If only Icarus had known ...

Parachuting is more than just hanging limply in the air while raising money for charity. You can surf the sky and carve fantastic shapes, writes Alister Morgan

JUMPING HEADLONG out of a plane and hurtling earthwards at 120mph is, believe it or not, one of the safest sports around. You are more likely to suffer injury while playing cricket: 250,000 parachute jumps are performed each year, yet accidents are extremely rare.

Mishaps do occasionally occur, not least at the recent pre-match entertainment laid on by Aston Villa before their game with Arsenal when an experienced RAF parachutist succeeded in breaking both legs. But incidents like that are the exception. Safe equipment and stringent procedures see to that. Over the past 15 years a number of design improvements have made skydiving equipment even more dependable.

But what you are guaranteed is loads of thrills and adrenaline-pumping fun. And you can quite quickly progress to the freefall stage just so long as you clamp yourself on to the back of a qualified instructor and he - or she - will steer you safely back to the ground.

You do have to be 16 before you can launch yourself into the sky. But once you've reached the age of skydiving consent your curiosity about what dropping vertically to the ground at high speed is actually like is easy to satisfy. There are 35 skydive clubs and centres across the UK waiting to help you achieve your dream. They are all affiliated to and approved by the British Parachute Association. They range from full- time professional centres to weekend clubs run on a voluntary basis. These centres are closely regulated and all require a special licence before they can "throw" people out of an airborne plane.

The ancient Chinese are credited with coming up with the idea of hanging in the sky suspended by a piece of material. A significant event in the development of vertical airborne travel was the jump made by the Frenchman Andre Jacques Garnerin from a gas-filled balloon in 1797. If Mr Garnerin had gone the same way as Icarus, skydiving may never have caught on but luckily he achieved his ambition without any mishaps.

Martin Crossley, a director of the North London Parachute Centre, first jumped when he was 16. "It was the excitement that drew me to it," he said. "I only intended to do one jump but in the end I became completely hooked on it. At first I didn't have any money so I financed my new craze by packing parachutes, making the tea, cutting the grass and cleaning the planes - anything to pay for more jumps."

"The operations manual we use is more than just a book of rules," said Mr Crossley. "The regulations have been written over many years and are continually being updated and improved. Skydiving may seem dangerous but in combination with our strict procedures and reliable equipment it is very safe. As a precaution everyone jumps carrying two parachutes."

Jumps never usually start at an altitude of more than 12,000 feet, and usually much lower than that. Experienced jumpers will open their parachutes at about 2,000 feet - any lower starts to get dangerous; novices' 'chutes will open far higher.

There are various styles of skydiving: "Freestyle" skydiving - or freefall - could be described as aerial ballet. "Style and accuracy" or "Head-down" skydiving is formation jumping in groups. This last kind is probably the most popular one but new disciplines are developing all the time.

If you'd like to experience the "hit" of skydiving without taking a course then "tandem dives" are the best course of action. The novice is strapped securely to an experienced parachutist who controls the rate of descent, the opening of the parachute and the all-important landing.

Potential tandem divers should be warned that after such an experience the usual reaction is to want another go - and this time you could well choose to be out on your own. "It's much more than an adrenaline rush," said Mr Crossley. "Once you've overcome the fear factor you're there to perform as well as you possibly can - it's a very skilful sport."

When you've overcome the overwhelming feeling that you're on the verge of a high-velocity death, you'll find that you can manoeuvre yourself to a high degree while free-falling. Eventually you'll learn how to steer in the air by using your body.

The basic skydiving body position has the legs and arms spread wide, taking you to speeds of 120mph. By dropping your arms and sticking out your legs you can steer yourself and change direction. You can also alter your vertical speed. By swivelling your body so that you end up upside down, you can reach speeds of around 200mph but it's unwise to maintain this position for too long since it puts undue strain on the human body.

I was all booked up to go skydiving but poor weather on the day meant it had to be cancelled. But I want to do it so much I'm going to make another attempt to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"On my first jump I wasn't quite sure what to expect," said Mr Crossley with a smile. "Apart from a feeling of terror there are a few things that remain in your mind. When you first jump you don't really feel like you're falling at all - it just feels like you're floating around in the middle of nowhere.

"You're in a plane with lots of noise and wind, then you exit the aircraft and everything becomes silent. It's a wonderful, peaceful experience - very good for stress relief because your mind is totally focused on something completely different."

As adrenaline sports receive increasing television and media coverage, enthusiasts are devising more and more exciting methods of throwing themselves out of aircraft. The latest version of skydiving is called skysurfing. Take parachuting and add the influence of snowboarding and surfing and you have the latest cutting-edge sport.

Skysurfers compete in pairs with one member of the duo filming the other as he executes a series of incredible aerial manoeuvres. The footage is transmitted to a number of people on the ground who act as judges giving marks for the performance. In the main this event differs from aerial ballet insofar as divers have a carbon-fibre board strapped to their feet enabling them literally to "carve" through the air. The results are spectacular and prove that if there's another way of surfing, someone will eventually get round to doing it.

Whichever skydiving style you go for, you can be certain that your experience will be just as exhilarating as that of Andre Jacques Garnerin, but it will also be infinitely safer.

For additional information on skydiving call the British Parachuting Association (tel: 0116-278 5271).

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