Excuse me while I kiss the sky
Around 600 feet above the surface of Bilkhet, a village in Uttarakhand, the paramotor’s engine snaps. Sajid Chougle, a professional skydiver, turns towards his pilot. The pilot informs him about the engine malfunction; Sajid asks if it can be restarted. “And we’re having this conversation while flying without engine power, literally just gliding down,” Chougle says.
The pilot tries to hold onto the brakes and control lines and instructs Chougle to press the ignition button. No luck. Seated ahead of the pilot, Chougle braces onto the frame of the paramotor. “I was thinking that if I go into the trees or tents, I don’t want to fly off,” Chougle says. Save the drama. The pilot is skilled enough to ensure a safe landing without crashing into trees, objects or humans.
Off they go again the next morning, and this time Chougle is able to complete his jump from the sky on the final day of the four-day paragliding event. “I had told him (pilot), ‘please figure out your machine, take your time, I don’t want to do this in a rush’,” Chougle says.
He had waited long enough, anyway. This was late November 2020, when Chougle, a Mumbai-based skydiver and BASE jumper (BASE jumping involves jumping from fixed objects like cliffs, buildings, etc. using just a parachute) was able to fly again after being chained to the ground for a large part of last year. The coronavirus pandemic took away the normal from the world; for Chougle normal entails a test of gravity from dizzy heights.
The reunion after eight months made him understand the true meaning of one of those quotable quotes. “As Leonardo da Vinci mentioned, once you get a taste of the skies you always long for them. I can vouch for that statement now,” says Chougle. “I felt exactly like that. After 8-9 months of confinement as I was jumping back from the skies, it was just a beautiful feeling.”
To wrap up 2020, Chougle travelled to Sikkim in December and began 2021 with a trip to Telangana – all make up for the time lost due to the pandemic. “When you have these long breaks, as a jumper you’re always visualising jump scenarios in your head. You’re always up there,” he says.
Being up there is now a quasi-lifestyle for the 38-year-old, having first adopted it back in 2008 -- when he first attempted a tandem jump with a friend from 18,000 feet above in California. The next year he signed up for an Accelerated FreeFall (AFF) course—a skydiving training course—in Philadelphia, where his fling with the sky transformed into a more meaningful romance. That relationship with skydiving has now reached the level of a C-license.
Go ahead and jump
Every year, Chougle allots about two-three months to fly away from his earth job of creative director. Every year, except 2020 of course. “Usually in June-July I’m in Norway and Sweden, where I train and go for my jumps. I also work there with different BASE jumping organisations. I couldn’t do that last year. But because I live with two babies aged 84 (father) and 74 (mother) at home I had the responsibility to ensure their safety,” he says. “Sitting at home, I felt a bit limited but I channelised that into creating more content.”
Among his quirkiest works, Chougle shot a stop-motion skydiving video at home, mimicking the body movements and technique of his jumps, all while lying on the floor of his room, with a background sound of gushing winds. Creating such videos was an outlet for Chougle to unleash his adventurous side, bottled up for months from not jumping. But what helped Chougle really pull through the period of inactivity was his previous such experience -- the first long lull after tasting the high life of the skies.
When he moved back to India from the US in 2011, Chougle had to give up skydiving after his savings ran out. This was until he co-founded his company, pretty much to fund the skydiver in him. “I improved on my work front only so I could save money and make bigger skydiving trips in the future. When you go through such a phase, it helps you understand yourself better. You realise how passionate you are about these things,” he adds.
Chougle sure was passionate about testing the limits. Before skydiving, he dabbled in long distance running, long distance cycling and dragon boat racing. Soon enough, he was introduced to skydiving, and Chougle dived at the opportunity, literally. First came the tandem jump, then the solo ones. Enrolling in a skydiving school was the next natural step. The school was just an hour away from his home, so he would jump every weekend and complete his AFF course. At about this time a childhood friend from Mumbai reminded him of why this was his true calling.
“We had those slam books in high school where they ask: what do you want to be when you grow up. I had written skydiver. I had no clue I had written something like that. When my friend sent me a photo of that, I knew it was to be.”
Over the last decade, Chougle has completed around 400 jumps across the globe: several spots in the USA, Norway, Sweden (where he jumped off a windmill), Dubai, Thailand, South Africa and a few states in India too. The thrill in each of those jumps is unique. But the one he remembers most vividly was in Norway.
“In that jump, the fog layer was of three seconds, which is to say you’re free falling through fog for three whole seconds. It was my first jump where I couldn’t see what’s beneath me. I was the last guy to go so alone on the cliff, I was trying to talk to myself: ‘Hey, you can do this. It’s just fog, you know what’s after that. Just be in the right body position’,” he says. “That feeling where you’re connected with the mountain—it’s like the mountain, wind, fog…everything is you. That’s the purest form of any natural connection that you can feel.”
Norway is also where he completed his BASE jumping course, weeks after an incident that compelled him to question his choice for the first time.
Cliffs and troughs
Pushing him to go the next level from sky to BASE jumping was Richard Lidstrom, a Swede who Chougle met in 2016. Lidstrom asked him to make a trip to Norway, where the vertical mountains offered the Indian an ideal foundation to learn BASE jumping. Excited about the prospect of free falling from cliffs, which are aplenty in India, Chougle planned his trip for 2017.
“Two weeks before I was to fly to Norway and hours after chatting with Richard, his brother put a message on Facebook saying Richard died in a wingsuit BASE jumping accident in Italy. That completely shook my world. The guy who I was supposed to travel with and who guided me into the BASE jumping world was no longer there. I asked myself—am I making the right decision? I took my time. But I did the trip, completed the course and also met Richard’s family. That completely transformed my life,” he says.
He went back to Norway in 2018, taking out two months from his job to do more BASE jumps. The key difference between sky and BASE (acronym for building, antenna, span and earth) jumping is that while the former has two parachutes –main and reserve canopy— the latter has only one. Chougle says both have evolved in terms of safety with technological advancements. But mastering the technical nuances of a skydive, which includes visualisation to go with right body positioning as well as timing and technique of parachute deployment and landing, remain sacrosanct.
“If you go to a reputed BASE jumping course, they will ask for a minimum of 200-250 sky dives. Skydiving gives you awareness to free fall and getting your body position correct. These are the basic critical points in BASE jumping, where you’re landing in tighter areas. If your body position is wrong, your deployment gets affected and you may get entangled into the lines of the parachute. And that may kill you,” Chougle says.
Which begs the question: what attracts Chougle to continue experiencing this extreme adventure sport that literally puts his life at risk every time he falls from the skies? His answer is well on the lines of George Mallory’s oft-quoted, “because it’s there.”
“Why do we do anything?” replies Chougle. “Because we’re humans, and in this process you get to know yourself a little better. I understand this is not for everyone. But it is something I live for.”