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Out of Window Out of Body: “Drop Zone” Tales, Part 2

Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com. | Blue Skies Magazine issue #53 "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 2" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com
Jake Brake with streamer while doubling as Selkirk. Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com. | Blue Skies Magazine issue #53 "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 2" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com
Written by Moe Viletto

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Originally printed in issue #53 (April 2014) of Blue Skies Magazine.
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During the making of the movie “Drop Zone,” rumors leaked around the set just as they do on every real-life drop zone. One of those rumors was that the budget for the movie was 45 million bucks. But as the our stunts progressed and the producers got a better feel for what we could pull off, they modified the script and came up with another 30 mil … But that’s just rumor of course.

One of those stunts went something like this. One of the good guy’s main and reserve parachutes were tampered with. He deploys his main and finds that one riser has been severed. After fighting it he finally cuts it away and is now having a hard pull on his reserve. A teammate under canopy sees all this and cuts away, does a back gainer and tracks down to help . At the very last second he grabs the disabled rig’s reserve pilot chute and pulls his own reserve, thus deploying his teammates. But the reserve that had been tampered with streamers like the main did and he whistles into a pond. End of scene.

BJ Worth and Jake Brake deployed and rode a one-risered, wildly spinning malfunction to the point of almost passing out. Jake also made hidden-rig jumps, tumbling madly after cutting away while tugging on a fake reserve ripcord. Norman Kent filmed Guy Manos performing an intentional cutaway with a clean back layout into a track to make the save. The tackle on Jake was made by both BJ and Harry O’Connor.

To get the save and low pull, Harry, as Swoop, left a chopper from 900’ on the back of a dummy we named Roy. He did a short delay and pulled his own reserve as he hung onto Roy’s reserve pilot chute thus deploying his canopy into a streamering malfunction. Harry had his hands full. He had to hold Roy to his chest but leave enough room for his left hand to pull his own ripcord. This awkward grip and altered center of gravity, along with the low speed exit and deployment, put Harry and Roy in a perfect head-down 2-way. Not so perfect to open a canopy though. But Harry took the hit like a stunt performer does and deployed Roy’s streamering reserve on cue. This was shot from a second chopper. With the shot being compressed by a long lens and exiting from 900’, Mother Earth looked very close. She was.

Jake Brake replaced dummy Roy and finished the scene with the final stunt. The script called for him to hit the water under a streamering reserve and then float motionless on his back until he got rescued by a teammate. He made 3 jumps from a crane suspended 80 feet over a pond. On the third jump, we watched Jake take the leap, towing a bundle of streamering nylon as he impacted with a thundering kersploosh. It seemed like forever till he popped back up. When he bobbed back to the surface and lay still, we all held our breaths wondering if he was OK. The director yelled cut through a bull horn and Jake still didn’t move. He couldn’t hear since his ears were submerged.

Later, he told us how quickly he accelerated and got pond rush, and actually felt like he was going in. Feet flat and knees tight together helped to prevent a super enema from the nearly 50 mph plunge. Jake said his feet stung through his shoes on every jump and was glad he didn’t go from 100 feet which is what the director was originally asking for.


The 34-way carousel night jump scene was an interesting delight. We were given jumpsuits wired with lights that ran up and down the arms and legs. We also wore streamers on our feet. This wasn’t a full-on night jump, though; the director wanted us to jump at magic hour—that moment when the sun has set and there is still enough ambient light to film the formation.

We were once again exiting over the ocean. We arrived at altitude early so the director had us do a go around. And another. After about the fourth go around and the outside lighting still not quite right, I could hear bits of the pilots’ radio chatter with Miami International. They were getting pressure from below. I looked down and could see the power of Hollywood at work. There were 18 airliners lined up waiting for us to jump and clear the airspace so they could take off. Hollywood had them on hold until we got the proper light to film.

Here is another side note on the power of Hollywood. During the 3-month shoot, different airport locations were needed to depict different events. Florida has more airports including grass strips than any other state. The company insisted on a site that was recently set aside as a nature reserve. They spent $250K in attorney fees alone just to acquire this spot. Then they built a million-dollar cardboard facade drop zone. Various trees, plants, and shrubs were individually fenced and protected. We were only allowed to walk in certain areas. Yellow caution tape was strung about. There was a scene where Snipes arrives on a motorcycle and the camera is shooting down at him from a 2-story building. The background behind Snipes was that of crushed white seashells. The drastic contrast between Wesley’s dark skin and the very bright shells washed out his facial features. You could only see the whites of his eyes. No probs for Hollywood: They brought in a team that toned down the white shelled road with food coloring and after they got the shot, they scooped up all the dyed shells, washed them, and returned them to their almost original state. Why go through all this when Florida is peppered with airports and runways? In a word: Hollyweird! You learn to just not ask. They have their reasons which are valid in their eyes and that’s all that matters.

Meanwhile, no one was falling asleep on the DC-3’s long slow climb to altitude, even with the multiple go arounds. Looking around inside the plane, I saw jumpers twitching, jerking and slapping themselves. Nerves, I thought. Or maybe they are getting psyched up for the night jump. Until I started to dance and twitch around as well. The lights we were wearing on our arms and legs were shorting out, shocking and burning many of us. But no one burned in.

  Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com | Blue Skies Magazine issue #53 "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 2" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

“Hot skydive! The electronically lit jumpsuits were heating up and shorting out. Many of us received minor burns … Nobody burned in.” Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com.

Many of us made night jumps where we landed on the roof of a building. I made around 40 tandem jumps as a passenger with Utah Steve. We jumped in all sorts of conditions and landing areas. He stood us up on every single jump, including the roof of an LA skyscraper. There is a shot of Harry O’Connor purposely crashing and burning on a tandem building landing, but that was with our dummy Roy. Roy was used to it. Others had to land on the roof while portraying their characters. The hotshot skydiving bad guys landed within seconds of each other—nearly in unison and all standing up. Just imagine yourself right now, landing on the roof of a downtown LA building at night with four others within seconds of each other. The not-so-experienced good guys purposely biffed their landings on their specific marks as directed. Crash and burn accuracy.

One scene required us to fly our canopies between two of the tallest buildings in downtown Miami, then turn 90 degrees left and land in the street, once again at night. The wind was relatively strong for city jumps so we waited it out until we started to run out of darkness. The first group of solo jumpers took a chance in the marginal winds and pulled it off, though landings had a pucker factor of at least an 8. They recommended that Utah and I not make the 90-left turn, but instead to land in a park where it should have been less turbulent. With Utah at the controls, and me hanging limp, except for my butt hole, he was making some S turns upwind of the two skyscrapers to burn off some altitude. We were a bit off center, but at the right altitude for the cameras filming from the building when I coaxed Utah to shoot the slot. He was thinking the same thing and made the turn. As we approached the building the Venturi effect drew us to center and sucked us right through. We were smokin’ downwind and Utah hooked us in and around trees and light posts to a perfect landing once again. But I still hated it. Knowing what is going on and not being able to do anything to be in control is flat out scary. No offense, Utah!

Actor Michael Jeter performed some of his own stunts. He had about 60 sport jumps logged but had not jumped in years. The producers didn’t want him to make any tandem jumps; it would have been too great a risk for the production company if he jumped and got injured. But early one morning I was on call to jump. When I showed up I noticed Jeter was rigged up to make a tandem jump. The director came over to me to tell me what my job was.

“You might actually have to do some acting here in a bit, Moe. Go to the wardrobe trailer and they will suit you up.” He continued.” Michael is going up to make a tandem jump on camera. When he lands we will scurry him away. Should any of the producers show up, then you act like you just landed.”

With BJ’s suggestion of getting to understand skydiving up close, the director had made a tandem jump before filming got started and he just loved it. He must have figured there wasn’t a very big risk of Jeter getting injured. They pulled it off and I didn’t have to do any acting. But that was his last jump. Every day, the footage that was shot is sent to New York for review in order to be sure they got the shots they needed. Of course after the producers saw the in-your-face footage of Jeter that Norman Kent shot, we were busted. The producers really liked the shot but said no more jumps for the actors. Later the next day I was eating lunch when one of the producers sat down next to me and started to talk about the jump. He thought he was talking to Jeter. I had no idea what he was talking about. When he noticed my confusion he looked closer and realized it wasn’t Jeter. We had a good laugh. All the stunt doubles looked scarily close to the actors they were portraying.

How many actors and stuntmen can fit into one jumpsuit? Two: Michael Jeter and Moe Viletto. Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com. | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 1" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

Will the real Moe Viletto please stand up? Michael Jeter and Moe Viletto. Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com.

Jeter did another stunt with BJ Worth after all the major shots of him were complete, so if he got injured it would not be detrimental to the production. He had more chance of getting injured on this stunt than on the tandem. All he had to do was walk down a sidewalk next to a building and get tackled by BJ who does so under canopy. This was a very technical jump. BJ worked it out: He timed Jeter’s walk from his starting point A to point B where he would make the tackle. BJ would set up an accuracy approach from an altitude and a ground point that would put him 30 seconds from where Jeter would end up at point B. BJ nailed it on the first jump taking Jeter out injury free, right in front of the camera. This could turn into a whole new skydiving discipline. Moving target accuracy!

After all these stunts, we all had our share of aches, pains and minor injuries from the 16-hour days, but we did end up with one injury that required a trip to the hospital. Sally Wenner was doubling for Yancy Butler. She made a bunch of jumps with her rig hidden under a leather jacket and wearing cowboy boots. After making the majority of the required jumps, she broke her ankle on an out landing with the small hidden-rig main parachute. The cowboy boots and prairie-dog hole didn’t help either. Seeing that she and I were about the same size and the hidden rig would fit, I ended up making the rest of the jumps. Why not? I’ve already been a balding computer nerd, a tall black man and a hippie. Why stop there? I thought I looked pretty good with boobs and a pony tail.

To be continued …

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