It was February 1991. Nick, Richy, Jess, Mike Allen and I were making the rounds jumping the big antennas scattered across the swamps of Florida. We were taking advantage of the lock-picking skills we had been practicing. A little sleight of hand and a short elevator ride was way better than climbing these big boys.
We worked our way south, hitting as many of the big sticks as we could, and somehow ended up staring skyward at the First Federal Building in downtown Miami. There was a huge parking lot for an LZ. We just had to see if we could get to the roof. We took no rigs. It was just a recon mission for now. After getting questioned once by security and finally setting off an alarm, we gave it a rest. I made a promise to Mike to take him to Half Dome at some point and we all went our separate ways. Maybe another time.
Months passed and Mike called to tell me he was coming out to California in two weeks to jump Half Dome. He needed to get the steering fixed on his car and tie up some other loose ends. About a week went by and Mike died in a head-on collision with a tractor trailer. He hadn’t fixed his steering yet.
I returned to Florida to retrieve his ashes and make some memorial jumps from an antenna he had opened. A handful of us held a Mike Allen Memorial Boogie where we made more than 60 jumps in two days. This mast was 1,200’ to the top with three platforms equally distributed. There was a long rope that was tied off to the 800’ platform. It ran down past the next platform to the ground and was tied off to a truck tire. When we had jumped this tower before, we always pulled the rope in to the center and tied it off to eliminate a potential hazard. On this occasion we didn’t pull the rope in. We knew the risk but we laughed it off with, “Fuck it. Mike is watching over us. What could go wrong?”
Rob, who had never made a BASE jump, came to make his first, in memory of his very good friend. He came outfitted with skydiving gear that had a pull-out pilot chute. He insisted that he use it. He was aware of the extra risks he was taking by not using BASE specific gear. “I know my gear. Parachutes work from 1,200’.” Rob stood tall at the exit point. And he left the antenna just like that. He just hinged off. No push. His brain said go and his feet said no. He just leaned forward, headed for that unintentional front loop and rolling up of the windows. He pulled on his back and ended up with a bunch of line twists. Now, headed back toward the tower, squirming and bicycling to get out of the twists, we watched from the ground thinking he was going to strike the tower. But just then, the left front corner of the canopy struck the rope that we had purposely neglected to tie to the center of the tower. The rope, with the weight of the tire on it, acted as a fulcrum point which turned the canopy around 180 degrees away from the tower. The momentum undid the line twists and Rob got his brakes off just in time to do a stand-up landing right in front of us. We jumped up and down, cheered and yahooed, confirming that Mike was watching out for us. We always wondered what that rope and tire was for. Now we knew! After killing the elevator’s battery and its backup, we felt that it was a good time to hang it up.
I remembered my promise to take Mike to Half Dome. So back in California, we did just that. I made two separate trips with different people. We would exit and fly with our beloved friend one last time before dispersing his remains back to nature. On the second trip, three of us took a handful of Mike’s ashes and ran off an open wedge. I was the left wing and when the point man tossed Mike’s ashes, they went straight into my face … I breathed him in.
Fast forward, February 1994. I received a call from B.J. Worth. The movie “Drop Zone” was being produced and he was the aerial stunt coordinator. He was looking for a stunt double for Michael Jeter. His character was a short, balding, computer nerd and somehow they thought I fit the bill. Short, balding, nerd…OK. Computer? Not so much. Most of the jumps I was to do were as a tandem passenger and were to take place in Miami. Hmm, I thought. Best bring along some BASE gear. I figured I would be staying in a motel there and could possibly make a leap or two when I was not on the clock.
The building I was staying in was very jumpable with a nice beach LZ. After picking the locks to the roof of my building as well as two others, I waited for good weather conditions. And waited. I monitored the winds often, and with the great temperature difference between the concrete city that sucked up the all-day heat and the cooler ocean, there was always some sort of questionable wind. I continued to wait … for over a month.
There were no BASE jumps in the original script of the movie “Drop Zone.” In fact, there had been no BASE jumps in any feature film shot in the United States in the 10-plus years before that point. B.J. Worth made a jump from the Eiffel Tower in 1985 for the movie “A View to a Kill.” The first and last one in the U.S. was attempted by a stunt man who was a skydiver and not a BASE jumper. He was to jump a building in L.A. and was going about it all wrong. The BASE community heard of his stunt and we tried to guide him but he wouldn’t listen. He ended up scraping himself down the face of the building and that put the whammy on BASE in Hollywood for over a decade. BASE jumping in the movies was faked using pulleys and cables or digital effects. The “B” word was a no-no in the industry.
World famous aerial cinematographer Tom Sanders was filming many of the aerial scenes for the movie. The producers ended up with one of his demo tapes and were excited about some of the BASE jumping selects, many of which were of me jumping buildings. They decided to change the script to include a BASE jump.
The original scene for the introduction of the character Swoop went like this: Jessie Crossman jumps from a plane and lands on the New River Gorge Bridge in search of hotshot skydiver Swoop to join her team. She leans over the railing and sees him sunbathing naked on a steel girder below. When he reaches up for a helping hand, he slips and falls off backward. A bungee cord arrests his fall and that closes the scene.
The producers told me this and said, “This is a skydiving movie, not a bungee movie. Can you jump from that building over there?” They pointed to The First Federal Building that Mike and our crew got thrown out of years earlier. A big ol’ grin appeared on my face, but with disappointment I said, “I have been trying to make a BASE jump here in the city for over a month but conditions were never good enough to pull it off in a relatively safe manner.” The producers decided to work toward it happening, and if it didn’t work out, we would do it at a different inland building and at a later date.
The character Swoop was tall and lean. This was not me. B.J. asked me who would make a good double for Swoop. Don Swayze was a stellar BASE student of mine and I volunteered him for the job. I gave him a call.
“Hey Don. I have a job for you to jump a building here in Miami but the wind has been an issue for over a month. Come on down for a couple of weeks of vacation and get a paycheck for watching the wind blow.”
When Don arrived, we spent two weeks prepping for the stunt and the wind blew every single day with no lulls.
The new intro for the character Swoop went like this: Jesse and Pete (Wesley Snipes) are on the roof of the building looking for Swoop to join their team. They find him disguised as a worker on a window-washing unit, hanging from the side of the building. After being bribed with free T-shirts to join the team, Swoop reaches up for a helping hand, purposely loses his balance and falls from the scaffolding. After a 4-second fall, he deploys a hidden parachute from under his sweater. Yeah, way better than a bungee jump!
The production crew acquired use of the building and window-washing equipment but could not get permission for us to land in the massive parking lot below launch … unless there was an emergency. The beach, which was out of gliding distance, was to be the primary landing area. Looked like we would be having an emergency. We obviously kept that quiet until after the jumps.
Three of us would be making jumps; Don was to make one of the on-camera jumps with a partial hidden rig, Tom Sanders would be making a rear-mounted camera jump, and I would be making a belly-mounted camera jump, filming my legs with the building whizzing by in the background. The 35 mm camera and lens were huge. I had to have it guyed out to my shoulders since the belly mount couldn’t support the weight. I practiced my exit many times over. When I squatted to launch, I had to be careful not to snag the camera’s lens on the edge of the window-washing platform. Snagging the camera would have made for some interesting front loops. I would have two assistants in the “emergency LZ” parking lot to help support the camera on landing, if needed.
We spent two weeks prepping for the stunt, practicing exits wearing the camera gear. We anchored the window-washing unit to the building to allow for a solid launch. And we watched the wind continue to blow. Our aerial stunt team made day and night jumps into a downtown Miami park during those two weeks, dealing as best we could with the sketchy winds. In fact, before we were doing stunts in the city, we were jumping in Homestead with winds cranking to 20-plus mph. The production crew was so accustomed to these winds that when we moved into the city to do stunts and refused to jump in the windy conditions, they thought we were milking the clock for paid down time. So B.J. suited up with a helmet, elbow and knee pads, wrist guards, spine and tailbone protection in order to make a helicopter jump to show the producers what turbulence was—and that jumping in the city was very different from the great wide openness at Homestead. He exited the chopper, opened well above the buildings and was parked and stable facing into the wind. When he reached the building tops it got real crazy. His canopy got trashed into a few partial collapses and one full-on total collapse and re-inflation. With us all oohing, awwing and cringing throughout his whole flight that he miraculously pulled off, the producers finally got it: We would be waiting on the winds.
It was the night before the jump. Don and I were in the motel packing and making light of it all because we figured we wouldn’t be jumping tomorrow. The forecast sucked for 9 a.m.. as it had for the last six weeks. Just as we were closing up our containers, in walked Gus Wing with more than an air of excitement.
“Guys ! I just came from the roof of the building. There is a big black bird circling the building. And there is no wind blowing. None. Zero! This bird just keeps circling and circling. And it’s not flapping.”
I looked over at Don who, was the right wing of that 3-way wedge where I breathed in Mike’s spirit.
I said, “I know it’s Mike Allen. We tried jumping this building years ago and almost ended up in jail. Mikey is giving this to us. We ARE gonna jump tomorrow.”
Geared up, camera’d up, in wardrobe, we stood on top of the building at 8 a.m. We watched B.J. exit the chopper and open. There was not a breath of wind but he was the stunt coordinator and he wanted to do a fly-by to show us—and mostly the production crew—that wind would not be a factor in the safety of this jump. He cruised past the lip of the roof in deep brakes, glanced over at us and said, “How’s this for a wind indicator?” It was pretty sweet but we needed to get on with it. These conditions probably wouldn’t last.
Don made his jump and all went well—except for having to land in the “emergency lot,” of course. The film crew got reorganized but took longer because they wanted to film me as well. They could digitally erase the bulging belly cam and use my jump from different angles. My jump went well without needing the camera catchers who were right there as planned. As I gathered up my gear I felt a slight breeze. I raced back to the roof top in order to help Tom out. When I came out of the stairwell I felt the much stronger wind at altitude. As Tom and I discussed the situation, it only got worse.
It sucked that Tom couldn’t jump. But the film crew got the primary shots they needed. And I got to jump a building that was on my hit list—and so did Mike in a roundabout way. To top it off they paid me a sick amount of money to do something I would have done on my own anyway. And this jump being successful caused another script change, allowing me another BASE jump for the final kill scene in the movie. The wind blew for the next two weeks and we left Miami.
Mike had spent some time in India as a teen, where he studied and believed in reincarnation. Mike’s sister and others have also had interesting things happen surrounding Mike after his passing. I have had more as well. But those are stories for another time.
So, one may wonder if that big black bird soaring over the roof the night before the jumps was the reincarnation of our buddy Mike Allen…I like to believe it was. Thanks, and I love you, Mike.
Moe Viletto is the owner of Tailored For Survival, a specialty sewing and design company for life-support systems. He bought a parachute after his first jump in 1971, started to pioneer BASE equipment and jumping in the early 1980s, and has been working in the parachute industry full-time ever since. Catch his stories on Skydive Radio at SkydiveRadio.com.