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

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 …

Moe Viletto

Regular Contributor

About the author: 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.

Out of Window Out of Body: “Drop Zone” Tales, Part 1

"Tom Sanders' shot of Jake Brake landing on the roof of a Miami building at night was one of the best shots in the movie." {Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 | "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 1" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com}

Online Reprint

Originally printed in issue #52 (March 2014) of Blue Skies Magazine. Download “Out of Window Out of Body: ‘Drop Zone’ Tales, Part 1″

I had been working on the movie “Drop Zone” as a rigger and aerial stunt performer in Miami for nearly three months in 1994. The movie is a bit hokey from a skydiver’s point of view but the majority of the stunts were not faked. Computer-generated imagery was used for some stunts, but only minimally. Executive producer and director John Badham is known for action movies with as real as possible stunts.

I was a lucky boy when there was a script change that allowed me a jump from the First Federal Building. This was the first BASE jump in a feature film in the U.S. in more than 10 years. After one went awry in the early ‘80s, the stunt industry put the kibosh on Hollywood and real BASE jumps. When my first jump pleased the producers, (I didn’t shhpank!) they changed the script again to allow for another building jump, just outside of Los Angeles.

I was about to perform this stunt for the final kill scene. It went something like this: The good guy (Wesley Snipes) whom I was doubling for, and the bad guy (Gary Busey), are shooting it out on the top floor of a building. Snipes still has his rig on, sans the main he had cut away after landing on the roof. They come together face to face, with guns pointed at each other’s heads. Click … Click. They are both out of ammo. Snipes tackles Busey and crashes through a glass window. Deploying his reserve, he drops Busey, who then crashes head-on into his partner’s oncoming truck windshield. End scene.

I was tortured for more than 3 hours in the makeup and wardrobe trailer to make me look like Snipes. They greased down what was left of my hair and glued on a tight rubber cap. I had been doubling for Michael Jeter (who is 5’4”, bald, and white) and already sported 3 shaved-out bald spots.

"Moe Viletto as Earl Leedy, Michael Jeter’s computer nerd character." | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 | "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 1" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

“Moe Viletto as Earl Leedy, Michael Jeter’s computer nerd character.” Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com. | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 “‘Drop Zone’ Tales: Part 1″ by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

Next, they glued black sheep’s wool on top of the rubber cap. Sponges, pads and airbrushes made me black. It was somewhat frightening as I looked at a radically different me in the mirror. I walked outside to make my way 280 feet up to the top floor of the Warner Center building to make the jump. As I walked across the street, there were about a dozen of my friends sitting on the curb waiting to watch. Some wished me luck with nervous smiles. Many of them could not look me in the eye.

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BASE jumping was still considered the lunatic fringe and many of my friends thought I should have been dead long ago. In fact, in my early somewhat manic BASE jumping days, should I take the mighty whipper, I had willed everything I owned to a friend, in trade for practically free rental space in his industrial building for my rigging shop. He and his partner were pretty sure I was going to die BASE jumping. We just looked at it like a business deal. They got the raw end of the deal though; I lived!

Our aerial-stunt team had been doing some very serious stunts for the last 3 months and we were all pretty surprised that we had no serious injuries … or deaths. Would this be The One? All the major stunts were in the can except for this one. But first, here are some behind the scenes stories and out-of-the norm jumps that we made.

The majority of the stunts were done in Miami. We made many night jumps over the ocean, landing in a downtown Miami park. On one of those jumps, world renowned aerial cinematographer Tom Sanders, wearing an unfathomable amount of camera gear, had a malfunction and skidded in on his back; gutter-balling down an asphalt walkway under a Cricket reserve. No damage to the camera itself but the custom magnesium housing acted like a rudder as it ground into the asphalt bringing him to a stop. There was a helicopter that was not supposed to be airborne while we were jumping and it nearly hit Tom’s cutaway main. The all-yellow canopy luckily landed on a sea wall and we were just as lucky to have found it—in the dark, no less.

Tom also filmed Jake Brake landing on the roof of a building surrounded by death, also at night. The roof had several levels and was scattered with air-conditioning units, a stairwell and microwave dishes, and was surrounded with high-tension lines that you could hear buzzing and crackling. An out landing was not an option. Not one you could walk away from anyway. Jake made a steep accuracy approach with Tom flying just above and behind, filling up the frame and barely out of Jakes canopy’s turbulence. This perspective, to me, is one of the best shots in the movie.

"Tom Sanders' shot of Jake Brake landing on the roof of a Miami building at night was one of the best shots in the movie." | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 1" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

“Tom Sanders’ shot of Jake Brake landing on the roof of a Miami building at night was one of the best shots in the movie.” | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 “‘Drop Zone’ Tales: Part 1″ by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

Tom later told me that once he lowered his head and rested his chin cup on his chest it became as stable as a tripod. But once his head was lowered he would have to use his hands should he need to raise it again. This says a lot, seeing that Tom has the neck of an ox from all that belly paddling in order to surf. Watching him walk around balancing 2 concrete blocks worth of camera gear on his head makes one wonder how anyone could handle an opening shock. A hard opening or poor body position had the potential to break his neck.

Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 1" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

“Tom later told me that once he lowered his head and rested his chin cup on his chest it became as stable as a tripod. But once his head was lowered he would have to use his hands should he need to raise it again.” | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 “‘Drop Zone’ Tales: Part 1″ by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com


The very well-known cinema-photographer Norman Kent also wore his share of pre-Go Pro anvils and 35-millimeter movie film cameras. These guys are super human.

Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com.  | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 1" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

It takes two to make a thing go right. And to hold up Norman Kent’s gigantic camera setup. Norman and his late wife Deanna on the set of “Drop Zone.” Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com. | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 “‘Drop Zone’ Tales: Part 1″ by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

Accuracy master and former Golden Knight Rusty Vest, with me as a tandem passenger, landed on a raised boat dock. The director wanted us to land hard. We had no choice. Coming up short would have slammed us face first into the raised dock. Overshooting would put us in the drink. Not so bad. Rusty stove-piped us straight down to the dock, just over a tree line. Just like the accuracy guys do, only the tuffett was a hardwood deck with no give. Proving that a circa 1994 tandem canopy is not for accuracy, we hammered. We had Harry O’ Conner, an ex-Navy SEAL, waiting under the dock should we whack it and plop into the drink. We came close. At the very least, the potential to snap a limb on this jump was something a stuntman may choose to accept.

I sat out of camera view in the front corner bed of a dual-axle truck, with radio communication to the driver. I would be giving him speed corrections as jumpers attempted to land in the back while the truck was rolling through downtown Miami. And that was with tricky winds, and at night of course. On the attempt, even after radio checks, I lost communication with the driver as Guy Manos (who wrote the original script for the movie) was overshooting the truck. I was screaming “STOP!” so loudly through the radio that the driver finally heard me from his open window. He stopped and didn’t mow Guy down. The other two jumpers, who also had their hands full, saw this and aborted early on. Just flying a canopy in these windy conditions was challenging enough, let alone trying to land in a moving truck surrounded by skyscrapers. No more attempts were made due to the yahoo city winds of Miami.

 Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 "'Drop Zone' Tales: Part 1" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

“On all night photos, no flash photography was allowed since they were rolling movie cameras. Back in the days of film … I am happy I got anything of the night action.” —Tom Sanders
Photo by Tom Sanders, aerialfocus.com. | Blue Skies Magazine issue #52 “‘Drop Zone’ Tales: Part 1″ by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

Longtime Skydive Deland owner Bob Hallett did complete the stunt twice, as did Manos later on in L.A. On one attempt, Bob approached in somewhat bumpy air, side-saddled the right side of the truck bed and rolled inside. Rolling the other way would have put him under the rear wheels. Thump thump … But it wasn’t over. His pilot chute had wrapped around the dual axle. As the truck started to speed away, the wheel and axle started to wind up his bridle and reel him back out of the truck. Of course that is the shot the editors chose.

On several day and night jumps we were asked to “dump in a clump.” No intelligent skydiver would ever think about deploying a parachute with a group of others deploying at the same time in the same space without tracking away. Sometimes you just have to say no. The best compromise we gave them was on a 5-way. We picked a pull sequence where, when the first person’s deployment bag left the container, the next person would pull and so on down the line. A slow opening or hesitation could have put us dangerously close on opening. On some of the larger formation jumps, if you look closely you can see where canopies were added to the frames digitally in order to get multiple openings at the same time. If Hollywood wants it, they will get it, one way or another.

One scene called for “the gift wrap.” This was where one of the good guys intentionally flies and wraps his canopy around a bad guy’s body as payback from a previous encounter. The good guy then jettisons his canopy, leaving the bad guy cocooned in a mess of line and nylon. And then the bad guy follows up with a crash and burn landing in front of a set of bleachers while still wrapped up in the cut away canopy. Guy Manos intentionally docked on, then wrapped his canopy around Utah Steve in a bundle of nylon and then he would back away and repeat while being filmed from a helicopter. Shoobi Knutson was stacked on top of Utah’s canopy and out of frame. This helped to help keep Utah stable and have his hands free to control the wrap. The guys performed these controlled wraps at a safe altitude, should Utah need more time to deal with clearing the mess if it turned into a true wrap. But the docks were perfect, engulfing Utah in canopy fabric only and keeping the lines away. The actual cutaway was done separately. Harry O’Conner and Guy Manos both performed an intentional cutaway with “air guitar move” and reserve deployment.

A team of non-jumpers was working on the crash landing portion of the stunt. They constructed a rigid framework inside a canopy suspended from a crane. The idea was to swing and lower this contraption sideways across the ground with a stunt man suspended beneath. Later in post-production, they would digitally erase any rigging and speed up the film. After watching how ridiculously fake this looked, Utah coaxed BJ Worth, the aerial stunt coordinator , to do the crash and burn himself. BJ had a chat with the director and it was a go.

Utah Steve exited the chopper and opened with other canopies next to him. Next, from a pouch on his chest strap, he unfurled a “canopy wrap” costume with sleeves that also had a pair of goggles sewn into them. He put them on and distributed the fake canopy around his head and body, simulating being gift wrapped. The sewn-in goggles were a good idea but Utah was gasping for air as the zero-porosity canopy fabric was blocking his nose and mouth. The struggling he was doing was not acting, but he managed to catch a breath now and again.

For the crash landing, a section of lawn was watered down and Utah carved a turn and took the hit—although he didn’t realize how close he came to being taken out. The trailing lines and risers of the wrapped canopy just nipped the top row of the bleachers when he was carving the crashing turn. If the riser would have stuck, the outcome would have been very different. But as it turned out, it was way better because it was for real, albeit a little more risky than the original crane idea. In fact there were several times when our aerial team ended up doing non-jump-assigned stunts for the regular stuntmen. They weren’t happy. The director was more than pleased.

To be continued …

Moe Viletto

Regular Contributor

About the author: 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.

i62: February 2015

Blue Skies Magazine issue #62, February 2015 | blueskiesmag.com

We’re one cover away from just naming our February issues the “Luis Prinetto Guide to Looking Cool” chronicles. What can we say, we just <3 Luis. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

If you are not a current subscriber, you can change that right here, right now. You can also buy copies of this issue without a subscription!

Please give it until March 1 for the postal service to get your mag to you. If you still don't have it by then, let us know by emailing Kolla at kolla@blueskiemag.com and she’ll get you sorted.

Blue Skies Magazine issue #62, February 2015 | blueskiesmag.com

i62: February 2015 | Cover Photo: Organizer Luis Prinetto gives the “two minutes until beer light” sign during Flight Camp 2014 at Skydive Sebastian. Photo by Norman Kent • www.normankent.com | Cover story: “How I Finally Became a Better Tandem Instructor” by Hannah Kruse

Cover Photo: Luis Prinetto over Skydive Sebastian by Norman Kent

It’s tbt all durned month!

Blue Skies Magazine February 2012 Issue #28

TBT: i28, February 2012 with our Valentine Luis

Luis = Valentine’s Day.

Cover Story: “How I Finally Became a Better Tandem Instructor” by Hannah Kruse

They were just customers I didn’t really listen to and I only wanted to get back to the hangar without any incident. Next one please, here comes a real man!

Read the full article online at blueskiesmag.com.

Featured Photo

“Steve Curtis exiting the Otter over Skydive Arizona with Cardinals football attire. Photo by Niklas Daniel • NiklasDaniel.com

The FlyBy

  • Reader Question: Have you ever thought of quitting?
  • Comic Relief: Take It DZ by Nadene Beyerbachadventurecreative.ca
  • New fabric from Aerodyne, FX-11.
  • LET ME TAKE A SELFIE. Are you a selfie master? Prove it. Send your best Blue Skies Mag selfie (a selfie with your favorite BSM sticker, T-shirt or mag cover) to kolla@blueskiesmag.com. Winners will get glory and glorious prizes.
  • Books! “No Shit There I Was, Thought I Was Gonna Die” and “The Fuckin’ Pilot: The Book” are both out now for your smutty book club.

The 4 Photographs by Jeff Agard

Which quadrant are your photos in?

Countless times, I have seen photos given to tandem students after their jumps that are SO horrible from the point of view of composition (think instructor’s head cut off). In spite of this, the tandem student is overjoyed, showing a picture that screams, “Look what I just did!” and will proudly display that picture everywhere she can, despite it featuring a headless instructor.

Full online reprint coming soon!

World-Record Momma by Melissa Lowe

Another generation of Nelsons has arrived …

So what’s it like jumping after having a baby? Fucking awesome! I’m a World Record Momma!

Full online reprint coming soon!

I <3 Vertical Suits by Joel Strickland

One man’s unabashed valentine to Vertical Suits.

Any instructor worth their meager wages will happily talk you into a coma about measurements and materials and shapes and styles.

Full online reprint coming soon!

Centerfold by Kenenth GAJDA

Gajda, not Gadja, like we stupidly printed. We’re sorry Kenneth, we <3 you!

The PD Factory Team forms an orderly queue during their team camp last October at Skydive DeLand. (l to r): Gage Galle, Ian Bobo, Brian Vacher, Shannon Pilcher and Jessica Edgeington. Photo by Kenneth Gajda.

Killing The Competition, La Barrie Style by James La Barrie

If James learned everything he knows about running a business from his parents, they must be like the Trump family of Antigua!

It’s important that we all realize that skydiving isn’t in the skydiving industry; it’s in the hospitality industry. We are putting on a show every day in which the actual “skydive” is just one component.

Full online reprint coming soon!

Who Can You Trust? by Sydney Williams

Tales of a former N00b!

When you’re listening to a podcast, or reading threads on dropzone.com, or reading articles online, if you don’t personally know the author, it’s really hard to get a gauge of who they are, what their experience is, and if you can trust it.

Full online reprint coming soon!

NoPro in Skydiving Competition by Kurt Gaebel, NSL

I will once again be provocative and say that I don’t see any “pros” in our sport at all, professional athletes, as they can be found in other real professional sports.

Read the full article online at skyleague.com.

A Chip off the Ol’ Pilot by Bailey Ricci, feat. the Fuckin’ Pilot

The Fuckin’ Pilot sired an articulate, independent, funny and heart-breakingly charming young woman. Who woulda thunkit?

Not many kids can say their dad’s true intention in life is to show them the world, but luckily this punk gets a dad like that.

Full reprint coming soon!

A**holes by Melanie Curtis

Yell out, “Hey asshole!” in a DZ hangar and let us know how many people respond, “What, asshole?”

As alternative as it may seem to the non-skydiving greater world, we as skydivers are indeed a family. We are a connected circle of great people with fierce enthusiasm for life and capacity for love. We’re here for each other. We make our lives collectively better when we come together.

Read the full article online at melaniecurtis.com.

Dear SkyGod by SkyGod

If you start wincing before you start reading, you’ll get a head start on the game!

Change your profile to black and you can be part of the secret society of mourners and make your whuffo friends think your sport is uber dangerous.


Guess who pays for your magazine to be printed and delivered to your doorstep? These guys. If you’re in the market for stuff of any kind, buying from these guys (and letting them know you saw them in Blue Skies Mag) will help keep the mags coming to your door.

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How I Finally Became a Better Tandem Instructor

"How I Finally Became a Better Tandem Instructor" by Hannah Kruse | Blue Skies Mag i62, February 2015 | blueskiesmag.com

Online Reprint

Originally printed abridged in issue #62 (February 2014) of Blue Skies Magazine.

by Hannah Kruse

Introduction: A SkyGoddess

It is my fourth skydive on Oct. 25, 2014. It is unusually warm for late autumn; the air is soft and the light is mellow. My student—who was so afraid before we took off—is now extremely excited. We land, I disconnect her from my rig, she hugs me and kisses my cheek. I am deeply moved, as always when my student and I have shared a fabulous experience. I want to get up but am sprinkled with loads of confetti, then hugged and congratulated. I fight hard to hold back tears. I had deliberately landed next to a group of a dozen fellow skydivers who had become friends in the last few months.

I told them they couldn’t throw me into the swoop pond. Not yet, not for my 500th tandem jump; I shall have to wait for this knighting until my 2,000th jump overall, which I hope to make in the spring. For then I shall be able to unzip my suit and be thrown into the water sporting just a bikini that will look fabulous on my 54-year-old body. Oh myyy, this calls for an explanation, I know. But not now. Because now I shall tell you why I am so happy I could celebrate 500 tandem jumps, a number so meager compared to so many other instructors’ and yet only six months earlier I had almost abandoned hope to get past this number.

"How I Finally Became a Better Tandem Instructor" by Hannah Kruse | Blue Skies Mag i62, February 2015 | blueskiesmag.com

Another great tandem, coming right up!

Because I am a transgender person. I am a transwoman. A human being just like you, part of the spectrum of humankind. You know, nature likes diversity. Sometimes—about 1 to 3 in a thousand babies, it is estimated—the brain does not develop the way (most) other parts of the fetus’ body do. We do not choose to be transgender. We are born this way. The brain—in my case—is hardwired to be female, but a midwife or a physician decided otherwise, based on what they found between my legs. I wasn’t “born” a boy, I was “declared” a boy. Not that I blame the physician who did so when I was born in April 1961. I think, however, we should nowadays issue birth certificates stating “anatomical sex” (which still leaves problems for intersex persons but that’s something I am not competent enough to speak about) but leave a marker for “gender” for the person to fill in once they feel competent and sure enough. Which often enough is already at age 4 or 5. Think of Jazz Jennings, she should be no stranger to you, living in the U.S. and even if, you should so easily find her and dozens of similar biographies and stories on the Internet.

The Fault of the Freak

I was born in East Germany. Both parts of Germany must have been so depressing back then for all young and free-thinking people, but it was living hell on our side of the river Elbe, with Communists in power who shared the prudish and restrictive moral standards of their Russian comrades. So even if I had open-minded parents, the system would have put me through ordeals I don’t dare to think too vividly about.

But fate provided me with an alcoholic for a father who had his sadistic ways with me when I turned out to be a “failure.” So petite. So weak. So easily breaking into tears. So un-boyish. No wonder he tried to make me “tougher” by any means. Physically, and later with mean words that hurt even more. Add a cold and loveless mother and the “sissy boy” is doomed. A freak, a failure. And the freak soon learns it is his fault that dad teaches him lessons. That he scolds him. “You are only a tolerated guest in this house,” he told me several times. That his mother also calls him a weakling and tells him to “act like a boy” reinforces the self-picture the child develops.

No kids around to play with. No kindergarten. When I came to school at age 6, my social competences were next to nil and I was unprepared for how cruel kids can be. And again the freak, the sissy, the weakling learned it was his fault that he was chased home, that he was called “duckling” by the PE teacher, that he was the punching ball of the bullies. Some years later at high school I was still the freak, the misfit, the “homo.” The chaps turned to finer ways. Words, shoves from behind when walking downstairs, flat tires, pulled-out petrol tube on my moped, but mainly words or to be “forgotten” when on a field trip, desperately looking for my classmates. I still was weak, but at least excelled in languages and science. And the freak, so eager for any kind of positive feedback so willingly helped the same folks who had “forgotten” and belittled him shortly before to get their homework done.

It was my fault. I was weak, not a real boy. Failed in what was called “military education” that started as early as grade 8. Climbing up ropes, shooting range training with mini AK47 guns, storm track, kilometers and kilometers in “full chemical attack protective suits” including gas masks. I so failed. I so was afraid—scared to death, to be honest.

“Something like you was caught by a tiger back then,” I was shouted at, or “Something like you shall defend the Fatherland?” It was then that I ceased to be a human being. I was “something” and this something was a failure no matter how good the freak was at science or languages.

Even at grade 10 I wasn’t really aware what exactly made me different. I just knew I was different. Now that I recollected suppressed memories of my childhood and my youth I know I already then tried to engage in girl stuff. I read books, books, books as they allowed for escaping. And more and more “girl stuff” I read. I so often daydreamed to be a girl. To wear frilly, colorful clothes. To hang with other girls. But I was constantly told that I was a boy, so I thought it had to be right and I was just a sissy wishing to be a girl only to dodge military education, schoolyard scuffles, etc. So I had to prove I was a boy. Which normally is easy: Beat up a sissy, wait … OK, be good at PE, wait … Have a girlfriend. Again I so gloriously and continuously failed.

Puberty hit late in grade 10, but hard. I simply hated what happened to me. I was ugly, disgusting. And I was so ashamed and felt so guilty for what happened in my southern polar region. It wasn’t right, it felt so wrong, so yucky. No wonder, I thought, that no girl wants to be my sweetheart.

The final blow: I was declared unfit for military service due to my asthma, eczema and hay fever. The ultimate public withdrawal of the “man card.” The freaky sissy misfit now officially was a draft dodger, an “ungedientes Schwein:” a pig that had not served with the forces. This term was scornfully thrown at me so often, even when I worked as a teacher. Again I learned I was not a human being.

I was a misfit who, whatever I tried to do, remained a misfit. And I still didn’t know what was “wrong” with me exactly. I certainly was not a “homo” as I was called now and then. I was into girls. But I also wanted to be one. Be soft, caring, considering, be feminine. Be allowed to wear those soft, colorful and frilly clothes.

After graduation I left my hometown and moved as far away as possible. 185 miles (300 kilometers)—in East German times as far away as the moon. To study astronomy and physics.

The students I studied with (we were organized in “seminar groups” back then) were the first ones who didn’t bully me. They just took me for what I was: A strange, effeminate boy who was very good at science and additionally could entertain a whole ballroom with witty remarks. The years of reading finally paid off. But I even then felt to be an outsider. Who didn’t keep up with the chaps when it came to man stuff. Who didn’t find a girlfriend. Who knew he was a filthy pervert.

In my spare time I roamed the university’s libraries and finally found a book titled something like “Sexualpsychologie.” One chapter was about “fetishist transvestitism” which seemed to explain what I was. The description was clinically cold, in a recognizably disgusted tone. “A mentally disturbed male person that likes to wear female clothes. Stands before the mirror in ladies’ underwear and masturbates,” it read. Not that I had ever done this, but … The chapter was followed by one about pedophiles. OMG, such a pervert I was.

So at the age of 19, I had it. A party at a flat in a student hostel. Students I knew and who had invited me. Eighth story, with a balcony. It took two hours, then I mustered the will. I got all calm. Tried to have my life fast-forward in my mind but all I could call up was failure, pain, otherness. I wanted to live but not this way. “I hope it won’t hurt too much,” I thought when I sat on the banister of the balcony, but the moment I wanted to plunge, four hands grabbed me and pulled me back. I was so upset. I couldn’t tell them, so I simply cried and later played, “I was so drunk, sorry guys.”

I wanted to live, but … I made a secret deal with the old man up there. Love shall heal me. A girlfriend, a woman to live with and her love to heal me from that evil.

The Man Years

A few weeks later I was picked by a petite, beautiful young woman as her boyfriend. I have never understood what she has seen in me but heck, this was it. Suddenly, I was a man! Because I had a girl. Soon we had children. Settled in a nearby town. Not a single night for six or seven years did we go out because we didn’t want to leave the kids unattended (no baby-sitting services in those days nor any relatives nearby). Those filthy thoughts never really vanished but surfaced much less frequently and I felt strong enough to not give in. To be the man. The husband, the father, the one to repair things … erm, actually that I never was good at. I grew a beard. My hair got thinner and thinner. Oh how I hated it. How I wished to have full hair. But “that’s because I am so full of testo, you know!” I played cool and macho. And I was the cool teacher. Who cracked homophobic and misogynist jokes to show how much a man he was (and immediately after I was so ashamed and disgusted of myself).

When the Wall came down, there were new opportunities. Fresh air to breathe. Freedom. More time to spare (the kids now were no longer toddlers but primary-school children). So many supermarkets and stores where one could buy anonymously. Girl clothes on display! The filthy thoughts came back, with more and more force. Vicious circles of buying girl blouses and pullovers (oh how my heart beat!) secretly wearing them, standing before the mirror (the fact that I never was sexually aroused doing this, or even “choked the chicken” and thus couldn’t be a “fetishist transvestite” never dawned on me) and then feeling ashamed and disposing of the clothes (always into a charity container!) and swearing to “never ever do it again” and starting the next circle after a few months—soon after only a few weeks.

Apart from playing the cool teacher guy, I had become really good at teaching and dealing with students. So in 2000, my class—whose teacher I had been for six years—gave me a tandem jump as their farewell present. A whole lotta money! Oh, how moved I was (but didn’t show) and how scared I was. But came the day, I made the jump. And learned that even someone like me could become a skydiver.

A Skydiver for the Wrong Reasons

So I started my training to become a skydiver. A real man! By that time a beard and macho jokes no longer sufficed to “hide it.” I constantly feared someone would find out about me and my terrible secret. So becoming such a daredevil came in handy. I was told to please work out to build up muscles by several instructors at my DZ, especially the guy who was in charge of it. I wasn’t able to do more than 10 push-ups when I started training and folks made fun of me. And surprisingly enough (well, not really after decades of testosterone poisoning) my muscles soon started to bulge. Especially my arms (to show off and as I really needed them) and my pectoral muscles (guess why?).

Not that skydiving helped me in any way to suppress those filthy thoughts. But it helped to hide “it.” And, of course, needed to be intensified. So I became a freeflyer. They were the really cool boys and girls. Flatflying was boring, I thought.

And secretly, I followed my vicious girl-clothes circles. Stood before the mirror with a woolly hat on my head and a girl jumper on and my legs crossed to tuck the southern polar region.

In 2003, a freak accident almost killed me. A rig not really suitable for freeflying, so the bridle I had not checked before exiting got into the airstream at 165 mph (270 km/h) during a cartwheel. Premature opening, smashed scapula, multiple-fractured humerus. I survived. Recovered. Mustered the courage to jump again and became one of the boring flatfliers, huh huh. Took courses and courses. Finally was ready to join a 4-way team. Became a videographer. Yeah, I belonged to the DZ staff! Sported my “STAFF” embroidered jacket with the DZ logo wherever I could. “I am a MAN,” it yelled. I thought at least.

Tandem Wench

By 2010 I was almost completely burned out. No matter how often I told everyone what a man and skydiver I was, it wasn’t enough. My vicious girl-clothes circles had shrunk to periods of fortnights. The constant fear of being caught. The constant shame of lying to my beloved wife.

I had learned I am not a “transvestite” in 2005 or 2006 when I watched a documentary about transgender people in the U.S., but as “trannies” were still looked down upon in Germany and due to my bald head I didn’t consider myself “suitable” to successfully transition. A bald woman? No way! A wig? Doesn’t work, as it is too obvious, it may fall off, whatever. I also thought that I looked ugly due to my internalized self-loathing. But I mainly doubted I could successfully transition because of my baldness. Silly, huh? But I only realized much later.

A void remained that I tried to fill by the roles I played. My brain had never been able to tell me how a man works so I looked for role models provided by the media. And so I inevitably failed, of course. Again and again. The only field left to prove I was a “real man” demanded to be ploughed harder and harder. Following this logic, I had to become a tandem instructor. More than 1,200 jumps at least had provided me with enough skills. Oh, how scared I was. I passed the course and the cross-check and became one of the TIs at my DZ. A SkyGod. A real man.

I was only interested in making jumps, in breaking “records” such as, “Wow, 11 tandems in one day and I packed all of them!” to prove I am a true hero. I—of course—was so proud to jump a rig with an EZ 384. “A canopy only for real men,” as I wouldn’t get tired of saying. Not a Twin 372 that had much less toggle pressure and thus was considered “for sissies.” So not for me.

The students? Well, if they were not too heavy, not too anxious, not too … Only a few met my expectations. Not that I treated them badly. But only business style. They were just customers I didn’t really listen to and I only wanted to get back to the hangar without any incident. Next one please, here comes a real man!

I had gone eight years in the wrong direction without realizing. I had become a tandem wench who had made 200 tandem jumps in 2011. What a number, how male I was!

2012 brought some change, but not for the better. The tandem factory I lived only 5 minutes from stopped business and so I bought my own rig—13,500 euros (ca. $18,000), but I needed that rig to remain an übermale SkyGod , and jumped at other places in my state. Even more a tandem wench.

My gender dysphoria became almost unbearable. Not a single day I couldn’t think I’d rather be the woman I was meant to be. But my wife, my kids. My bald head. I’d be so ugly. So obvious. And it was all my fault. Childhood patterns are hard to overcome. I deserved to be punished. No more parents to spank, beat, choke or scold me. So I took to hurting myself, hitting myself hard but always in a way nobody would see. Punching walls, slamming doors.

By the end of 2012 I was almost out of control. So full of self-loathing, so run down on hope and confidence. Nothing had healed me. Nothing had helped. And I couldn’t get any higher in the ranks of SkyGods. I knew I’d never pass the course to become an AFF-I and anyway, that’s nothing to impress whuffos, to appear übermale.

To make it short: I needed to put an end to it but not at the DZ. You don’t do this to your fellow skydivers. But committing suicide in a fail-safe way so you don’t suffer too much and also don’t affect others is pretty complicated. Searching the net, I took a break and logged in to dropzone.com to accidentally find a post about a M2F (male-to-female) transition timeline. Impressive, but depressing. All these young transwomen. I’d never transition successfully. But wait, this small thumbnail right there … It was a transition timeline of a transwoman about my age. We shared all the same problems and yet she now looked so beautiful, so happy, so confident. Wow, it was possible!

And so I secretly started my transition. Preparation, preparation and preparation. You need to be patient and almost stubborn.

This simple act of admitting to my real self already changed the way I dealt with my tandem students. They became people who had interesting stories to tell. People who I wanted to have a unique experience. Of course, there were times I was feeling low and down due to the slow transition, for instance my voice seeming not to change despite all the training. But I never treated them like freight to be carried and brought back unscathed.

Oh and how the world changed once I could start hormone replacement therapy (HRT). After 3 or 4 weeks, the clouds parted, the sky was no longer leaden and dark but blue and bright and the birds were singing. Life was real. I felt right. So calm. So happy.

I asked my therapist and my HRT specialist and both told me that HRT does not affect my skydiving skills in any way—otherwise you’d have to ground any person with estrogen and testosterone levels typical in women. But I had to remain silent. Each month you can transition in boy mode buys you time to successfully start living full-time.

If you start to transition in girl mode i.e., things get unnecessarily hard for you. My way—and this is also the way most U.S. transwomen go—prevents you from dealing with beard shadow as you can undergo electrolysis (which takes about 18 months roughly and hurts like hell, about 100 to 150 hours) in boy mode. You can train your voice in boy mode and once you go full-time you can speak in a feminine voice. Nothing more irritating and annoying than a female appearance counteracted and belittled by a male voice. There are several other aspects. It has never been the question for me as things are different here in Germany, but the day you go full-time your employer may fire you (they will find other reasons, it’s never because of “it” of course). And transition is expensive, so every month you can bear it to play this role, will buy you more money to save and spare for HRT, electrolysis, building up a feminine wardrobe, etc.

Hannah in Heaven

My—and my wife’s—schedule for 2014 was to start the “24/7 real-life experience” at earliest in August, with the new school term. But life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. The many changes had not gone unnoticed. My bald head didn’t hide the obvious softening of my face, the progress my voice made, the way I dressed. To most folks, I was super gay and that was that.

So far so good, had there not been a colleague who added one and one and privately asked me. She promised to keep it secret. I should have known better. Four weeks or so later the word had spread. Money talks, especially among teachers. I was outed by a teacher (who still doesn’t realize what she had done to my wife and me) and driven into living full-time or being a pathetic liar nobody would believe “he” is “just bending gender rules.”

Which led to my coming back to the drop zone as Hannah. With a bandana on, as I didn’t want to see whether my expensive human-hair wig would survive freefall. Most skydivers didn’t really want to listen as I offered to explain, to tell them what it means to be transgender and that it isn’t dangerous. Not even after the last lift.

“It’s not about you, you know. It’s about safety. You’re mentally unstable now. You’re under the influence.”

They didn’t even want to accept assessments of my therapist and my HRT specialist that proved otherwise. “A shrink has no idea what’s important on a DZ and what’s going on there.”

When I still objected and tried to discuss matters things got heated and I was told I “am a man who swallows stuff,” and who would not be allowed to jump tandem. That German sentence is hard to translate. Translated word-by-word it would go “You’re a man who throws in stuff,” with”stuff” meaning any kind of drug (either legal or illegal) when used with “throw in” as in “throw it into your mouth.” The sentence itself was very offensive and meant that he considered me a man who consumes hormones that will make him even more effeminate and the tone left no doubt that he meant “That’s something a righteous person doesn’t do!”

It was almost the same story at two other DZs.

My transition in my family, at college and in my neighborhood had been surprisingly smooth. Almost everybody congratulated me, wished me all the best, accepted or at least tolerated me. Not so in skydiving? Well, so be it. I was too busy being happy. However, I didn’t want to sell my rig. Good decision, because I got a phone call in June from a DZ asking if I could help out.

“You haven’t been told?” I asked.

“Told what exactly?” the caller asked.

I explained.

“Erm, what’s the problem? Are you current? We really need you here. Please come.”

So I went there 4 days later. And was overwhelmed. Such a warm welcome. I was called Hannah, she, her. And seen so. We checked my logbook (I had made 15 jumps in this season so far), emergency-procedure training.

My first student was an athletic 165-pounder. Out we jumped and … everything went as always. Straight into the relative wind, stable, belly to earth. Tossing the drogue, handle checks. I am in the sky. I am in heaven.

I have made 66 tandem jumps since. Not one single incident. Not one student or one of their relatives asked questions or made any remarks or jokes. I asked my fellows to please tell me. Nil, naught. nada. Everyone sees a tall woman with pretty muscular arms and … well, AA cup boobs only. But a woman. All my preparations now pay off. Voice. Walking. Moving about. To be confident. I know I am a woman and so folks around me see a woman. Other women commend me now and then. A journalist described me as a tall, lean and beautiful woman. Wow.

I had to unlearn to toss the drogue Django-style: “Nobody shoots faster.” My transition has changed a lot but it did not change my skills. Neither for the better nor for the worse. I now manage to wait 2 or 3 seconds. Other TIs wait 5 seconds. Which means I still have aims to achieve.

I have made friends who respect me. I am so happy, so calm, so confident.

"How I Finally Became a Better Tandem Instructor" by Hannah Kruse | Blue Skies Mag i62, February 2015 | blueskiesmag.com

“Taken on 30 Sep, the day a judge granted my application for change of first names and gender marker.”

“This student is so nervous. We let them jump with Hannah, she calms down anybody,” was something manifest staff told me by the end of October.

We hang around after the last lift, chatting, going out for dinner. I no longer pretend I like beer. I happen to be one of the girls much more into Prosecco.

By the way: At home, my wife and I are both “the girl.” And my wife will add, “But you are the Barbie.”

I sold my tandem rig to my club. My commitment to them; “I belong to you and shall stay with you,” it meant. And it also meant money. Not that I need gender-affirming surgery (GAS) to become a “complete woman.” Gender is between your ears. But that southern polar region gets in the way sometimes. For example, I can’t wear a bikini, at least not without proper and painful “tucking” beforehand. You know, this swooping pond dunk I am looking forward to. So the money will be spent well for my out-of-the pocket gap, right? And I still can jump my former rig.

I am looking forward to what the future holds for me. Life is great. It is finally right and real.

Wanna jump with me?

Hannah Kruse

Tandem Instructor

About the author: Hannah Kruse is a tandem instructor at Skydive Leipzig in Germany. She enjoys her loving and powerful relationship with her wife. They have two grown-up children who left the nest more than 10 years ago. Their son has made both of them proud grannies 3 months ago. Skydiving has become less important in her life as she no longer needs to “prove” anything but she enjoys jumping with friends and students much more. She also likes sports such as cross-country skiing, working out in the gym or mountain hiking with her wife. Hannah earns her living at a college where she works as a teacher of English and computer science.

Blowing Bubbles on Ranger Baker’s Belly

"4-way Muff dive for Rick Payne’s 30th birthday. The Para-Pak allowed us to bring party supplies." | Blue Skies Magazine issue #61 | "Blowing Bubbles on Ranger Baker's Belly" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

Online Reprint

Originally printed in issue #61 (January 2015) of Blue Skies Magazine.

In the early ‘90s I spent 3 summers living just outside Yosemite National Park. I found a cement pad that was the partial remains of an old house; a huge tree arched over the pad provided a shady spot to camp and pack. A nearby stream offered fresh fish and a chilly bath, and was the perfect sound machine when it came time to sleep.

"Home sweet home. Everything except the microwave, fax machine and blow-up doll." | Blue Skies Magazine issue #61 | "Blowing Bubbles on Ranger Baker's Belly" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

“Home sweet home. Everything except the microwave, fax machine and blow-up doll.”

At the time, the 2 main monoliths that attracted BASE jumpers were Half Dome and El Capitan. El Cap was more popular due to the easier hike and generous landing area. The problem was that it was in the great wide-open and one could be easily detected. It was getting jumped a lot and the bust factor was high, so during the first 2 of those 3 summers I made most of my jumps from Half Dome to deal with less ranger danger.

"Jeff Reckard and me, winter Para Packing with Half Dome in the background." | Blue Skies Magazine issue #61 | "Blowing Bubbles on Ranger Baker's Belly" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

“Jeff Reckard and me, winter Para Packing with Half Dome in the background.”

Most of my jumps were solo with no ground crew. I enjoy being in the wild and BASE jumping alone. It really allows me to get into my own head. Jumping alone heightens awareness of everything involved. Risks increase. While hiking, I could fall and land on a rock or a rock could break loose from above and fall on me. There was potential to have a wall strike, a lightning strike and a timber-rattler strike. I could hit a tree and snap off a limb—or my own. I could be eating lunch and become a snack for a bear. With all this and more unknowns lurking, it sure made me feel alive. There was no time to be unaware in this environment. Every moment must be in the now. Many of my hikes were off trail to avoid the enemy. Without a jump buddy, ground crew, and most definitely no telephone (what a buzz kill), a simple injury could put me face to face with the Harpy.

Blue Skies Magazine issue #61 | "Blowing Bubbles on Ranger Baker's Belly" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

To cover myself in as many areas as I could while jumping solo, I designed a backcountry BASE rig I called the “ParaPak.” (The rig has been co-redesigned and is currently manufactured and sold by Apex BASE under the new name “DPx,” short for “Dual Pin eXpandable.”) It is a two-pin rig with the ability to expand away from your back, leaving a storage compartment between your back and the container. With low-bulk, lightweight camping supplies I could take my home with me: tent, sleeping bag and pad, stove, food, water filter, head lamp, snake-bite and first-aid kits, rain gear, fishing gear, music, microwave, blow-up doll, fax machine. OK, not the last three but really anything you desire that will fit. Climbing gear, snowshoes, man’s best friend; you name it. All of this including the BASE rig was transported in a custom low-bulk backpack I also designed and built. All my BASE gear was protected from the elements and I fit in as a backpacker. This was my reserve. My out. My second chance. I had everything I needed to be quite comfy for 6 to 8 days. I would not get forced off the rock. I was always at home.

"Modeling the Para-Pak, Mt. Watkins in background. If I ever get the“Big C,” I plan on flying a wingsuit into its face, leaving a Moe’zart painting that can be viewed from Half Dome." | Blue Skies Magazine issue #61 | "Blowing Bubbles on Ranger Baker's Belly" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

“Modeling the Para-Pak, Mt. Watkins in background. If I ever get the ‘Big C,’ I plan on flying a wingsuit into its face, leaving a Moe’zart painting that can be viewed from Half Dome.”

In fact, on an earlier trip to El Cap I ran into 4 other jumpers near the trailhead. They recognized me and started to hike with me. I really wanted to be alone so I purposely lollygagged along, forcing them to pull ahead of me. As the miles clicked by, I picked up all their empty beer cans. (I had seen the six packs bulging from their stash bags earlier.) Before I topped out, a towering cumulus let loose and heavy rains arrived. Temperatures dropped. All Gore-Tex’ed up, I snickered to myself, “Those littering jerks ahead in their cotton clothing, street shoes and soaked skydiving gear are paying their karmic debt.”

On top, Mother Nature had them huddled together under a rock, wrapped in their unpacked rigs trying to survive the cold wind and pelting rain. Me? I deployed my reserve; I set up my tent, put on dry clothes, fired up, fired up a hot meal and slept like a baby. Got up early, packed up my house along with the crushed beer cans and bailed. When I left, those shivering bozos were trying to dry out their gear and pack amongst the boulders. They might have to stay ‘til nighttime since they would not be ready before the sun came up. Or risk jumping in daylight. The Karma Man was having fun. When I went home for a few days to regroup, I mailed back all their empty beer cans with a nasty letter citing them as reason the Park Service didn’t want BASE jumping.

During the third summer’s stay in my “World of Granite and Gravity,” word was that the rangers had backed off on the busts on El Cap. There were some incidents late in the previous season where jumpers were taking more risks of getting injured—or worse—trying to avoid the rangers. Things like hiking off trail to avoid being checked for permits, jumping into a river to escape, landing in tighter areas with trees and boulders and jumping in poor weather conditions. I was doing my thing at Half Dome but kept up with the jumps being made on El Cap. It was definitely loosening up. I was in great shape from hiking to 10 grand a couple of times a week so I thought I could scurry up The Cap and get off at dusk. Then I wouldn’t have to camp on top. I would take my home with me just in case. That’s what a reserve is all about; you never need it ‘til you need it. Time to prepare.

"Loading the storage compartment. The co-redesigned model has 2 pins, a BOC, floating riser covers and a more friendly lacing system." |Blue Skies Magazine issue #61 | "Blowing Bubbles on Ranger Baker's Belly" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

“Loading the storage compartment. The co-redesigned model has 2 pins, a BOC, floating riser covers and a more friendly lacing system.”

Due to popularity, hiking permits are hard to get for both El Cap and Half Dome, especially multiple trip permits. Only a limited number of people were allowed in the back country. Mr. Ranger would catch on quickly. Here is how I “BASEd it:” During the winter months, you could self-register due to less activity than summer’s busy season. So I would snatch a stack of blank permits in winter. Then when spring arrived I would register using a fake name for a one-time-only hiking permit. Now I would have a ranger’s signature. Next I would lay the ranger’s signature on top of the new permit and carbon copy it through. This gave me a current ranger’s signature and the rest was just filling in the dates, specific trails, destination, etc. I would also have a second permit—for when I landed—with the relevant information.

For example: One permit going to Half Dome (exit) should I get checked on trail (and I had), and one coming from Teneya Canyon (landing) where I would hike out as a backpacker. I also had a current fishing license, so as soon as I landed near the river, I would do a quick stash of my jump gear, deploy my backpacker’s fishing gear and cast away, noting the reflection of The Dome in the still glass water. I actually caught 2 trout one time while watching a pair of mallards preening each other as they drifted downstream at sunrise … For a moment, I became a mallard.

The jump is a big part of the overall trip, but it’s not ALL about the jump. When I would have a friend join me, I would send him or her off with a bird-watching book and a set of binoculars. We would meet up hours later. The idea is to fit in, not run. (I’ve never used this one in the city but I’m dying to; as soon as I touch down for landing, pull out 2 industrial trash bags. Stuff my gear in one and hop in the other. Lean up against the building and poke a straw through the bag to breathe and wait ‘til all is clear. I guess my biggest fear would be getting picked up by the garbage man! )

"Jessie Kluetmeier. No, she isn’t pregnant. That’s her disguise  transformation kit in a belly pouch for after landing." |Blue Skies Magazine issue #61 | "Blowing Bubbles on Ranger Baker's Belly" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

“Jessie Kluetmeier. No, she isn’t pregnant. That’s her disguise transformation kit in a belly pouch for after landing.”

Even though my permits were all up to par, I left from the valley floor and hiked off trail for about half the trip. Not wanting to leave a car at the trailhead on top and have to retrieve it, I bushwhacked up a gully that gave wondrous views of the valley. Halfway up, with the 3,000-foot profile of El Capitan in full view and the 5,000-foot face of Half Dome in the distance, is a perspective not many see. I enjoy it while I can. Eventually I would be on a trail where I could get checked for a permit.

Ranger radar on full alert, I topped out of the gully and intersected the trail. All clear. It was getting late. The sun was adding pink to some high wispy mare’s tail clouds. If I hustled I could get off at dusk, still get some good visuals and have the cover of darkness in my favor should the enemy be a-lurkin’.

I arrived at the exit point with enough daylight to transfer my camping gear into my ParaPak’s storage compartment. With the Pak fully extended, there was room to spare. So I gathered up some broken whiskey bottles and other small bits of trash and bagged them, topping off the load with a total rig exit weight of approximately 35 pounds.

Blue Skies Magazine issue #61 | "Blowing Bubbles on Ranger Baker's Belly" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

As I worked my way to the exit point, I faced a slight head wind. It shouldn’t be an issue. Standing back a bit from the edge, I assessed the rest of the components I could be dealing with in the next few moments. Automobile traffic on the looping one way road below was sparse. Cabin lights and camp fires started to appear. The valley was winding down. Gear checked. Feeling good.

I went over my jump plan. I would exit and track for about 12 seconds. That’s about when El Cap Towers rush up. Upon opening I would crab across a wood line and land near the river in a tight wooded pocket. Several yards away was a huge windfall that lifted its roots from the earth, leaving a hole to crawl into big enough for me and my gear. I could then cover up with leaves and pine boughs. (Years back I spent hours in there watching the flashlights of Mr. Rangers on the search. I also learned to lube up with bug repellent as I was swarmed by mosquitoes—still better than being bugged by The Man.) If all was clear I would sneak out and retrieve my gear later in the day. No evidence. If I did run into the enemy, I was just returning from a late evening stroll.

Time to flick off this 3,000-foot nose. A couple of steps led to that familiar feeling of falling, which in a few seconds gave way to enough cushion to start flying. As I tracked, I could see lights on the Towers coming up, telling me that climbers were spending the night there. I remember grinning, wondering what they would think when they heard me rush by at 120 mph. After doing just that, I unpacked a sweet one and released my brakes to find myself lower than I should have been to make my preferred landing spot. And to make things even more interesting, the ground winds had picked up a bit. I was going to land dead center in El Cap Meadow.

Blue Skies Magazine issue #61 | "Blowing Bubbles on Ranger Baker's Belly" by Moe Viletto | blueskiesmag.com

I touched down ever so lightly due to the headwind and before my canopy hit the ground I heard from behind me, “Park ranger. Stop. You are under arrest.”

I didn’t see him as darkness had set into the valley. I leaned into the still inflated canopy behind me and chopped it. I started to run and was trying to get my chest strap undone so I could donate another 15 hundred bucks worth of high-tech camping gear and my beloved rig, on top of the grand I had just jettisoned. The knife on my chest strap was hanging up preventing me from getting it released. Expecting to get tackled, I stopped and undid it. I loosened my leg straps and slid out. On the run again. To my rear, I heard a broadcast from the radio of Mr. Ranger.

“Give me a verbal! Give me a verbal! ”

Still on my tail, Mr. Ranger obliged and started yelling so his buddy up ahead could hear us and then intercept me. I guessed they were lined up so I made a 90 right and picked up speed—but only briefly, as I tripped in a rut and fell flat on my face. Before I could get up, boom! Ranger Baker, a 6-foot-plus woman pounced on me. I immediately said, “Game over, ma’am. I will fully cooperate,” as I put my hands behind my back.

When Ms. Ranger pounced on me, her belly ended up on my butt, as she was 90 degrees to me. She was fumbling with the radio and jostling around trying to handcuff me at the same time. Her weight on me started a grumbling in my gut. I had been eating freeze-dried foods for a couple of weeks; along with the altitude change and fear, I had gas. Serious gas. I was doing my best to hold it in but with all the right factors in place I couldn’t help but let one slip out. Ppputt putt.

“Excuse me, ma’am.”

She didn’t respond and continued to squirm with the radio and cuffs. Starting to cramp, gut audibly rumbling, I couldn’t help it, I had to get some relief. Pputputputt.

“Excuse me, ma’am. I am reeally sorry.”

She could probably tell I was really trying to hold back as I squeezed my butt cheeks tight. She chirped, “Just go ahead and fart.” So with her permission, I let ‘er rip. It was like taking a full breath and blowing raspberries on a baby’s belly. Except no one was laughing.

I was apologizing again as she stood me up. Flashlight in my face.

“Where is your radio?”

“I don’t have a radio ma’am.”

“I thought you were going to cooperate.”

“I am cooperating. Honest, ma’am. I am alone.”

At least eight other rangers showed up. As we were walking out of the meadow, I stopped and suggested that we all walk single file on the trail instead of abreast so we didn’t stomp down the precious meadow. They obliged.

When we arrived at the road, there were several other rangers huddled around my ParaPak which was sitting on the tailgate of one of their trucks. One of them had a knife and was about to slice it open. I interrupted, “I can show you how to get in there without destroying anything.” They probably never saw a BASE rig like this before.

After I explained how to gain entrance he opened the access door. Pulling the bag of broken glass and trash from the top of the storage compartment, he asked, “What’s this?”

“I had some extra room in there so I gathered up someone else’s trash.”

“And what else is in there?” he asked inquisitively.

“My home,” I paused. “Tent, stove, sleeping bag—camping gear that I use on a daily basis.”

I asked, “May I ask you sirs, how in the heck did you know I was going to jump?”

“By accident,” said the grinning ranger as he put his knife away. “We were monitoring a guy here in the meadow for quite a while. He was leaning on his VW bus looking at the face of El Cap with a pair of binoculars and talking to someone on a 2-way radio. After a while he got in his van and drove to the trail head. He got out with a pack and headed for the top. BASE jumper, we thought. So we lined up in the meadow. And you jumped right into us. Turned out the guy in the VW was support for a climbing team that was on the wall for 9 days. He was going meet the climbers with supplies when they topped out. One of our men nabbed him on top thinking he was a jumper just after you jumped.”

“Why didn’t you tackle me when I landed or when I stopped to shed my gear?” I asked.

“Someone discharged a weapon in the park earlier in the day so we were on alert. Just playin’ it safe,” he said.

They put me in the truck and took me to the park jail. While signing in and getting my tooth brush and orange coveralls, I noticed Ranger Baker in another office across the hall telling her story of how she was the one who nabbed me. She caught my eye and grinned; I grinned back. I was lucky to have my own cell. The guy in the next cell over was a whacko. It was Friday and there would be no judge until Monday.

Monday morning I was introduced to my public defender. He told me I was being charged with “unlawful aerial delivery” and the fine would be $2,200. And they would keep my gear indefinitely. (Before Yosemite became a National Park, miners of gold would have supplies delivered by parachute. When it became a park the free-falling supplies could be hazardous, so the law was developed.) He told me the judge would be in shortly and left me to wait on a bench just outside of the courtroom.

The entrance door in front of me opened and in charged 2 huge Rottweilers, followed by a heavyset man wearing cowboy boots, jeans, a plaid shirt and bolo tie. He was carrying 2 framed paintings. He apologized and called off the friendly dogs that were snorting and drooling as I was thumping their sides.

“Oh, no problem. Nice lookin’ dogs,” I said.

“Thanks. Check these out!” he said excitedly. He pulled one of the framed paintings from under his arm and propped it on his knee to show me. “I just picked these up. They were painted by a local Native Indian friend of mine.”

“Beauutiful,” I responded. It was a collage of an Indian, an eagle, a bear, a wolf and a deer amongst the heavens. The other was of a mountain lake at sunset. “That guy sure has some talent.”

“Sure does. I need to go hang these. C’mon.” The Rottweilers followed him into an office.

The bailiff and my public defender showed up about 15 minutes later and we went into the courtroom. As we approached, the judge was already seated and when we made eye contact, I realized he was the man from out front with the dogs and the paintings.

He told me what the charges were. Then he made mention of the events of my accidental capture. He was more than amused with my gear as well. The rangers must have given him the “blow by blow” details.

I can’t say for sure, but I think the judge was relatively easy on me due to my politeness, my concern about stomping down the meadow and jumping someone else’s trash off the top. And the moment when the two of us were admiring some fine artwork might have helped as well. The fine turned out to be $1,400 and they would keep my gear for a year.

I figure I got off easy. My friend got busted 2 weeks after me and MF’ed the rangers, giving them a hard time and claiming “it wasn’t their rock.” He brought his wife and kids to his court hearing, hoping the judge would have pity on a family man and go easy on him. He ended up with a fine of $4,000 and they kept his gear permanently. Yikes!

I asked the judge if I could have all the items inside the storage compartment, seeing as I used those things on a daily basis. He allowed it. I put everything in my backpack, left the courthouse and hiked around the valley all day. I didn’t want to go directly to my car because I had another complete rig there and didn’t want to risk being followed and possibly losing another.

One year later I called to have my gear returned. I asked to have it double boxed, insured for 2 grand and shipped UPS COD. Everything was returned and they paid the shipping and insurance. The only thing I noticed was that my gear reeked of weed. It must have been stashed in the evidence locker along with a marijuana bust.

With a federal offense on my record I stayed away from the park until 2000. That is when modern wingsuits were being developed and the big walls called again.

Would it be worth the risk? Of course. But that is another story.

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Moe Viletto

Regular Contributor

About the author: 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.