The maverick godfather of bungee jumping, who attempted the world’s first jump with a bottle of champagne in his hand and without testing the rope, has died peacefully in his bed.
Born in 1945, the eldest of seven children, David Kirke brought the global phenomenon to life some 34 years later, on April 1, when he – wearing a top hat and fresh from a night out – and his friends decided to set off from Bristol Bungee jump from Clifton Suspension Bridge.
A family friend described Kirke as an “anarchic buccaneer” who was “Byronesque and fascinated with living life to the fullest.” The Independent that the septuagenarian “would have been shocked if he had died quietly in his own bed.”
Although bungee jumping was undoubtedly his most influential achievement, it was just an extraordinary stunt that Kirke and his friends created in the name of fun.
Against the bleak backdrop of 1970s Britain, Kirke and several friends formed the Dangerous Sports Club – a group based largely in Oxford and London, which in the following decade saw its daring activities, often wearing top hats, coattails and much drank, sparkling wine attracted a lot of attention.
The idea for her bungee jump was inspired by a rite of passage on the island of Vanuatu known as “land diving,” in which young men jumped from high towers and broke their fall with tendrils before landing on the ground.
While a shore diving demonstration for the late queen during her visit to the Pacific island in 1974 failed fatally, Kirke and his friends decided to attempt a similar feat that same year, instead using elastic ropes designed to land fighter jets on aircraft carriers.
“We hadn’t tested it or anything,” Kirke said Bristol Post in 2019. “We were called Dangerous Sports Club and it wouldn’t have been particularly dangerous to test it out first.
“But I was confident. We had some very smart people with us – Alan Weston later became head of development at NASA – and they told me everything was going to be fine, they had figured out the wrong extension curves of these ropes.”
Kirke was the first of his friends to jump that morning, while police officers who had staked out the bridge on the advice of concerned friends and family briefly “ran away”. He later recalled to ITV: “When the other boys came down I thought, ‘Yay, nobody’s dead’.
“It was a kind of more casual, casual recklessness. American writers would call it the recklessness of youth, but there it was.”
While the police arrested the group and took them to the cells, Kirke recalled that the “confused” officers “brought in the half-drunk bottles of wine we had left at the bridge and we were fined or something “.
Shortly thereafter, the Dangerous Sports Club performed bungee jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and a televised jump from the Royal Gorge Suspension Bridge in Colorado.
Without a lack of imagination, Kirke and the growing membership of the Dangerous Sports Club performed a variety of breathtaking stunts in locations around the world.
These included Kirke sliding down the slopes of Saint-Moritz on a wing and an aborted attempt to fly a car over the open drawbridge of Tower Bridge.
“The DSC started when I traveled to Switzerland with a mate (a fellow Oxford graduate) called Ed Hulton to watch the Cresta Run and Bobsleigh,” Kirke said The Independent In 1998.
“We had previously built a hang glider to a 1903 design that crashed and broke into pieces, so we wanted to try out the Cresta and the Bob. We thought they were a bit over the top, so we thought we’d start something new.”
Members of the group catapulted themselves from cliffs, jumped from Cheddar Gorge and kite-flyed into 5,000-foot clouds above Mount Kilimanjaro.
“It was all just a giggle. “We were the first people to ever fly from Mount Olympus on a hang glider,” said Kirke, whose father was a schoolmaster and her mother a concert pianist.
“It was wonderful. We were standing at the top of the House of the Gods and as I flew down I asked myself, ‘Is this better than sex?’ Possibly it is the best passage in a Joseph Conrad novel, but perhaps not quite as good .”
While the club’s membership peaked in the 1980s, Kirke and his friends continued to push the boundaries. In 1986 he was sponsored by Foster’s camp to fly a kangaroo-shaped group of helium balloons across the English Channel – which led to him being prosecuted for flying without a pilot’s licence.
In an even more tragic turn of events, two of Kirke’s friends were charged with manslaughter and later acquitted in the death of 19-year-old Oxford biochemistry student Kostadin Yankov, who died in 2002 after voluntarily allowing himself to be fired from a trebuchet and missing the safety net .
Although he was not personally involved in the case, Kirke said Vanity Fair in February 2004, it was “an extraordinary test case about the right to experiment at personal risk versus social responsibility.”
Kirke, himself a psychology and philosophy student, told the magazine: “We are interested in new things. You make a fool of yourself, your girlfriend leaves you, you lose money, but maybe you moved things along just a little bit. It is, strangely enough, a job not all that different from that of a Catholic priest.”
On Sunday, a family friend told the story The Independent: “David was always upending apple carts. He wanted to do things that distracted, disturbed and stimulated the imagination. He dared and sometimes he dared and paid the price.
“What was non-negotiable was loyalty to his friends and the unwavering desire to make art and literature the fulcrum of adventure and life.”
“He was an anarchic privateer who left the world suddenly, but he left behind a high bar of imagination and adventure; He was like a Byron, eager to live life to the fullest. He would have been shocked if he died quietly in his own bed.”