Jumping out of a plane is having a resurgence here, thanks to one man's mission, writes Andy Kenworthy.
Skydiving may hit the headlines from time to time for all the wrong reasons, but a new centre 40 minutes drive from Auckland's CBD is hoping to boost the growth of regular skydiving as a safe and affordable sport accessible for almost everyone.
Tony Green owns Skydive Auckland, which opened its skydiving centre in Parakai Airfield, northwest of Auckland, in December. He has been in the game for the best part of a quarter of a century, including part-ownership of two skydiving companies in Taupo.
He tells me the economics of the sport, where a decent aircraft costs about $2 million, means there has been a focus on attracting the high-paying tourist crowd and one-off thrillseekers.
But he is now on a mission for Parakai to regain its historic status as a centre for regular sport jumpers, who can take on the world's best in competition. And with this new facility he hopes to eventually be training 50-100 new skydivers each year.
"I stayed out here in a tent when I was about 20 years old, and jumped about 500 times that year," he says. "This is such a special place, where so many of the country's most experienced skydivers started."
To the uninitiated, skydiving as a sport seems to involve inventing new and more elaborate ways to fall out of the sky.
Coming across as a terminal velocity version of synchronised swimming, it involves groups of skydivers completing sequences of moves and formations while in the air.
Flat fliers fall in the familiar skydiving position, while the more challenging vertical approach involves manoeuvring while plummeting to the ground in a standing position, or even head first. The action is usually filmed by a skydiving camera specialist and marked by a panel using the resulting video, based on the precision, difficulty and creativity of the performance, as well as the quality of the camera work itself.
Currently, New Zealand doesn't get much of a look-in when it comes to international competition, as fully sponsored professional US teams can dedicate huge amounts of time and money to the discipline as their nine-to-five job. But Green says he hopes centres like his will help change all that. Some Kiwi teams are already heading overseas to train and compete, and Green hopes more will now follow.
"We have had a great response. Lots of people have come out of the woodwork. People who had given it up are getting back into it."
Meanwhile, up and coming skydivers like 30-year-old Warren Barthorpe represent the next generation. He has been jumping for just over a year and has completed something like 170 jumps.
"I jump at every opportunity," he says. "It's kind of hard to start with but then it just clicks. It's addictive, and it's a really sociable atmosphere. When you are not jumping, you are just hanging out."
Chloe O'Brien started jumping in her native Ireland and is pursuing the sport here while working as business analyst on a two-year visa.
"It is a male dominated sport," she says, "But every drop zone seems to have the same atmosphere. Don't enter unless you have a sense of humour and are willing to be sociable. The great thing is that everybody is willing to help you out, because it can be a dangerous sport, and they want you to be safe."
All you need to know
* Falling prices - how much does it cost to be a skydiver? skydiveauckland.com. Freephone: 0800 92 16 500
* To find out more about the sport, and drop zones all around the country, go to the The New Zealand Parachute Federation website.
* To get into skydiving seriously you need to be fit and able, and aged at least 16. To jump solo and take part in competitions requires an internationally recognised "A" licence that certifies a skydiver to jump safely on their own from any drop zone in the world.
* To be trained up to that standard at Skydive Auckland costs about $4000. A full set of your own equipment costs about a further $6000-$7000, although there are good quality second-hand deals available as people trade up with experience.
* Weather permitting, licensed jumpers with their own gear can turn up and jump from Skydive Auckland's plane whenever there is space, anything up to seven at a time, for as little as $45 a pop.