It’s easy to miss Ernesto Gainza Medina in a crowd. He’s 1.63m tall, weighs only 52kg and, dressed in a T-shirt and shorts while sporting a broad grin, he looks like a friendly neighbourhood suburbanite on a holiday.
It’s only when big burly types all togged up in heavy skydiving gear start high-fiving him as they enter the reception area of Skydive Dubai that you realise Ernesto is indeed the skydiver who’s pitching for a new record in skydiving tomorrow, April 5.
Ernesto, 35, is part of the XCF team of Skydive Dubai who are attempting to set the world record. “XCF stands for extreme canopy [parachute] flight,” he explains.
“This is a dream I’ve had for many years after seeing the current record-holder, Luigi Canni, who is recognised as having dived with the world’s smallest parachute [Icarus JVX-37] in 2008. I am attempting to dive with [a two-square foot smaller] parachute from a height of around 13,000 feet with the help of Skydive Dubai.”
He’s been in training for a year now for this mission. “The parachute has a surface area of 35 square feet, a little smaller than a standard single bed,” he explains. “A standard size parachute is 120 square feet, which is roughly the size of two double beds. Students use ones of between 200 and 230 square feet while experienced pilots use around 66 square feet.”
Ernesto has done over 2,500 jumps using regular parachutes, but this is the first time he is attempting a world-record jump.
What makes it so dangerous is the g-force (the force of acceleration, rather than gravitational force) that comes into play at high altitudes. “When the parachute is so small so many things come into play, especially the g-force, which can actually make you pass out,” he says. “If the parachute malfunctions or goes into a spin, the blood will go away from my brain and cause me to black out. If I don’t use the correct technique, on time, I will pass out. If I lean my body to one side it will result in a partial turn, which can send me out of control. If I use the brakes in an uneven way when I perform any manoeuvres, the parachute will not function properly.”
The last test jump Ernest did was a 65kph vertical drop. “I had a descent rate of 5,500 feet per minute,” he explains. “In a normal parachute you can stay in the air for five to six minutes from say 2,500 feet. I exit a plane at 11,000 feet and I have 2.5 minutes of air time, after which I open the parachute.”
There are just two safety devices Ernesto can rely on if things go wrong. “We have an automatic activation device – two small computers with two different functions,” he says. “One is a g-force unit; if I experience 7g constantly for more than five seconds and black out, that unit will detach the parachute and pull me back in free-fall. What it does, is gives me a chance to deploy my main parachute, if I wake up on time. If I don’t wake up on time then I have another device that will open the reserve parachute automatically at 750 feet. These are mechanical devices and not 100 per cent reliable, but they’ve been tested many times and have been on the market for around 20 years. I don’t rely on devices, but it’s better than not having anything at all.’’
Ernesto knows about the dangers of experiencing g-force first hand. “We went for training to the G-Force Centre in Holland to handle the g-forces. In the past, one pilot, Chris Markinson, passed away in 2005 during one of the tests. He got between 13gs in the head and 30gs on his feet. That gives you an idea about the forces that I will experience if something goes wrong. I did 7.5gs for 45 seconds.”
Ernesto will attempt the dive strapped to three parachutes: “The small one I will use for the record, a main normal parachute with a 65-square-foot canopy, and a reserve parachute of 106 square feet. If anything goes wrong with the small parachute and I am conscious, I will detach it and open the main parachute. If something goes wrong with that one, I will detach that too and open the reserve parachute, which can help me land safely.”
He sounds so detached that you’d think Ernesto feels no fear. “I am a very emotional person, but in the sky, the only feeling I have is fear which I try to embrace, and to be as positive as possible. Last time I was up there I checked my heart rate; it was 135 beats per minute – the normal is between 60 and 100 – that’s how scared I was!” he says. “I do get scared; feel fear. I am human. But once I leave the aircraft there’s no room for fear. I have to concentrate on my moves. You should be mentally prepared.”
The reason Ernesto feels he can do it is also his physical size. The smaller the diver, the greater the chances of success with a small parachute. “Skill wise, I think there are only a couple of people who can pull this off in a safe way,” he says. “I am one of them due to my size. But above all, it’s my passion. Anybody can try this, but if they don’t have the passion for it, I don’t think they’ll succeed. I love flying with parachutes and I’ve been doing it for around seven years now. I’ve been a competitor and a test pilot for parachute manufacturers.”
How does it feel to experience all that g-force? “Imagine you are on a roller-coaster. When you go down you feel the emptiness, but when you go up you feel like you are heavy,” Ernesto explains. “What I feel is 7.5 times my weight… So for me to move my hands even a few inches to release the handle of my parachute, I have to be really careful because if I relax too much and miss the handle, I can’t bring my hand up again in time. I have to do everything very methodically and mechanically.”
Ernesto’s love for the skies began in 2003 in his hometown, Valencia in Venezuela. “I was at university, then studying law and business management in the UK.” He went on a skydive and enjoyed it tremendously. “I just gave up law and business when I started skydiving – I knew I had found what I wanted to do with my life.
“I saw the faces of the people who came to skydive – after their jump they would come in with a wide smile on their faces, it would stay with them as they went back home and perhaps for the whole day. To be able to give that to people who come here all stressed is beautiful. I hate being tied down to my office – I’d rather be up there in the sky!”
Skydiving became his profession in 2004 after starting as a parachute packer in a small drop zone in northern France then graduating to videographer, skydiving instructor and a test pilot for prototype parachutes.
In 2007, he joined the European canopy piloting competition circuit participating in more than 12 international competitions representing Venezuela.
Ernesto passed his freefall instructor exams in 2011 before arriving at Skydive Dubai the same year to become the assistant manager of operations at Skydive Dubai. Would he give it all up to go back to the path of practising law? “I have lived a very beautiful, intense life, so I would not think of retiring and taking up law,” he grins. “I plan to keep doing this until I am 55, if I am fit enough.”
His wife, Darja, also works at the Skydive Dubai office. “She suffers, of course, not being a skydiver herself,” he says. “But she’s very positive and hasa reconciled to my job now. I keep making promises I won’t do any crazy projects but keep breaking them!”
Ernesto is very clear why he’s doing this record-breaking jump. “XCF is my way to inspire others to try to fight for their dreams no matter what they are,” he says. “For me it’s landing the world’s smallest parachute, for you it might be to ride a camel. This is my way of inspiring people to follow their dreams, no matter what their dreams are. You have to fight for them.
“We are in this world for a very short period to do extraordinary things and I don’t have to be an extraordinary person to do it,” he says. “Anybody can do it. Doesn’t matter what it is. Even at a desk job you can do extraordinary things. You just have to think beyond that barrier that people have put around you. That’s what I am trying to prove.”