Young Flavio Burattin is sitting in a small aeroplane that is ascending to 4,000 m. The cabin is cramped and filled with seven other Italian men, all smiling and wearing tights. The door opens and the sound of wind and the engine makes it difficult to hear anything else. The ground below is nothing more than a quilt of brown and green squares, bordered by a deep blue carpet of sea. Burattin looks back and sees his instructors face close to his. They are going to do the very thing that goes against every instinct in Burattins body. They are going to jump out of this plane, together.

Skydiving is increasingly popular in Italy and some purists argue that their sport isnt extreme at all, since extreme implies a high level of danger. The numbers are sparse in Italy, but according to Skydiving magazine, in the United States the two million jumps made each year result in about 35 fatalities a rate of less than two hundredths of a per cent. Statistically speaking, it is safer than attending an Italian football match.

None of this is much consolation to Burattin, as he sits perched in the doorway of the plane, the only thing between his dangling feet and terra firma being 4,000 m of clear blue sky. He leans back on his instructor Mauro Figlio, a reassuring presence in these final moments, an expert with over 4,000 jumps behind him. They are tightly harnessed together and where Figlio moves so goes Burattin. Figlio moves forward, reaches his arm around Burattin and gives him a thumbs up, the signal to start. Figlio slowly rocks, back then forward, and begins the countdown.

Tre. Due. Uno.

Burattin thinks back to his training on the ground. He remembers the old, blue metal box that is used to simulate the doorway of the real plane cabin. It was hot to the touch that day, warmed by the midday sun. The practice run felt almost the same then, with Figlio slowly rocking and counting, before the jump of a few centimetres onto freshly-cut grass.

But the real plane is cold from the wind and the altitude. That patch of grass is smaller than a pinprick on the green canvas below. Burattin feels Figlio making one final rock backward, and then thrusts them both forward into the cool, crisp Sunday afternoon.

For a moment, Burattin doesnt feel like hes falling. The sky is calm, the seaside town of Nettuno lying peacefully below. Then gravity wraps its claws around Burattin and Figlio, snatching them toward the earth. Burattin has no breath. He cant scream. He tumbles and spins before Figlio stabilises the fall and they plunge stomach-first toward the landing zone. Soon, that roller-coaster sensation of falling is replaced by a feeling of floating in a wind tunnel, like sticking your head out of the window of a fast-moving car.

Another skydiver moves alongside Burattin, recording the experience with a camera attached to his helmet. Burattin waves and gives a thumbs-up of his own. He tries to scream but the howling wind sucks the sound from his mouth. For 60 seconds they fall, the world below gathering more and more detail until the whitecaps of the waves become visible and he notices his car in the parking lot.

Then there is a ruffling sound as the parachute billows out of Figlios pack. It snaps open and their rapid drop comes to an abrupt halt. They slide down through the sky peacefully now, like a falling leaf on a calm autumn day. With one final turn, Figlio and Burattin touch down in the landing zone, strangely at ease after plummeting at 66 m per second.

Oh my God, is all Burattin can manage to say as he gasps for breath. His friends rush up, snapping pictures, and are a bit disappointed that he cannot begin to describe his experience. Its understandable its his first jump.

French actor Philippe Leroy who now lives in Rome is also jumping today. After nearly 2,000 skydives, he has no problem describing the experience:

To me, after making love, this is the best sport, says the spry 75-year-old with a wink and a nudge. Doctors have done tests, you know. The amount of adrenalin released after a jump is more than that of an orgasm. So if you make four or five jumps a day, you will sleep very well.

Sleeping easy is probably not a problem then for the employees at A.S. Crazy Fly, the skydiving school in Nettuno, 60 km south-west of Rome. Yes, they do get their four or five jumps in a day but instructors here pride themselves on safety. Each instructor is certified with hundreds often thousands of jumps recorded, and each student is required to take basic training lessons prior to taking part in the sport.

For the 190 tandem jump, in Burattins case, the lesson lasts only about an hour. For the serious jumper, there is also the accelerated free-fall (AFF) course, which costs a hefty 1,750. But after ten hours of classroom lessons and six jumps with certified AFF instructors, you will be certified to skydive on your own.

Danilo Capuzi finished the AFF course last year. While Burattin was landing his first jump, Capuzi was climbing into the plane, ready to record number 64. He performed a few twists and flips, a few of the mid-air manoeuvres he has been practising on his last few jumps. After landing, he raced to his car to hurry back to Rome, hoping to avoid the Sunday evening beach traffic. Weaving in and out of lanes, he finally hit that inevitable wall of red brake lights.

Madonna! he said, slamming his hands down on the wheel. All this for 60 seconds. Then he paused, smiled, and added: It was worth it.

A.S. Crazy Fly. Via delle Grugnole, 00048 Nettuno, tel. 0698850024. info@paracadutismonettuno.it, www.paracadutismonettuno.it.