Wing and a prayer as archbishop takes to the heavens

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All skydivers must say a little prayer as they prepare to leap out of an aircraft at 12,500ft. But few can be quite as confident that the Almighty might actually be listening as the Archbishop of York was yesterday.

Making good on a promise to complete a daredevil parachute jump to raise money and awareness for soldiers and their families wounded or killed while serving in Afghanistan, the Most Rev John Sentamu accompanied the Red Devils on a 45-second freefall above Langar Airfield in Nottinghamshire.

"I was praying like anybody's business up there. It was an amazing, amazing experience," he told reporters, clearly exhilarated, as he came down to earth with a gentle bump. "I thought to myself, 'Why have I taken so long to do this?'," he added, orange smoke trailing behind him.

The 58-year-old clergyman had agreed to do the jump after meeting a businessman, Guy Brudenell, at a charity dinner. Mr Brudenell, from Helmsley, North Yorkshire, was delighted and not a little taken back when the archbishop said he would join him, hoping to raise £50,000 for the Afghanistan Trust, which supports the families of paratroopers from 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment.

Asked why he made the jump, Dr Sentamu said: "My first thing is that when servicemen come back they find their families are not in a better position than they were before. It's important for citizens of this country to value those who risk their lives for the sake of this country so I'm doing my part."

It was the second attempt to carry out the feat, the original having been called off last month due to bad weather. But yesterday the wind and the rain held off – after a brief delay due to fog when Mr Brudenell's helicopter was grounded at his North Yorkshire home.

Not content with plummeting 7,500ft before his parachute opened – a drop which took him less than three-quarters of a minute – the archbishop was joined en route by members of the Red Devils for a brief mid-air display. He then floated the remaining 5,000m earthbound at a more sedate pace, taking five minutes to complete his descent.

Major Nick Vischer, the officer commanding the Red Devils, said: "It was really great. Dr Sentamu was up for it. He just wanted to give it 200 per cent. He gave the thumbs up all the way down."

L/Cpl Lee Read, who made the tandem jump with the archbishop and who flies to Afghanistan for a tour of duty in two weeks, paid tribute to his co-jumper. "Dr Sentamu was a very good student. He was very calm on board the flight, although he didn't say a great deal."

The archbishop is no stranger to danger or publicity. Arrested and forced to flee his native Uganda after criticising the brutal regime of Idi Amin, he has championed the plight of the urban poor as well as advising the inquiry into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

In 2006 he spent a week fasting to highlight the suffering of people affected by the conflict between Israel and Lebanon. He has also protested vigorously against the situation in Zimbabwe, most dramatically by cutting up his dog collar live on television, saying he would only wear it again once Mr Mugabe was removed.

He repeated his condemnation of the Zimbabwean leader yesterday. "I've said before that Mugabe was living on borrowed time. I'm afraid the world is far too slow sometimes. It is time for the countries in the area to say enough is enough," he said.