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Paragliding over the South Downs: The only way to learn how to fly is to jump off

As I land gently on the ground, the desire to get back to the top of the slope to repeat the jump is overwhelming

I’m a nervous flyer and the closest you’d get me to skydiving is watching Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves jump out of a plane over Utah in Point Break.

But here I am, floating like a cloud above the Sussex countryside, completely on my own after barely a morning’s tuition. How did this happen?

An upwards glance reassures me that the massive material wing is still there as I glide through the air at the civilised pace of 25kmph. From my harness I can see the rolling hills of the South Downs fading into the distance. It’s idyllic, though the instructor on the ground is a touch distracting. He’s punching and pulling at the air, demanding I mirror his movements to land in the right place. But I can’t take my eyes off the view.

“Don’t mind him,” says Steve afterwards, owner and chief instructor at Airworks Paragliding School, as I bundle up the strings and canopy to hike back to the top of the hill. “That’s just John. He loves shouting.”

I’m on a paragliding introduction day: a two-hour safety and equipment briefing at the Airworks HQ, before being driven to a hillside near Lewes to try out our flying machines.

My fellow flyers are similarly nervous about flying solo. “We offer tandem flights,” says Steve, “but I think flying on your own is more rewarding.”

He’s not wrong. On my first attempt, I run down the hill, pulling on the strings of the wing until it arcs up and rests over my head. Once it’s up in the air, held aloft by a gentle breeze, I get it moving forward by bending over double and jumping in large, bouncing strides. It’s not easy, but as the hill drops away, and my kangaroo jumps increase in speed and length, my feet are lifted gently into the air. Steering the “wing” is fairly straightforward.

Pull the cord towards your left shoulder to turn left, pull right to turn right and pull both together to lose speed and altitude. My flight is over 100 metres long and at least 10 metres in the air. I’d go higher with a tandem flight (hundreds if not thousands of metres into the air) but for a first solo attempt, it’s far higher than I was expecting.

As I land gently on the ground, the desire to get back to the top of the slope to repeat the jump is overwhelming. I can see why paragliding is an addictive sport.  “People often seem surprised that you fly on your first day,” says Steve. “But the only way to learn is to get up that hill and jump off it.”

Airworks is one of 11 companies flying over the South Downs; it’s the least-windy part of the country, making it perfect for flying clubs. It’s gentle, but exhilarating and a great way to conquer your fears.

Taster sessions with Airworks Paragliding Centre (01273 434 002; airworks.co.uk) cost £115 with transport and equipment.