The word "skydive" is actually a grandiloquent term for a free-fall parachute jump, but "skydive" is obviously better for your street-cred. Whatever you like to call it, the practice ranks as the most user-friendly adrenalin-based experience, particularly for beginners (but you needn't tell your friends that either). And what's more, sky-surfing aficionados claim it is safer than crossing the road.
There are three ways to take your first plunge. The tandem skydive allows almost anyone to have a go - including the disabled - at between 6,000 and 10,000 feet, and offers anxious first-timers the chance to be accompanied by an experienced instructor. "Tandem gives people a real taste for skydiving," explains Leslie Gail, editor of Sport Parachutist magazine and a professional skydiver. "With an instructor guiding you, you get the chance to do different moves that you would never normally be able to do. The instructor controls the free-fall, the parachute and the landing." And you get the white- knuckled pleasure of admiring the view and enjoying speeds of up to 120mph. The free-fall lasts for about 30 seconds while the parachute ride lasts for five minutes. If you require a permanent record of your tremendous act of bravery, an instructor will be on hand to film your awfully big adventure.
Training can take as little as 15 minutes and involves a discussion of how high you want to go, how you are going to leave the aircraft, and what positions you would like to adopt while free-falling. Couldn't be simpler.
"Static-line parachuting" is for the high-octane adrenalin junky where, according to Leslie Gail, "You are at the mercy of the wind." The parachute opens automatically soon after you leave the plane, and allows the intrepid jumper a certain amount of control over the course of the fall. It may take a lot more nerve, but is the cheapest way to jump. Training takes at least 6 hours.
The final option is the "accelerated free fall" (AFF). As the name suggests, it is the most direct and swift route to the ground, and requires considerably more training. The student receives a rigorous day's instruction on the ground, followed by the first of eight controlled jumps. The final stage involves a hair-raising solo jump where the student must do a "clear and pull", meaning they must deploy the parachute in the first five seconds after leaving the plane. The whole course can be completed in as little as three days.
So what is it that makes ordinary people want to see the ground hurtling towards them at 120mph? "An inherent desire to live and enjoy," explains Chris Frances, an advanced instructor for the London Parachute School. "It gives you a feeling of total freedom. The moment you jump you are so focused that jobs, mortgages and kids go out the window. It's focused escapism."
Susannah Melville, a 24-year-old PR executive, did her first jump a year ago for charity and cannot wait to do it again. "The risk factor is the hit. You wonder for a while if the parachute is going to open but when it does it feels fantastic. It's better than alcohol, better than anything. I was high for about three days afterwards."
Competitive skydiving takes place on a variety of levels, anywhere between club and international, and despite the macho advertising campaigns, has the unique value of allowing men and women to compete on an equal footing.
Competitive areas for skydivers may include accuracy of landing, where competitors jump from 3,000 feet and attempt to land on a minuscule disc. On a more aesthetic level, teams can compete for "formation" supremacy in a kind of airborne synchronised swimming.
The overriding appeal of skydiving is that virtually anyone can do it. You don't have to be able to swim, ski, climb or cycle, and should you need it, you can have someone holding your hand all the way. The sky's the limit.
THE LOW DOWN - SKYDIVING
Each student must undertake basic training before they can jump. The maximum age limit is 50, although this is negotiable. Everyone over the age of 40 is required to bring a doctor's certificate.
Tandem - training and jump costs around pounds 200
Static Line - training and jump costs around pounds 130
Accelerated Free Fall - training pounds 1,000 to pounds 1,600
WHERE TO DO IT
The London Parachute School, High Wycombe, Bucks (01494 712734). For both complete beginners and experienced skydivers
Headcorn Parachute Club, Kent (01622 890862)
FURTHER INFORMATION British Parachuting Assoc (BPA) (0116-278 5271)
Sport Parachutist magazine (01733 755860)