The order came in from the Independent HQ that I was to report to RAF Weston-on-the-Green, in Oxfordshire, at 1500hrs precisely, be pinned to the front of a British Parachute Association instructor with a slightly suspect sense of humour, thrown out of a plane at 12,000 feet, freefall at 125mph, and land on a postage stamp to tell the tale.
In the days before, my editor apologised for giving me what he felt was a dangerous assignment; friends taunted me with urban myths about faulty parachutes and splattered bodies; and my girlfriend insisted that I phoned her as soon as I landed. Everyone around me was wilting under the pressure, exaggerating the risks of what is a supremely thrilling, yet entirely safe experience.
The requirements for a tandem jump are simple: three forms need signing (declaring your fitness, an indemnity to the club, and third-party insurance), 20 minutes of training concentrating on equipment and your shape in the air, and some final tips to ensure that nothing takes you by surprise. The whole event is organised with military precision and is made so straightforward that fear ceases to be an appropriate sensation.
The training involves the instructor (in my case the 6ft 3in colossus Dave Luke) explaining that the equipment is fail-safe, with so many back- up parachutes that he appeared to have enough material strapped to his back to carpet a small island. He further settles your nerves by explaining the workings of a pressure meter that would automatically pull the parachute if he was "to fall asleep or something", punctuating the sentence with a maniacal smile.
Once kitted out in the regulation jumpsuit, body harness and a rather ridiculous looking leather skull cap, you are packed tightly into a small, twin-engined, BN Islander. Adrenalin is kept in check as the professionals aboard bark words of encouragement and lighten the mood: " Hey Dave, you stopped taking those pills yet?"; "Is that other journalist you took up out of hospital yet?" It was lucky my harness was so tight, otherwise I fear all that military humour would have split my sides. At about 8,000 feet the first of my instructor's top tips came to life. The pressure change causes some people to suffer problems with flatulence, and the apprentice freefaller next to me was clearly and unpleasantly a sufferer. Getting out of the aircraft seemed a more attractive proposition altogether.
As people begin hurtling out of the door at 12,000 feet, the immensity of what you are doing hits home for a fraction of a second, but before you know it, you are falling head first towards the ground. With a professional on your back, there is no need to worry about technical details, you are free to enjoy the incredible sensation of hurtling down towards the Oxfordshire countryside. It is the ultimate roller-coaster ride: I felt myself screaming excitedly, but the roar of the wind is so loud that you can't hear your own cry. Forty seconds pass in a flash, and when the parachute pops out at about 5,000 feet the first thought is not one of relief but of annoyance that we can't squeeze out a few more seconds.
As the chute opens to break the fall, you are momentarily disorientated by a violent jerk upwards; it instantly reminds of top tip number two. When Dave Luke was fitting the body harness on the ground, he was adamant that the leg straps fit snugly into the groin without trapping any part of the anatomy: "We've all done it once and it's not something you ever do a second time," he had said. The eyes water at the mere thought.
The gentle journey down to earth was certainly peaceful and the countryside made a spectacular backdrop, but I couldn't help wondering what it would be like if I were to cut the strings and accelerate our progress towards the ground before engaging one of those ample back-up chutes. "Sky divers use the chutes just to stop them from hitting the ground, but some people really enjoy the tranquillity of floating," Dave Luke said to me after we had landed perfectly about 10 feet from the hut where we had filled out forms an hour before.
Immediately after peeling myself off my companion, I found myself walking around with a ridiculous smile on my face, being kissed by women who had come up to congratulate me on the jump, and shaking the hands of men around me in that kind of surfer-dude thumb grip that all sky-divers seem to use.
The elation wears off a little after a few days, but the dreams of floating through the air are still incredibly vivid. It was a very special experience: that feeling of flying above the clouds with absolutely no fear will live with me for ever. My advice is organise it for someone as a one-off birthday or Christmas present - it's expensive, but extremely good value, because it is one gift that will never be discarded.
Chute by chute: a guide to how and where you can jump to it
British Parachute Schools
The Control Tower
Nottingham NG13 9HY
Telephone: 01949 860878
Membership requirements: Must be a member of the British Parachute Association
Jumps available and cost: Static line round jump (full-day ground training plus jump from 2,300ft) pounds 115; static line square jump (full-day ground training plus jump from 3,500ft) pounds 165; tandem skydiving (short briefing plus jump from 12,000ft attached to an instructor) pounds 150 (videos and photographs available for pounds 50); 8-jump accelerated freefall course for category eight skydiving qualification (one and a half days' ground training followed by a series of jumps beginning with a 12,000ft tandem jump) pounds 1,350
Prices for experienced jumpers: Round jump pounds 30; freefall pounds 32; category eight pounds 16
Opening hours: Monday-Saturday 9am-8pm; Sunday 10am-8pm
British Skysports Paracentre
East Leys Farm
East Yorkshire YO16 4YB
Telephone: 01262 677367
Established: Over 30 years
Membership requirements: British Parachute Association and pounds 10 annual club fee after first jump
Jumps available and cost: Static line square jump pounds 159; tandem jump pounds 140; accelerated freefall course pounds 1,340
Prices for experienced jumpers: pounds 16 with own equipment; pounds 28 for less experienced students
Opening hours: Seven days a week 8am-dusk
Cornwall Parachute Club
Frans Ranch Old Naval Airfield
Cornwall PL27 7TA
Telephone: 01841 540691
Membership requirements: British Parachute Association
Jumps available and cost: Static line square jump pounds 99; tandem jump pounds 115
Prices for experienced jumpers: pounds 12 for a jump from 10,500ft
Opening hours: Weekends 8am-sunset; Wednesday and Friday 1pm-sunset
Headcorn Parachute Centre
Kent TN27 9HX
Telephone: 01622 890862
Membership requirements: British Parachute Association
Jumps available and cost: Static line round jump pounds 105 (Tuesdays) pounds 120 (Saturdays); Static line square jump pounds 185 (Midweek) pounds 195 (weekends); tandem jump pounds 180; accelerated freefall course pounds 350.
Prices for experienced jumpers: pounds 15 up to 10,000ft with own equipment
Opening hours: Weekdays 9am-dusk; weekends 8.30am-dusk
The Parachute Centre
Grange Errol PH2 7TB
Telephone: 01821 642673
Membership requirements: British Parachute Association; pounds 30 annual club fee from second jump
Jumps available and cost: Static round jump pounds 99; static square jump pounds 140 tandem pounds 160 (video and photograph available for pounds 55); accelerated freefall course negotiable.
Prices for experienced jumpers: pounds 16 for jumps from 6,000 to 12,000ft; pounds 10 for jumps below pounds 6,000ft
Opening hours: Friday 9am-7pm; Saturday and Sunday 9am-6pm; weekdays on demand
Skydivers aged 16-18 require parental consent
Those aged 18-40 must sign their own declaration form detailing whether they suffer from any of a number of conditions, including epilepsy, high blood pressure and diabetes. Those who do, may still jump with their doctor's permission. Those aged 40+ require their doctor's permission.
Those unsure of their position should contact:
British Parachute Association
5 Wharf Way
Leicester LE2 9TF
Telephone: 0116 278 5271
The British Parachute Association produces its own journal, Sport ParachutistReuse content