realising one of his dreams – jumping out of an aircraft with a parachute  from 10 000 feet.

But, Knepscheld, a relative newcomer to Port Alfred, had an action-packed career leading up to this.

PASSION FOR HEIGHTS: Port Alfred resident John Knepscheld, whose love for heights encouraged him to jump out of aircraft with a parachute from 10,000 feet Picture: BOB FORD

Born in the former Rhodesia, but educated in the Transkei and East London, Knepscheld, by his own admission, was a rebel at school. By the time he had passed Grade 10 he had had enough of school and left at the tender age of 15.

Looking for “some action,” he volunteered to join the army and was assigned to the engineering corps in Bethlehem. However, it was soon discovered that he was under age and was discharged and sent back to what was then Queenstown (now Komani), where his family lived at the time.

However, more drama was to follow as there had been errors made on his papers and he was immediately arrested on arrival in his home town and charged with AWOL. But his father had connections in the army and after a few days in prison he was released and sent back to Bethlehem to undergo training, starting in 1981.

Military life was better suited to Knepscheld as he completed his 10-month training stint with flying colours and was presented with a “Nine Flame Award.” This was awarded to only nine of the top trainees out of 1,000.

By now he had specialised as an explosives technician and spent the next 14 months in the army on the Angolan border lifting land mines. This also involved going into Angolan territory. He recalled being flown into the western area of the border where a land mine was detonated by a military vehicle, killing 11 of the troops. His job was to ensure that the surrounding area was clear of further land mines to enable medics to move in.

He admitted: “This was nerve-wracking work, but we were so well trained that we did not make any mistakes. You couldn’t afford to.”

It was while he was in the army that Knepscheld’s interest in parachuting grew. Part of their training as explosives technicians involved doing a course similar to the one undertaken by paratroopers, but not as intense. Although he completed the course, he was not permitted to qualify as he suffered from shin splints.

But his desire to do parachute jumping was still strong and his opportunity came during a stint in Bloemfontein. He had permanent force friends in the army there and he persuaded them to let him jump. After a refresher course, this was organised and he did his first jump in 1984 with the old fashioned round parachute.

“These were horrible things and uncontrollable. If the wind got hold of you, you could land up anywhere as far as eight or 10 kilometres off course. You also then had no control as to what you would land in if there was bush or trees in the vicinity,” he said.

On completion of his days in the army, Knepscheld returned to Queenstown and enrolled to do an apprenticeship as a mechanic and specialised in working on big machinery such as graders, articulated machinery and big lighting plants. After seven years of working for other different firms in the town, Knepscheld broke away to work for himself.

He had to wait until 1993 before he could continue with his love of parachuting. He had friends in the town who were doing this in conjunction with a club from nearby Grahamstown. This proved to be far more enjoyable than his army days with the equipment being far more advanced and safer. He first jumped solo from 3,500 feet with a static line and a rectangular modern day parachute.

“These were very steerable and their braking systems were good, enabling you to land safely and gently on a spot. The view from that height is also spectacular.”

It did not take Knepscheld long to advance to jumping from 10 000 feet. He explained that this was done in freefall and one only opened the parachute at about 3,500 feet. He said the sensation was difficult to explain as one was falling at such a speed that all one could hear was the wind rushing past. But once the chute was opened one had a feeling of complete freedom.

Increased costs of this sport forced Knepscheld to retire and he took up the more sedate activity of playing darts.


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