This Is Mexico

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I’ve never felt further away from home than I did at that moment. I could feel the pieces of tooth swimming across the left side of my tongue, but it was a distant and almost unimportant sensation. At that instant I was focused on the baseball bats in the hands of the four men surrounding me, but much more so on the pistol aimed right at my chest by the fifth. The tiny little (sixth) guy with the ring that had split my canine tooth in half was still bouncing around in front of me like a madman, and I, well I must have had the most confused look on my face I have ever had in my life.

Perhaps a bit of a rewind is in order. Cut to my very first solo Otter load flying for Chicagoland Skydiving Center. I had told Doug, the owner and pilot training me to fly her, that I wasn’t sure if his winter trip to Mexico was something I’d want to take on. I’d suggested that perhaps we both find out first if I could handle the Otter there at home before I agreed to fly it off to Mexico. I was climbing through about 8,000’ on my first solo Otter load before I radioed down to manifest to tell Doug that Mexico sounded just fine to me! That’s how much I loved flying that plane.

Chicago to far southern Mexico is no small trip. Flying your own aircraft internationally is no little deal. Doing it with nothing but a few notes from a jump pilot buddy named Kro, the first flight plan I’d made in more than two years, an outdated GPS database, and non-pilot co-pilot is just, well it’s fucking stupid.

Hinckley to Texarkana to Brownsville went off without a hitch. My close long-time friend Mandy kicked back in the co-pilot seat listening to music and enjoying the view, while I sat wondering if the cloud layer we’d been over for the last 200 miles would break before we got to Texas and I’d have to shoot an approach I was completely unprepared to make. Once the Otter was firmly planted on the ground in Brownsville, Texas (through clear skies), and the prevailing weather had been checked (fucking crap), I let the boss know that I wouldn’t be continuing on to Mexico until the next day (even though Brownsville, Texas was the biggest shithole town I’d ever been in) because the thought of trying to land in some random field in Mexico in the forecasted bad weather ahead scared the living fuck out of me.

Two days later … Puebla, Mexico was in sight. It was a pretty straightforward flight, other than the fact that it didn’t appear that Mexico had an air traffic system (that I could identify anyway). I believe after having crossed the International line, I spoke to only one Mexican controller, and he basically told me he didn’t care what I did. Once I was on the ground in Puebla I started their version of clearing customs, which involved spending a lot of money on paperwork I wasn’t told I’d need and going back and forth between two counters filled with people whose apparent jobs were to make the whole experience as difficult as possible. I made contact with the DZO Tony, who told me he was about an hour’s flight south of Puebla, just around the back side of the big fucking volcano. He said that Pepe, his “guy” on the ground, would be waiting for us.

Imagine the most rutted-up fucked up, weed-covered, rock-strewn, pothole-filled back road you’ve ever seen. That was the runway. Place on one side of that runway 50’ tall high-tension power lines. Place on the other side of that runway a rather deep ravine. Space those two very daunting obstacles about 2,000’ apart, angle the runway downhill just a touch and then stick the whole fucking mess at about 4,500’ above sea level. Now bring in a fully fueled Twin Otter stuffed to the gills with everything from a dozen spare tires and enough spare parts to build a second plane, to a scooter and a six-month stockpile of cleaning supplies. Put in the pilot seat a guy who’s only landed that Otter completely empty and at sea level, and … BAM! Welcome to Mexico!

Cut to a day and a half later. The plane had been emptied, and was happily parked on a completely different runway that had everything from pavement to a centerline. I was about a million times more secure with my choice than I had been the previous evening, and was starting to think that I might just manage to survive the whole experience for more than a week. My nerves were settled, I once again believed I knew how to fly a plane and was totally ready to get it all started. It was Friday, the beginning of the DZ’s Halloween Boogie, and people were starting to show up for what promised to be quite the party.

DZO Tony had quite the reputation as a total party animal, and fuck me, it was true. I was to be a guest at Tony’s house for the first week or so that I was in the country, which, unfortunately for Mandy, Fritz Pfnür, Fritz’s girlfriend, and me, meant we couldn’t get away from the damn music raging at Tony’s house long enough to get any rest. As I began flying on Saturday, it was only the mood of the jumpers that kept me awake.

Besides the Otter, the DZ had a King Air leased from a drop zone in Colorado that was being flown by a local pilot by the name of Cesar. I’d heard about Cesar from Kro, the pilot who had flown the Mexico gig before me and was warned quite firmly to keep an eye out. At first Cesar didn’t seem to be much of a concern. He didn’t speak English, and didn’t seem to have any desire to get to know the gringo pilot in the flash Otter. I’d almost decided not to give Cesar a second thought—until I watched him taxi the King Air down a hill and hit one of the props on the runway, sending sparks and a few chunks of pavement flying! I was floored almost to inaction by what had happened, but after what I’d seen soaked in, I ran in front of the King Air as the jumpers began loading the plane screaming, “Shut this fucking thing down! Shut it down!” Not only had Cesar known he had a prop strike, but the fucker was still gonna fly the load, putting not only himself but everyone onboard at serious risk! There was just no way in hell I was gonna let that happen.

After I’d finally managed to get the attention of Cesar, as well as Tony, I was able to get the load transferred over to the Otter while they “inspected” the King Air. I didn’t really know what type of inspection they were doing, but as I pulled up to load the third group since the prop strike I saw some really stupid shit … The King Air was chalked on all three tires and completely unattended with both engines running. I can only assume that Cesar must have decided that doing a run-up from a safe distance would be a good idea. The next thing you know … He also decided that taking a quick flight was a good idea as well. A quick flight that involved buzzing the Otter at high speed! I just about lost my fucking mind.

Luckily for me, Cesar hadn’t learned English in the two days I’d been in Mexico, so he couldn’t understand the massive string of profanities flowing through my headset—but Pepe on the ground sure as hell could! I was so mad I couldn’t see straight, and ended up glad that I had another two hours of flying before I was able to shut down, giving me a good chance to cool off before I could confront Fuckstick for his actions.

With Tony interpreting, I told Cesar that he had absolutely no business being a pilot. I made it very clear to him that in no uncertain terms was he to go anywhere near the Otter either in the air OR on the ground, and that he should stay the hell away from me as well. As it turns out, considering I was basically all alone in far southern Mexico right around the time the drug cartels were really getting the hang of killing people and cutting off their heads, calling Cesar out in that way may not have been the wisest of choices.

It was almost twenty-four hours later that I climbed out of the plane after a beautiful flyby that I found myself approached by the six men I mentioned earlier. I guess it had been a really good day, full of fun jumps and happy people, because the previous day’s excitement wasn’t even remotely in my mind when the first guy walked up and said, “We have a problem.”

That’s just about the time I swallowed half of my tooth. The little guy, who probably stood no more than about five-foot-five, threw a sucker punch from my blind spot that confused me more than anything else, because my first reaction was to laugh and bark out the word “what??” It wasn’t until he came in for punch number two and I’d shoved him away that I saw the baseball bats. As he came in for number three, I got my first view of the gun barrel pointed straight at my chest, and let the little shit swing away.

Cesar, being the big man that he was, stood a safe twenty feet back from the action, letting his boys prove how rugged and tough he was. The gang clearly saw that I saw the gun CLEARLY, and slowed the pace a bit, I assume to savor what was to come. “This is MEXICO” came from the mouth of Mr. We Have a Problem. He had clearly been voted the spokesman for the group, and was taking his job quite seriously, using the full weight of the situation to really put some impact behind his words. And then … My savior!

Mandy had been watching the situation unfold, and according to her, screaming her fucking head off (although to this day I don’t recall hearing a sound) loud enough to attract the attention of the military on the field. It didn’t appear that the military intended to do a damn thing about the attack, but they did stand up and look our way (I assume to get a better view), which turned out to be just enough to back my new friends off just a touch. The Spokesman looked to the military, then to me and said, in his most ominous tone, “Eeef you are here Saturday, you go home in a box.”

“Doug, if I’m here on Saturday, the fuckin’ guy says I go home in a box! So … Either I leave Mexico with the Otter, or I leave without it! Your choice!” To his credit, he handled the news pretty damn well. I mean really, when you consider I had just called him to tell him that I was flushing his entire winter down the toilet because of something that happened to somebody else’s plane, he was a real gent.

Tony, the DZO, had quickly gone into damage control mode, and was busy telling his entire staff that there had been no gun, and that for some unknown reason I was making the entire story up. It wasn’t until Fritz’s girlfriend stood up and called bullshit that he stopped trying to play everyone. Luckily for me, she had seen the guy with the gun (who turned out to be a fucking Federale) and told the entire staff right then and there what she had seen. Between her, Mandy, and a staff that wasn’t blind or stupid, everyone got a pretty good picture of what had transpired.

From then on out, things started to get a bit strange … First, I found myself standing in front of a group of 20 or so staff members, telling them that I was leaving as soon as the sun came up WITH the Otter, then apologizing deeply because I knew that I was ruining their season by doing so. I felt horrible in a way that I never have before, but it was the only choice that was to be made. Once Doug had the chance to get a handle on the situation, he told me flat out to get in the Otter and get the fuck outta there. To this day I still greatly respect his decision and how hard it must have been to make. Then, the staff, whose entire season I was about to destroy, did something I really never would have expected.

Each and every one of them went above and beyond, and helped me load thousands of pounds of equipment back into the Otter so that I’d be ready to leave at first light. They actually helped me take money right out of their pockets. Of all the staff, I only knew Buzz from Chicagoland. I don’t know a single one of the other staff members’ names, but I owe them a huge debt of gratitude nonetheless.

That night Tony took me to meet a Mexican version of the Godfather who told me, through Tony, that I should put the past behind me, and that I should not worry. He told me that I should not speak of that night any further because I was now under his protection, and nobody would touch me. He invited me to stay to finish the season in comfort, knowing that he would be looking out for me. I flew out as soon as the sun hit the horizon the next morning.

As I crossed the border from Mexico back to the U.S. and Brownsville, Texas, I remember thinking that it was just about the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. If it hadn’t been so damn close to the border, I probably would have settled down there …

I lasted a total of four days in Mexico. It was the last time I visited that country, and I still have no plans to return. Ninety nine percent of the people I met there (well, ninety five anyway) were wonderful people. Had it not been for the crazy events that took place there, I truly believe I would have had an amazing experience. The staff at the DZ were kind, full of smiles, apologetic for the events, and were amazingly generous with their help. It is a testament to what I hope is the real spirit of the Mexican people.

The true test of a choice that you make is simple. Would you make the same choice if you had it to do all over again? Absolutely! Would I change the way I approached fuckstick Cesar? Sure. I can tell you from experience that having a gun pointed at you sucks! Would I change stopping him from flying a load of jumpers after the prop strike? NEVER! Those were my people! It didn’t matter if I knew them or not, they were skydivers, and I would never be willing to risk their lives under any circumstances, no matter who they were or where they were from. So, to the staff of that DZ in Southern Mexico I give my heart-felt thanks. To Cesar I say, “GO FUCK YOURSELF!” (From a safe distance and an undisclosed location).

“This is Mexico…” You’re goddamn right.

The Fuckin' Pilot

Monthly Columnist

About the author: The Fuckin’ Pilot has more than 8,500 hours of flight time; 5,000 of those have been piloting jump ships for skydiving.

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High Jinks: Observations from the Stratos and StratEx World Record Parachute Jumps, Part 1

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This is an account of the Stratos and StratEx high-altitude parachute jumps, reported by someone who had the good fortune to serve as Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) Official Observer for both projects. In the interest of full disclosure, please know that this is a personal account, one limited by my own experiences, and not intended as a comprehensive exposition of the two projects from their inception. Each richly deserves its own book—a task I will leave to others more qualified.

First a bit about Planet Earth’s supreme authority for air sports, aviation, aerospace and astronautical records: the FAI. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale designates itself as “The World Air Sports Federation.” Founded in 1905, it’s “a non-governmental and non-profit making international organisation with the basic aim of furthering aeronautical and astronautical activities worldwide, ratifying world records and coordinating the organisation of international competitions.”

The United States Parachute Association is the airsport organization that represents FAI in the United States (and the corollary, the United States in the FAI) for all parachuting activities. USPA is “a voluntary membership organization of about 36,000 members who enjoy the sport of skydiving.” USPA’s mission is threefold: “to promote safe skydiving, to ensure skydiving’s rightful place on airports and in the airspace system, and to promote competition and oversee record-setting programs.” It was in the fulfillment of the third purpose, as our nation’s authority for parachuting records, that USPA took on the task of controlling and certifying the record-setting high altitude jumps of Felix Baumgartner (Stratos) and subsequently, Alan Eustace (StratEx).

My role in the Stratos and StratEx projects was fixed when I became Director of Competition for USPA in March 2011. With 40 years in the sport, 10,000 jumps and nearly a hundred national and international parachuting competitions behind me, I was fairly well suited for the job (there were other candidates, equally qualified). This was essentially a third career, coming after 13 years of military service (USAF pilot) and on the heels of a 20-year career as an airline pilot (US Airways). I took the job as a way to give back to the sport that had given me so much, starting with my first jump in August 1971 at Fort Benning, Georgia, where I earned my jump wings as an Air Force Academy cadet.

From the beginning of Stratos to the end of StratEx, I felt compelled to bear true witness to these two courageous parachutists and their remarkable teams, fulfilling my supporting role with fidelity and integrity. I hope by the ratification of their six FAI World Records and now by this account, I will have witnessed their splendid achievements faithfully and well. It’s certainly been one of the more interesting adventures of my life, and for that I am deeply grateful.

—James L. Hayhurst
Official Observer, FAI

Part One: Stratos

1. Roswell

High Jinks: Observations from the Stratos and StratEx World Record Parachute Jumps, Part 1 by James L. Hayhurst | Blue Skies Magazine i68: August 2015 |

Roswell, New Mexico | James L. Hayhurst

You try to sleep during the day (good luck with that) to be ready for a long night that starts with the ride to the airfield at 11 P.M. I work in my motel room on USPA business for as long as I can stand the solitary confinement, then go out for a walk or a swim. The New Mexico Military Institute campus is only a few blocks from the motel and often I go there around 5 P.M. to swim. I love the indoor pool at NMMI; it has high, arching windows around the perimeter of the pool area that let in streaming late-afternoon light; the water is cool and clear, and the lanes relatively open. One hundred laps and 2500 yards later, I feel like a new man. The only problem is that swimming jacks up your metabolism, making sleep impossible.

So it’s back to the room for more work. Around 8 P.M., I’m able to lie down with a vague hope of catching some sleep, a catnap at the least. At 10 P.M., the alarm goes off. I shower and dress, preparing myself with layers of clothing in anticipation of bone-chilling temperatures on the flight line at five tomorrow morning.

Layered up, minus the outer jacket (not needed on a mild early spring evening in Roswell), I head next door to the IHOP for breakfast. The restaurant is filled with familiar faces of the Stratos team. I take a booth occupied by my co-observer, Brian Utley. Utley is a youthful septuagenarian or octogenarian (I’m not sure which yet), a white-haired man of vigor and intelligence and with a friendly twinkle in his eyes. Utley is from the National Aeronautic Association (our “parent” organization—more on that later), a GPS expert assisting USPA, and I’m glad to have his expertise. The Stratos gang—engineers, camera crews, ground chase team, medical team and the ubiquitous Red Bull marketers—strike me as a big happy circus family, joined by the common purpose of putting Felix Baumgartner higher into the stratosphere than any man has ever gone, and then getting him back down in one piece, while sharing the high-stakes drama with the world via live-streaming video.

This extended Red Bull family orders heart-stopping three-egg omelets and waffles laden with whipped cream, strawberries and syrup, eating like vacationers off their diets, consuming coffee and calories with equal abandon. They’ll be up all night with no guarantee of a balloon launch in the morning so they partake in the pre-mission breakfast ritual as a compensation for impending nocturnal tedium. It reminds me a lot of airline crews flying red-eyes on the backside of the clock—something I endured for years early in my airline career.

Evening breakfast is followed by an all-hands briefing in the Best Western’s ballroom and then we caravan down North Main Street to the airfield. The drive takes us past a host of motels and restaurants with space alien-themed signage and décor, including the only McDonald’s in the world built to look like a flying saucer. Roswell is in southeast New Mexico, with a population of 48,000. Passing through downtown what you notice are storefronts catering to “the alien trade.” The International UFO Museum and Research Center is a stone’s throw from the Roswell Police Department, suggesting the city fathers long ago surrendered to the tourism benefits derived from the famous 1947 flying saucer incident, which to this day defines public perception (outside of New Mexico) of Roswell.

High Jinks: Observations from the Stratos and StratEx World Record Parachute Jumps, Part 1 by James L. Hayhurst | Blue Skies Magazine i68: August 2015 |

UFO Museum | James L. Hayhurst

On the five-mile stretch between the central business district and Roswell International Air Center, flying saucers give way to boarded-up storefronts, liquor stores and pawn shops, suggesting harsher economic realities. You don’t want to be out here alone at night unless you are in search of illegal substances and/or fleet of foot. The bleakness of the economic landscape reflects the closing of Walker Air Force Base in 1967. Once touted as the largest bomber base in the country, 45 years later the 4,600-acre airfield is mostly deserted, consisting of empty grassy blocks littered with crumbling foundations.

The control tower remains active, manned by FAA controllers who probably wish for more traffic than five-times-a-day airline service, a handful of agri-business jets and the odd private airplane thirsty for fuel (overnight parking is free!). In every direction, the vast concrete aprons where B-52s bombers once hunkered in wait of Armageddon have been replaced by hundreds of decommissioned airliners in various stages of disintegration; further out, the sprawling runway complex and surrounding desert make this an ideal site for launching stratospheric balloons.

So this is the unlikely stage where Red Bull has come to pull off what will be one of the biggest marketing coups in history, doing it right under everyone’s noses. In Roswell, that’s really not that difficult. The truth is, in this town, talk of another stratospheric balloon launch and some crazy fool making a high parachute jump produces one big collective yawn.

2. Mission Control


High Jinks: Observations from the Stratos and StratEx World Record Parachute Jumps, Part 1 by James L. Hayhurst | Blue Skies Magazine i68: August 2015 |

Red Bull Mission Control | Red Bull Content Pool

Red Bull Mission Control is situated inside a striking 5,000 square-foot, quarter-cylindrical shaped, steel and white-canvas covered prefabricated structure, erected on the western boundary of the airport property. It’s about as far from prying eyes as you can get, fronting a compound of double-wide trailers, porta-johns and the corrugated-steel hangar where they keep the capsule. About 300 yards away is an inactive concrete runway used as the balloon launch pad. Looking back from the runway, the face of mission control is a two-story wall of gray-tinted Plexiglas, with railed porches spanning both levels. My first impression upon arrival at the site is that Red Bull is sparing no expense on this project. My impression three days later: That’s an understatement.

High Jinks: Observations from the Stratos and StratEx World Record Parachute Jumps, Part 1 by James L. Hayhurst | Blue Skies Magazine i68: August 2015 |

Red Bull Mission Control | Red Bull Content Pool

At night, the first floor is dimly lit, with the vibe of a subdued, exclusive nightclub. Instead of a bouncer, there’s a friendly Red Bull gofer checking name tags. To the right of the entrance is the media area (by invitation only until the climatic jump). A big-screen TV loops videos of Red Bull extreme athletes in action, skiing down impossibly steep mountains, riding mountain bikes along the precipices of sheer cliffs, capped by the most famous Red Bull daredevil of all, Felix Baumgartner, jumping off the right arm of Christ the Redeemer high above Rio di Janeiro. Another video shows him gliding a carbon-fiber wing across the English Channel.

On the other side of the first floor, there’s an inviting, rectangular-shaped alcove furnished with plush couches. It’s intended for briefings of the inner elite, but unused most of the time and perfect for naps. At the rear of the building, where tubular-steel frames curve down to the floor, you’ll find a self-serve Keurig coffee machine and an assortment of snacks, flanked by a pair of waist-high Red Bull coolers filled with slim cans of the energy drink. Taking all this in, I think back on a thousand and one sleepless redeye nights, the dingy airline crew rooms that preceded them and the cramped Boeing cockpits that defined them. As far as long day’s nights go, this is as good as it gets. Welcome to Red Bull all-nighter heaven.

Upstairs, where I’ll spend a good portion of my time, the setting is completely different, all business . . . shiny Red Bull space-age business. In case you’ve lost your way or have any doubt about where you are, a large sign dominates the far wall:


The flags of Austria, New Mexico and the United States serve as a reminder that this is an international endeavor (Austrian stunt jumper and funding; American know-how and airspace). The control room strikes me as a throwback to early-sixties NASA, circa the Mercury program, the era of the “Right Stuff.” A bank of large flat-screen monitors at the front of the room face four rows of flight control stations. There are six stations per row, each one placarded with the occupant’s name and function. Next to each placard, a can of the ubiquitous Red Bull, even at the front-row station of “Joe Kittinger, Cap Com 1.”

High Jinks: Observations from the Stratos and StratEx World Record Parachute Jumps, Part 1 by James L. Hayhurst | Blue Skies Magazine i68: August 2015 |

Felix Baumgartner and Joe Kittinger | FAI

“Colonel Joe” is Felix Baumgartner’s mentor. Half a century ago, in 1960, before there was such a thing as “The Right Stuff,” then-Captain Joseph W. Kittinger II jumped from an open balloon gondola 102,800 feet above sea level as part of Project Excelsior, a pre-space test project. Wearing an early-model Air Force pressure suit, with a standard aircrew parachute on his back and a survival kit strapped to his rear, and towing a drogue parachute for stabilization, he fell for four minutes and 36 seconds, reaching a maximum speed of 614 miles per hour. He opened his parachute at 18,000 feet and survived the hard landing under his 28-foot round canopy with a few bumps and bruises. His right hand had swelled twice its normal size due to a failure of his glove on ascent (a painful fact he kept from mission control, knowing that if he mentioned it, they’d scrub the jump). Talk about the right stuff.

Kittinger went on to fly 483 combat missions in the Vietnam war. On his third and final tour, flying the McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom II, he shot down a MIG-21. On what would be his last mission, he got shot down himself. He and his backseater survived, only to spend 11 months in the infamous Hanoi Hilton prisoner-of-war camp. After the war, Kittinger served in fighter-wing command positions before retiring with honors and military combat decorations too numerous to mention. After retiring, among many interests, he fell in love with ballooning and became the first man to solo the Atlantic in a gas balloon, an extraordinary story in itself that ends with a crash landing in an Italian forest. My personal observation: Kittinger is the center of gravity of this mission, its beating heart. And just in case you are wondering—no, Joe doesn’t drink Red Bull.


My only gripe about Mission Control is that I don’t have a seat in it, an awkward state of affairs I discover upon the day of my arrival. However, Brian Utley does. In fact, the placard at his station lists him as “FAI Official Observer.” I’ve tried to explain to various Red Bull officials that actually, no, I am the official observer representing USPA but this only confuses and frustrates them. They already have their official observer—it’s the white-haired, well-spoken, distinguished gentleman from the NAA (truthfully, central casting couldn’t do any better).

High Jinks: Observations from the Stratos and StratEx World Record Parachute Jumps, Part 1 by James L. Hayhurst | Blue Skies Magazine i68: August 2015 |

Felix and Brian Utley, NAA | Sage Cheshire

How this has happened is a bit of a story. It begins with my immediate predecessor at USPA, a fellow named Larry Bagley, who had arranged Brian Utley’s services in 2010 to use his GPS expertise for USPA to document the Red Bull jump. Utley had been certifying records for the NAA using GPS for over a decade. He served on the NAA’s Contest and Records Board, and was their “go-to” guy for all things GPS. Hence, he was the logical choice to assist USPA with the record, using GPS (instead of a flight barograph, a technology that had evaporated over the half-century since Kittinger’s jump) to certify the performance.

Shortly after I joined USPA in early April 2011 I discovered a “Red Bull Stratos” folder. Of course, I was intrigued. Thumbing through the files, I saw Mr. Utley’s name in a long thread of correspondence going back to 2009, but also noted the project was on hold due to pending litigation; apparently a California promoter named Daniel Hogan had pitched the idea to Red Bull in 2004 and claimed he owned certain rights. He filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit in the Superior Court of Los Angeles. Red Bull stopped the project until the case was resolved.

Among the documents I found a letter of agreement between USPA and Red Bull’s prime contractor, Sage Cheshire, Inc. (which, in addition to one-off aerospace projects, builds vehicles like the Batmobile for the film industry). The agreement was co-signed by Ed Scott, USPA’s Executive Director, and Mr. Art Thompson, founder of Sage Cheshire and the Stratos project technical director. A $3,000 non-refundable retainer had been deposited in USPA’s account.

So I called Thompson in Lancaster, California, and introduced myself, explaining that if the project resumed, I would replace Larry Bagley as the official observer. Thompson was hopeful the lawsuit would be resolved sometime soon. We chatted, comparing aviation backgrounds. I learned Art had worked for Lockheed and had helped design and fabricate the exterior stealth properties of the B-2 bomber. He graciously invited me to come out to Lancaster anytime and check out the mothballed Stratos capsule.

I called Utley to share what I had learned. After discussing the stalled Red Bull project, I asked him about a related subject, one that was rapidly bearing down on my event horizon as the director of parachuting competition in the United States: using GPS technology to measure distance and speed of flight in the fast-emerging discipline of wingsuit flying. We subsequently had a series of email exchanges on that topic. The Red Bull high-altitude jump faded from view until early July, when the news broke that the lawsuit had been settled out of court.

Felix Baumgartner blogged jubilantly to his fans, “I am struggling to find the right words to express my happiness, how relieved and motivated I am that it has finally come to an end. As you know, we stopped to work completely on this project for seven months . . . the next steps will require careful evaluation of the project across all areas.”

The project quietly started back up. I didn’t hear anything related to Red Bull until early December 2011, when one day I got a call from Mr. A.W. Greenfield, the Director of Contests and Records at NAA. He informed me Red Bull had contracted Brian Utley to observe an upcoming unmanned test drop, and USPA would need to handle the billing, since by NAA observer policy, Red Bull couldn’t pay Utley directly. The unmanned test drop was news to me, as was Utley’s direct involvement outside of USPA.

I fired off an email to Thompson reminding him that USPA selected the FAI official observer for parachuting records in the United States—not NAA. I explained to him that Brian Utley was serving as a technical consultant to USPA. I attached a revised letter of agreement, replacing the name of my predecessor, Larry Bagley, with my own as the FAI official observer. I concluded, “Please sign the letter of agreement and we’re good to go. I look forward to working with you on this project in the upcoming year; I know you are very busy right now, so no rush, but give me a call when you catch your breath.”

I didn’t get a response from Art Thompson until January, and we didn’t get the revised letter of agreement in place until early February 2012. However, on December 16, the day of the first unmanned test at Roswell, Brian Utley was there, analyzing GPS data from a telemetry pod dropped from 88,830 feet. So the Red Bull team had met Utley in person. He had presented himself as NAA’s official observer, which was true as far as it went, but the distinction that the FAI official observer would be provided by USPA and that Utley was strictly providing technical support to USPA was lost on Red Bull . . . and for that matter, on Brian Utley.

Now, three months later, I find myself having to explain my presence to various Red Bull officials and especially, to the Red Bull media people who want to keep mission control clear of unnecessary bodies. To them, I think it appears like some government agencies bickering over jurisdiction (and I sympathize: FAI . . . NAA . . . USPA . . . it’s one big alphabet soup).

It’s clear to me that Red Bull’s media team has written their script and picked their guy, and it’s Brian Utley of the NAA. I don’t want to create a stink, and I can’t imagine doing the record without Utley’s GPS expertise, so I decide to take the high road and deal with the situation as graciously as possible. After all, this is not about me, it’s about Felix’s jump and making sure it gets ratified by the FAI. The truth is, I can sit on a folding chair in the back of the room and do my job. But I have to admit, I feel a little like the uninvited guest at a party.

In Red Bull Mission Control, I’m the odd man out.

High Jinks: Observations from the Stratos and StratEx World Record Parachute Jumps, Part 1 by James L. Hayhurst | Blue Skies Magazine i68: August 2015 |

Call-sign list | James L. Hayhurst

Coming in Blue Skies Mag i69: Part 2, First Launch.

James L. Hayhurst

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About the author: James Hayhurst has been a noted skydiving competitor, organizer and leader for over 40 years. He’s a many-time national champion and member of more than 20 U.S. Parachute Teams. Currently, he serves as USPA’s Director of Competition. Jim has 11,000 jumps.

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Photo Interview: Sean MacCormac

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It was bound to happen sooner or later. The people I have interviewed, the lovely folks at Blue Skies Magazine and many others have been asking (borderline harassing?) me for a long time to do an interview with a guy. I will admit I was afraid because I am not a very good photographer but can fool some of you into thinking I am by taking pics of badass ladies. It really is cheating, but that’s the truth of the matter and my dirty little secret. I fear I don’t have the same talent as the dudes, so I resisted this notion for a long time. But here you go!

In this interview, we have the first photo interview featuring someone with a Y chromosome. As you may remember from previous photo interviews, the general idea is to introduce you to a badass in our sport and focus on who they are as a person and not just their skydiving resume. This shoot was done over some barbecue, a few drinks and with the company of a photo-interview veteran (ChmeSexy!). So who is this guy? If you remember seeing skydiving on ESPN or follow any of the antics of the Red Bull Air Force, this guy may seem familiar. He has been a competitor, actor, innovator and all-around badass for quite some time now. Ladies and gents, I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Sean MacCormac.

Photo Interview: Sean MacCormac | by Zach Lewis |

Zach: Where did you start off in this world and where have you called home over the course of your life?
Sean: I started off in New York City and started jumping at the Ranch. I did my tandem at the end of the season in ‘94 or ‘95. I’ve called almost all of the major drop zones in the U.S. home at some point. Perris, Arizona, everywhere in Florida. I’ve never lived in Chicago but jumped there. I’ve been in California for the last eight years, and that is where I call home now.

I thought I was pretty cool when I stopped shaving with the same type of razor people use to shave their legs with. I straight razor with disposable blades, but I understand you use the real deal. How long have you been stropping? What is more dangerous: the straight razor or your stunts?
I do prefer a gentleman’s shave. When I was younger I thought that if you were going to grow up to be a macho/gentleman dude you just had to use a straight razor. So I went through the slicing your face process, but now I’m pretty confident. I guess I’ve been stropping for seven or eight years now.

Photo Interview: Sean MacCormac | by Zach Lewis |

Outside of skydiving and the tunnel, what do you do for fun?
I am a family guy with three kids. We do a lot of family and outdoorsy types of things. I love sport bikes and have a passion for Ducati bikes, yoga and board sports in general.

How do you pay the bills?
I am a professional skydiver and stunt man.

Did you always want to work in the skydiving industry?
I knew from my first tandem that it was a place and a thing that I would want in my life for the rest of my life. The community at the Ranch was so amazing, supportive and talented. I knew skydiving professionally was something I wanted to always do, but didn’t know how it was going to be. When I found skysurfing I really clicked with it and it took me on a journey that led me to where I am today.

Photo Interview: Sean MacCormac | by Zach Lewis |

What do you suck at?
Golf. I’m terrible.

What accomplishment, in skydiving or outside the sport, are you the most proud of?
I’ve had a lot of little accomplishments in the sport, but the biggest thing for me is that I have been a part of almost every major skydiving genesis that was rooted in acrobatics in the last 20 years. From skysurfing to free flying to VFS to freestyle swooping to some of the tunnel events now, I’ve been a part of the development of all of those things and/or been a part of the wave of those events. I’ve competed in them and done well.

Photo Interview: Sean MacCormac | by Zach Lewis |

What is your drink or cocktail of choice?
Water? If it is alcohol, I’d say whiskey.

Is there anything you can’t stand to drink?
Body fluids? And probably not gin because I got so outrageously sick on it as a young person I promised never to drink it again.

Photo Interview: Sean MacCormac | by Zach Lewis |

Would you consider yourself an extrovert?
A really strange combination of both, if that is even possible. I think there are some aspects of me that are very extroverted and confident. There is another side of me that is very private and a bit of a hermit. My personality is pretty boisterous, but I’m also pretty private in my life.

Do you like to cook? If so, what’s your best meal?
I do like to cook! We do a lot of cooking in our house because we have a brood of hungry faces. My best dish would probably be fajitas and a big pancake-y breakfast.

One of the common themes when I interview badass people is how fit they are. What is your trick?
I’ve been working out since I was a teenager. It has always been very important to me. I always knew that I wanted to be active and hard charging. I knew if that was how I wanted to be I needed to make sure my body was capable of that. Flexibility has always been really important to me. I do a lot of yoga. Usually at least an hour of yoga a day. I also do weights, cardio and work out about six days a week.

Photo Interview: Sean MacCormac | by Zach Lewis |

What might be something people would be surprised to know you do well?
Form complete sentences? <laughs> Being a good Dad.

Name someone you can beat up.
I think in my old age I’ve turned from beating people up to putting people to sleep.

For the new jumpers out there, would you like to share any tips or advice?
It is a beautiful sport that you can have a long safe life with, but at the same time go slow. If you started jumping circa 2005 you probably were greeted with this idea that skydiving was foo-foo and anyone can do it. If you were before then it was more like, “Black death, you are all going to die, bowling is for you!” Maybe it is something in the middle, but it definitely isn’t the foo-foo version. In my opinion, not everyone should do it. If you take your time and train using the tunnel, canopy coaching and other advantages we have today, you can do anything in this sport you want to do.

Photo Interview: Sean MacCormac | by Zach Lewis |

Who do you look up to?
Alaska Jon [DeVore]. Omar Alhegelan was a strong influence of mine. Olav [Zipser] also had a strong influence on me. I’m not sure if for better or worse!

Not really, other than Mac.

Tell me about your guilty pleasures. Don’t be afraid to share, your secrets are safe here!
Tons of guilty pleasures! I’m a bit of a news junkie. I love playing with the kids, and my job is totally a guilty pleasure.

Are any of your other family members into extreme sports? What do they think about you jumping?
No other extreme members of the family. I think they have all been through the carousel and continue to be through the carousel of freaked out , scared, excited, proud … freaked out, scared, excited, proud!

Photo Interview: Sean MacCormac | by Zach Lewis |

For those of us who have been jumping for longer periods of time, I think the things that made us start jumping (bucket lists, fear rushes, etc.) are no longer the things that motivate us to keep jumping. What is that like for you?
It was never a fear rush or bucket list item for me. As soon as I jumped I had a really spiritual connection with it, I just loved it and it was a passion for me and has never changed. I’ve perused other sports like wakeboarding and skateboarding, but for me skydiving is the most serene and empowering environment that you can play in. The team that I am on right now also helps tremendously. We have nine super alpha males and one super alpha female and we motivate each other to keep going and pushing the boundaries.

When you first started jumping, were you a natural or did you struggle?
I was a natural.

If you could never jump again, what would be the next sport or hobby you would dominate?
At this time in my life it would be either motorcycle racing or kite surfing.

Do you have any causes or charities you are passionate about?
For sure. I’ve been a part of a number of wounded warrior or veteran projects. For the past 15 years I’ve been really involved in training with the military. I try to do whatever I can for them.

Photo Interview: Sean MacCormac | by Zach Lewis |

If you had to pick out one of the high school stereotypes, which would you be?
Rebel without a cause.

What scares you?

What non-skydiving life event has had the biggest impact on who you are?
I would say the birth of my son.

You are a family man now, tell us a little bit about the MacCormac crew.
We have two boys and a girl. Seven [years old], five [years old] and nine months. They are awesome!

In your current role, you get to travel around the world to different locations for demos, events and stunts. Does it ever get old or is it as awesome as it sounds?
I am going to be honest with you; it is awesome! I feel really blessed. I have done almost everything in the sport from tandems, AFFs, filming tandems. I’ve done every job that there is to do on the drop zone to try to live and make it happen. I think it is easy to get burned out if you are just doing one thing over and over. With Red Bull we don’t stay in one place long and get to see new locations and do amazing things. We rarely are at a drop zone, and generally on locations getting to see places we’ve never seen before and on some great adventures. I pinch myself all the time. To be able to make a life and have a lifestyle while doing something that is super alternative is a great accomplishment.

Photo Interview: Sean MacCormac | by Zach Lewis |

Is it true that you invented The Invisible Man? Is there a story behind that?
Back then I came up with several skysurfing moves, and the Invisible Man was one of them. It was a self-propelled stand-up spin that would exceed 12 revolutions per second. I did it at the X Games, and it was my signature trick they picked up. I had under a thousand jumps when I was competing at that time, and I was trying to work on my moves while watching people like Rob Harris, [Patrick] de Gayardon and others. I would watch their moves and try to do what I could with a dash of my own style. I’d try to do it faster, or maybe harder. I was working on the stand-up spin portion of my routine and kept trying to push it faster and faster. I had to make myself a homemade G-Suit. I had a couple of mishaps when I couldn’t hold my arms in and they would blow out and all the blood would rush into my hands during the spin. A few times I had trouble using my arms and hands, which made landing challenging!

Speed Round (quick answer, don’t think much about it)
Steak or lobster? Steak.
Dance or fight? Dance fight!
Power or finesse? Finesse.
Smile or game face? Game-face smile!
Summer or spring? Summer.
Desire or discipline? Discipline driven by desire.
Weights or yoga? Yoga.
Fly or drive? Fly.
Monopoly or Checkers? Monopoly.
Cigar or cigarette? Cigar.

Photo Interview: Sean MacCormac | by Zach Lewis |

Zach Lewis

Photo Interviewer

About the interviewing photographer: Zach Lewis started jumping in 1997 and flies camera for Dallas Khaos Khobalt. He enjoys jumping, taking pictures, taking pictures while jumping, and whiskey.

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DZOs: You Need Yelp

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The Power of Word-of-Mouth

In 2011, I was fortunate to check a major item off my bucket list: Visit New Zealand’s South Island. Knowing it would be an expensive adventure, I meticulously researched each hotel, restaurant and activity using to ensure that I would get the best experiential value based on the reviews of others.

Advertising spent on brochures, web design, billboard advertising, TV or radio had no influence on me and where I chose to spend my money. Every decision I made was based on the opinions of others.

Well, I wasn’t let down. I had the time of my life!

Recently, while visiting a drop zone in the Midwest, I pulled into the parking lot of a recommended hotel and read reviews about it on Had the reviews been negative, I would have carried on with my hotel search. My consumer behavior is consistent with Generation Y which places a premium on experience over expense and makes decisions from quick research using a smartphone.

This behavior is not limited to the service industry, as I, and others like me, have conveniently selected dentists, doctors, computer repair techs and a myriad of other services using review sites.

There has been a lot of criticism in the media about review sites like Yelp and others because of so-called review padding by owners of establishments who create positive reviews for themselves. If a business operator delivers a poor product or service, no amount of padding can outweigh the tidal wave of negativity that will crash on a business from savvy consumers.

Review sites are here to stay and effectively utilizing them is a key to a drop zone’s success today and in the future.

Embrace Change

Word-of-mouth (WOM) has always been the most credible and effective mode of marketing, but its transmission beyond our small social circles had been limited by our interactions. Prior to the smartphone, an average consumer would tell three friends about a great experience and 10 about a bad experience.

Today, Facebook and Twitter deliver opinions, both positive and negative, to thousands of people in seconds. A company’s survival centers around great service, selling an excellent product, and using new mediums for marketing.

Once considered to be in a different category from marketing, customer service has transitioned from being an extremity to being at the heart of influencing consumers on where to spend their money. Inspire your customers through exceptional service to utilize the technology available and create rave reviews.


Gaining Competitive Advantage: Leveraging WOM

Leveraging word-of-mouth is both effective and inexpensive when attempting to raise a company’s profile in a busy marketplace. An example of this is the story of my family and how they utilized TripAdvisor to transform their business.

My parents operate an eco-kayaking tour on the island of Antigua, competing with 67 other tour companies vying for cruise ship passengers arriving each day between November and April. How does a literal mom-and-pop compete with no advertising budget and thrive? The answer: Craft a five-star experience complemented with superior service and then ask your customers to review the trip.

The result? Their business tripled after they moved up the TripAdvisor rankings from 26th to number one in the country. Their customers became the marketing team and word spread virally about the Antigua Paddles experience. Any drop zone in the skydiving industry can adopt this strategy and be successful if implemented correctly.

The advent of the smartphone is a game-changer. At no time in history have consumers had the power to effect the success or failure of an organization. The very survival of a company not only depends on a product or service but also how the customer feels and most importantly, how that feeling is shared.

Tips for Leveraging Review Sites

  1. Know Your Ranking. Know where you stand and know what consumers are saying about you.
  2. Create Raving Fans. Make exceptional customer service equally as important as the product.
  3. 3 Deliver. Deliver great service consistently every day.
  4. Address Negative Reviews. Post responses to any negative review, but never take a defensive position. Be positive in your comments and implement necessary changes to avoid the same negative review again.
  5. Set Goals. Strive to break into the top-three ranked companies on various review sites.
  6. Buy-In. Get buy-in from your staff to embrace a customer service culture and drive to hold a top online ranking.
  7. Ask. Happy customers tend to be loyal and will happily write reviews to help with your success … you just need to ask them.

James La Barrie

Monthly Columnist

About the author: As a former drop zone manager for nine years with proven results, James La Barrie is a different kind of marketing professional. As the founder of DropZone.Marketing, he helps his DZ clients increase revenues by implementing techniques in word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM), social media, company culture, branding and world-class web design.

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