“Why on earth would anyone want to jump out of a perfectly serviceable aeroplane?” everyone asks me.
They always use the same, rather quaint, phrase, “perfectly serviceable aeroplane”, as if they’ve just clambered out of their RAF overalls.
At least it tells me they’ve never been anywhere near a jump ‘plane, which are mostly antique, rotting hulks held together with binder-twine, bubble-gum and gaffer tape.
It’s true that most of us do offer up a silent prayer as we exit the ‘plane at 13,000 feet.
But it’s only for the safety of the poor pilot who has to land the damned thing when he gets down.
We’d all rather trust our parachutes.
So this week, I’m on holiday. Jumping in Eloy, Arizona, home of the largest fleet of jump ‘planes in the world.
And, all credit to the wonderful owners and organisers of Skydive Arizona, this huge fleet is in fact way more than just “perfectly serviceable”.
But still the question persists, so I thought I’d try and give my best shot at an answer.
Most of the studies into so-called ‘dangerous sports’ seem to focus on an imagined enhancement to status and self-esteem amongst those who attempt things that seem brave/foolhardy to others.
This is another way of saying people take risks to get noticed and to get girls.
Actually the research is very conclusive on the subject: the status of a person who puts themselves purposefully at risk is only enhanced when they do so in order to benefit others.
That makes sense, doesn’t it?
Fireman rescues damsel from burning building = hunky hero.
Middle-aged bloke jumping from aeroplane for no ‘good’ reason = feckin’ eedjit.
I’ve heard other skydivers explain away their enthusiasm by distancing themselves from the whole dangerous sports crowd entirely.
And it’s perfectly true that skydiving is way safer than you’d imagine.
You think it’s dangerous because a) it’s unfamiliar, and therefore not to be trusted by ‘normal’ people and b) you’ve almost certainly recently read about skydiving accidents.
Journalists far prefer to write about skydiving accidents than car crashes.
It’s the good old “Availability Heuristic” at work – with added “Recency Effect”!
Using US figures (where more skydiving happens than in every other country combined) there’s 0.0007% chance of dying from a skydive, compared to a 0.0167% chance of dying in a car accident (based on driving 10,000 miles).
Put another way you are about 24 times more likely to die in a car accident than in a skydiving one.
It looks even better when you compare it to other things people consider perfectly safe and normal like riding a bicycle in an urban environment (insane) or any form of equestrianism (probably the single most dangerous activity of all).
Skydiving is all about safety, not about danger.
All about mitigating risks with training and technology.
And the average number of skydiving fatalities per year is almost half of what it used to be in the 1970s.
But these statistic apologists are missing the point too.
We do do it for fun, no question about it.
So what is that fun precisely?
My perspective is that almost all participants in almost every sport benefit from a physiological thrill provided by endorphins.
People who do risky things get the additional benefit from a blast of adrenaline – the body’s drug of last resort.
It’s adrenaline that has helped mothers lift cars that are crushing their children.
It’s adrenaline that explains how indifferent runners can outrun athletes, when they’re in danger.
It helps you focus your mental and physical resources in times of need. And it’s strong stuff.
I skydive to relax.
When I lie on a beach, I worry about all things I ought to be doing at home and at work.
When I read a book, even when I’m really enjoying it, I feel a bit guilty I’m not ‘getting on with something”
When I’m jumping out of a ‘plane I’m thinking about how to get back on the ground in one piece.
And if I do that five or six times a day, I end up physically exhausted with a mind that feels like it’s been down the boot-sale and unloaded a whole attic full of neural junk.
And I’m properly relaxed.
I know I get some of the same benefits from skiing and scuba-diving.
The special appeal of skydiving, to me, is the combination of max-adrenaline (that comes from the high-stakes involved) and high levels of control (equipment, training, focus) that give me the confidence to enjoy it.
As I think of the poor Prime Minister “chillaxing” with his Angry Birds, I wonder whether he wouldn’t be better off thrillaxing with us?