La Réunion (And It Feels So Good)
Tales from the Bonfire | Mar 06, 2024
La Réunion (And It Feels So Good)

Karen Saunders

Take a look outside. Pretty gray, no?

I have a suggestion for you—one which just became a little more accessible. Take a vacation. Go to a stunning tropical island. Bring your rig.

There’s  a particular destination I have in mind: the French island of La Réunion. You may or may not have heard of it, but not only is it probably the loveliest little paradise you’ve ever seen, but the skies ahead are open only to fun jumpers with USPA licenses.

It began for me when the October grayness was beginning to fall thickly on my home island of the United Kingdom. My husband, S&TA Steve Saunders, and I got a very long-distance call from a fella with a thick French accent. We’d been recommended as the folks to call to clear a local drop zone as a USPA-affiliated skydiving center, as well as to help convert the licenses and ratings of everyone on the drop zone. Were we available?

We looked at the island on a map, then looked at the grim sky outside. We started packing pretty much as soon as Steve hung up the call.

I’m a British Skydiving Rigger Examiner, so I’m more than a little bit useful to have around for such an occasion. I accordingly packed my kit (and swimsuit) and prepared to lead the charge on the ground: DZ control, rigging, packing and general chaos management. In the meantime, I did a little research.

A bit south of the Maldives, a bit east of Madagascar, La Réunion’s climate is very similar to that of its closest continental neighbor, Africa. Summer begins around November, with December temperatures reaching over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The population speaks French—along with Creole—and the currency is, conveniently, the Euro. The strong Creole influence on the island adds much to its charm (and its perfection of curry). It’s a study in turquoise and emerald, and it’s even more comely from above. Upon arriving, I quickly discovered the delights of the island: the curtain of feathery waterfalls at Cascade de Grand Galet; trekking the steep, shaggy shoulders of the volcanic shield; and wandering through towns as proud of their exquisite Frenchness as they are of their tropical swagger.

But I digress. We were here to tackle a big job, not to dally too much in French wine and stupid-good curry.

When we arrived at the seaside aerodrome, we were greeted by the enormous smile of the DZO of Fly 974, who had invited us over. Freddy Cruesot founded Fly 974 himself in 2001, and he’s as passionate today as he was when he made his first parachute jump with the French military as a very young man.

We soon clocked how big a job this was going to be. The staff were all very experienced and holders of French ratings, but the language barrier was cliff-steep and the timeline was short. Freddy wanted to not only convert the drop zone to a USPA affiliate, but also to convert every single staff jumper’s French TI rating to USPA, while at the same time earning USPA Coach and AFFI ratings all around. And we needed to do it all in less than a month.

Steve and I knew from the start that it wasn’t just the students who needed support. We’d need a squad, too, to take on such a big job on such a short timeline. We had prepared for such an eventuality, reaching out to USPA Examiner Peter Haarman to travel to the island with us. Freddy had also called for backup, ringing up Anly Abdalla Djaha, DZO of the drop zone on Mayotte—another spectacular tropical island—and one of the French Army’s top instructors in water and jungle warfare (with stronger English chops).

So the ground-school-war-room was a flurry of activity during those early briefs, as we rode a roller coaster of elation to despair and back again, over and over. Elation! The island is a jaw-dropping paradise. Despair! The traffic is apocalyptic. Elation! The training jumps are to be made from helicopters—a couple of Airbus H125s. Despair! Both whirlybirds are due for service. And so on.

La Réunion gets 12 hours of sunlight per day, starting at 6 a.m. During daylight hours, we’d be working around two big limiting factors: the helicopter company’s daytime pleasure flights and the military training that shares the landing area. After doing the math, we decided that we’d have to send the helicopter up with the sun, spend the middle of the day in the classroom and then jump again right up until the VFR shutdown.

As DZ control, that schedule meant very long days for me. The landing area, as we discovered, was no sweet little grassy pad tucked alongside the taxiway. Located in a municipal park a 15-minute drive from the airport, it was shared not only with the military, but with locals grazing their cattle and goats. When I arrived to set it up in the morning, the locals were helpful: The minute any resident shepherd saw me setting up, they’d give a friendly holler and hustle their charges out of the way.

One squinty-eyed, coffee-toting morning, however, I noticed that the goats were milling considerably longer than usual, and the shepherd seemed awfully distracted. As it turned out, one of his goats had chosen that moment to give birth. Suffice it to say, she wasn’t planning on moving until the job was done. I helped as much as I could, calling “negative drop” until he and I managed to get the kid delivered and the rest of the extended goat family out of the way.

The weeks spooled by, and the cows and goats and helicopter maintenance and long lunches and big-gesture classroom communication and sunrises and sunsets all seemed to happen faster and faster. And miraculously, with the sheer dedication of everyone involved, we realized something incredible: We were going to do this. And just three weeks later, we did.

By the time I left La Réunion, the entire group had been successful in achieving their USPA Coach, Tandem and AFF Instructor ratings. And while that was an achievement in itself, by the time we’d left we’d also stamped the foreheads of the island’s first two successful USPA AFF students (Fred’s wife, Nadia Cruesot, and community pilot Sandy Cole).

Our time on the island drew to a triumphant close, and La Réunion seemed to be celebrating with us. The sun was shining, weather was perfect and a pod of humpback whales were welcoming new whale babies just off the coast. The experience made me think about what a joy it is to welcome new members into a thriving family.

So let me be the first to say it. Welcome to USPA, Fly 974.

Karen Saunders | C-41419
Nottinghamshire, United Kingdom

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