Originally printed in issue #42 (Apr 2013) of Blue Skies Magazine.
In 1999 I received a call from a friend of mine, Kinny Gibson. If you saw Kinny in person you would swear that he is Chuck Norris. In fact, he was one of Chuck’s primary stunt doubles, and one of only two people in the world to fly the original rocket belt, the precursor to the modern day Red Bull model. He also had hot air balloons which is how I met him. Before he learned to sew I would do his repairs as well as custom work on high-fall stuntman Dar Robinson’s air bag, the largest bag in the world. High fallers were hitting air bags at speeds of 80 mph and I knew some day someone would land without a parachute. Jumpers using huge inflatable balloon suits were falling at 80 mph back in the 1980s. Chuck was producing a CBS Sunday night movie of the week called “The President’s Man” and it had a skydiving and BASE jumping scene in it. Kinny was an avid skydiver but not a BASE jumper. He would do the aircraft jumps and I would do the building jump … if it was doable … You never know what Hollywood might want you to do.
Kinny sent me a story board of the opening scene stunt. Chuck (the President’s number-one man) is to rescue the President’s wife, who is being held hostage on the top floor of a condo. He exits the bomb bay of a stealth bomber, (yeah right) tracks a bit, and opens his chute. Maneuvering toward the building, he lands on the roof and cuts the main canopy away. After tying off with a rappelling rope he leaps from the roof and pendulum swings through the glass window of the top floor. A fight scene takes place and of course Chuck kicks butt. Next he straps a harness on to Mrs. Pres and clips her to him, face to face. He turns and runs out the broken window he previously entered, deploys his reserve, flies out over the ocean and drops her to the awaiting Navy SEALs below. And of course he then flies off into the sunset … Ooookay Hollyweird!
I couldn’t make any promises until I did a recon of the building, which was on South Padre Island in Texas. I was told it was the tallest building there, a 300-foot tall condo not far from the Gulf Coast. When I arrived at the site, looked up and realized not only was it not 300 feet, the wind was crankin’ too—just like I thought it would be. The building was surrounded by sand, concrete, and parched grass, and was so close to the water, so there would be a significant temperature difference. All these things meant there would always be some sort of wind—nighttime excluded—whether it be true wind or convection heating and cooling. The landing area was the best thing going here so far; it was mostly sand and dry grass with a small gully that had some occasional scrub and thorn bushes here and there. The director asked me what I thought of the landing area. Scratching my chin and hesitating I said, “I’m very concerned that I might get a boo boo if I land in a thorn bush.” And then I burst out laughing. The sand was so soft, should I take the mighty whipper, all they’d have to do would be to cover me up in my own crater.
A laser measurement from the top floor showed 252 feet, which meant I could freefall it and keep things a bit simpler. The open window I would be exiting was relatively narrow at 36 inches, but plenty high. I leaned back on the glass and placed my right heel against the window’s base in order to heel and toe off my running distance to the opposite wall where I would start my run. Now that I had all the measurements I could go back to my shop and make a mock window to pace off my starting point for the running exit. The director wanted me to run—and that made me happy, seeing as how I wanted to open as far away from the building as possible.
With the jump site logistics covered, who would be jumping with me as Mrs. Pres? A running exit face to face with a blow-up doll dressed in wardrobe and a wig. I could tie her arms around my neck and have her connected to me at the waist. Hmmm … Deja vu…No, it’s not what you are thinking. I have done a few stunts that required a dummy (other than me of course) and blow-up dolls seem to work the best for low-speed jumps. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I have made BASE jumps with a 60-pound dummy before and it was no fun. Besides, it was a male dummy.
Back in my shop, I constructed a mock window and stepped off my exact running distance in order to practice. My very close friend Jan Davis had just died BASE jumping El Capitan on my birthday, so before I started my run I would dedicate this jump to her, wish her well, and tell her that I miss her and love her.
My pre-jump mantra and prep went something like this: Dummy secure. Pilot chute and bridle clear. Line up on starting point mark. Balance. Breathe. Send my love to Jan. Start my run. Push off with right foot on very edge. Fall, pitch, risers, correct heading if need be, toggles, flare.
I practiced for a week. Probably a hundred times at least. The timing of my run was critical as I wanted my right foot to be pushing off exactly on the edge. Tripping on the dummy’s feet or stutter stepping the run could be fatal.
Feeling one-hundred percent about my practice and preparations, I was off to Texas to perform the stunt. Upon arrival, Hollywood threw a wrench in my gears. The building was the same but they wanted me to jump from a different room. I needed to regroup so I had the construction crew build a mock window frame while I went up to the new room to step off my running distance. Then I could set up in the parking lot and practice the timing of my run.
When I arrived at the room there was no one there. I approached the window, turned 180 degrees and moved back to lean on the glass and place my foot at the base in order to step off the distance to the opposite wall where I would start my run.
I started to lean back against the window and damn near fell out! The glass had already been removed. When I felt no window on my butt, I gasped and went spread eagle with my arms and caught myself on the window frame. Heart racing, I pulled myself back in. The President’s man just about ate it. I was pissed and shaking like a leaf. I had coordinated stunts involving removed glass before and always hired someone to stand guard, in addition to a big yellow “X” over the open window. A window without glass looks just like the one next to it: Clear! The stunt coordinator on this shoot was out joy riding in the helicopter and hadn’t put anyone in charge of the open window.
Back in the parking lot, I set up the mock window and backed up against it to pace off my run starting point. To think that just a few minutes ago with a different outcome, I might not be here right now. So to lighten things up a bit I leaned back and fake fell out the mock window doing a back roll onto the asphalt, all the while laughing. After a few dozen practice runs I felt ready. But the wind was not.
I set up two wind indicators. One was parallel to the building near the water with no obstructions, showing me the clean and true air. The other was set up directly in front of launch about 100 feet from the base of the building. The true wind was a quartering tail wind from the right rear. The wind sock in front of the building was the exact opposite. The quartering tail wind blowing around the building was being sucked back toward the face, due to the Venturi effect, which meant jumping into a 10-15 mph head wind would be pretty risky…I mean stupid.
I sent a production assistant out to get me several bags of popped popcorn and a few cans of shaving cream. While he was gone I watched the wind patterns in the dry grass from the exit point. Next I went to the landing zone and observed the tall dry grass blowing in the wind. I noticed a fine line where the movement of the grass mellowed out. The PA returned with my shopping list and met me at the exit point. Having tied myself safely to the building, I squirted shaving cream out the window to monitor the winds next to the building. I then wrapped up a handful of popcorn in a paper towel, shot a little shaving cream in there and threw it out the window as hard as I could. When the paper towel opened and dispersed the popcorn an interesting thing was revealed. After doing this over and over I noticed that when the true wind was stronger, it would create a void in front of the building with nearly zero wind. With a good high-energy running exit, I would be opening right on the sheer line where the gusty wind met the calmer eddy. If I had a 180-degree off-heading opening facing the building I should be able to back up or turn away since I would be in the void or hollow spot. It was a go!
Adorned with a Chuck Norris beard and wig, I blew a few extra puffs of air into my favorite blow-up doll, thinking she could second as an excellent air bag if my canopy didn’t open. I would be holding my pilot chute in my right hand which I would let trail slightly behind me to give me adequate clearance as I passed through the window frame. I made masking tape donuts and stuck them on my right arm from wrist to shoulder and then stuck the bridle to them. This would keep track of my excess bridle as I ran.
Time to jump. Filming would be done from a helicopter hovering far enough away that it would have no effect on the winds. I peeked out the window to my right and watched for the wind to pick up. What? This seemed so out of place. This was not an antenna where you wanted the wind honking at your back, it’s a fucking building! I had a few hundred building jumps and never jumped in this much wind. But I chucked enough popcorn out there to feel confident that I could safely pull it off.
The windsock got stiff and so did I. I waddled to my start point with Mrs. Pres staring me in the face, mouth agape. “Cameras rolling…speed…ACTION!” spouted the director. I went through my mantra and started to run. I had a super aggressive launch and threw the pilot chute after one second waiting for the familiar sound of “rip…whack,” which is the Velcro shrivel flap tearing the container open and then the canopy whacking open. While the “rip” part sounded familiar, the “whack” part was late. I looked up at what looked like an unsymmetrical bow tie, on heading at least…then it stalled and partially collapsed, re-inflated, and stalled again and mushed around.
I released the brakes and it dove forward and finally pressurized. I was definitely in the convergence zone. At about 75’ I got lift and went up 20 or 30 feet, drifting to the right with no forward progress, then hovering for a couple seconds and descending back left and doing a PLF down near some small scrub. What a ride! That was the crappiest BASE opening I had ever had. The director ran over as I was gathering up my gear and said, “That was great! Are you all right?” I raised up my thumb to show him an embedded briar and said, “I told you I was concerned about this happening!” We had a good laugh and watched the video to make sure we got the shot. We did. Although I could have definitely made another one. That’s why I always have a backup thumb!
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.