As one of the world's oldest skydiving clubs marks its 50th anniversary in Perthshire, Emma Cowing meets some of its stalwarts to discover the enduring appeal of the sport
• Kieran Brady, the 54-year-old chief instructor of the Scottish Parachute Club, parachuted 50 times to mark the sport's 50th birthday north of the Border
YESTERDAY afternoon, while most Scots were settling in to enjoy the last weekend of the Easter break, Kieran Brady was throwing himself out of a plane. Not once, but 50 times. For the 54-year-old chief instructor of the Scottish Parachute Club, it was a unique way to pay tribute to a sport that will this weekend celebrate its half century in Scotland, and a reminder of the day, 25 years ago, when he did his very first jump.
"It was exhilarating, totally exhilarating," he says of his first skydive. "Being scared didn't really come into it to be honest."
While jumping out of a plane at around 13,000ft (about 4km) may be some people's idea of a nightmare, for others it is an all consuming passion.
The Scottish Parachute Club, also known as Skydive Strathallan, trains around 1,500 people a year for their first jumps, and has around 150 hardcore members who skydive on regularly at the club's airfield near Auchterarder in Perthshire.
This weekend it is holding four days of celebrations to mark its 50th anniversary, including jumps from hot-air balloons and water landings into the Strathallan Castle lake. For Brady, who joined in 1985 and has completed a staggering 6,000 jumps since, the enjoyment of this most extreme of extreme sports is in sharing it with others.
"The fun for me nowadays is being involved in the tuition of others and seeing them achieve their goals," he says. "For me, it's not that important to jump now. It is important for me to see other people jump and having fun."
The first skydive took place in Scotland on 10 April, 1960, when a GP named Charles "Doc" Robertson jumped from the passenger cockpit of a Tiger Moth over Perth Aerodrome at Scone wearing an army-surplus round parachute. It was the first time a Scot had thrown themselves out of a plane "for fun" and, before long, the pursuit had gained a small, but dedicated following.
Robertson, who had developed a love of parachuting while posted as an RAF medical officer at the Parachute Training School at RAF Abingdon in Oxfordshire, persuaded several parachute instructors to visit Scone and run courses, and the Scottish Parachute Club was born. It is believed to be one of the oldest skydiving clubs in the world.
Gordon Fernie, now aged 74, joined in 1965, and says that in the early days, many people had trouble understanding why anyone would want to do something so outrageous for fun. "In the very beginning, the people who owned the aircraft were very suspicious of us because they thought we were completely mad," he says. "We always had a problem hiring aircraft."
When the club first moved to Strathallan it caused some concern among locals, and police were called out to follow up a report that "an aircraft had been seen in trouble with its engine stopped; three people had baled out, one with his leg on fire". Gradually, however, things started to improve.
"Over the years there have been quite dramatic changes," says Fernie. "The most important thing is the safety element – the safety regulations are now extremely high and there's much less chance of accidents. Nowadays, the equipment is extremely well made and that is where the sport has been able to advance dramatically."
All skydivers know what they do carries a certain amount of risk – Brady landed in a tree on his second jump, and was stuck there for 40 minutes upside down and unconscious. But Brady says that what makes a good skydiver is someone who has an ability to listen, as well as an element of common sense.
"Like everything else, you're not born with the inclination to skydive, but if you have the ability to listen to people who know what they're doing, then all you have to do is apply yourself.
"To be honest, it's not difficult to fall because gravity takes charge of that anyway. The challenge is in deploying your parachute a the right altitude, having spatial awareness, being in the correct proximity to other people, these kinds of things. It's all about getting your head round all that." Still, he says, it's a sport open to anyone. "There's no reason why anybody can't do it."
Yet despite its relative accessibility, skydiving has remained a minority sport in Scotland. The club's membership today is the same as it was 25 years ago. Brady is realistic, although not downbeat, about the future. "Skydiving won't last forever," he says. "Not in its current form. You have to be realistic – as the world changes, so sports like ours will change with it. Ten years ago the concept of the club lasting another ten years was quite remote in my mind – but here we are alive and kicking and as healthy as ever."
And the sport is still managing to attract fresh blood in Scotland. Jonathan Danks is one of the club's younger members. Just 22, he has already completed 94 jumps since he started skydiving two years ago – including one recent jump for charity where he jumped naked.
He joined through Strathclyde University's parachuting club, and has just graduated from the university with a degree in, somewhat appropriately, aeronautical engineering. He describes the moment before his first jump as the scariest of his life. "It's strange. It's just animal panic that you feel when you're sitting on the plane on the way up. But then as soon as you jump out, your mind accepts that you can't do anything about it any more and you go through all the things you've been trained to do, you do exactly what you need to do, and it's just amazing."
Danks says that part of the enjoyment of the sport is making friends. "It's a group of crazy people and there's a great camaraderie," he says. "A lot of other people don't understand it – if you tell most people that you do sky-diving as a hobby they say it sounds terrifying and they couldn't imagine doing it, but once you actually get into it and see what it's about you realise it's really quite magical."
For Fernie, who at the age of 74 still regularly jumps and has completed over 2,000 since he joined the club 45 years ago, the thrill never wears off.
"People keep saying you must get bored with it but every descent you make is completely different from the last one. It might be time of day, or that you're jumping with different people, or any number of things. But each one is thrilling in its own way," he says.
• The Scottish Parachute Club's 50th anniversary celebrations will take place at Skydive Strathallan, Strathallan Airfield, near Auchterarder, Perthshire, until Monday 12 April. For more details visit www.skydivestrathallan.co.uk