I was having a conversation the other evening that brought back one of the strangest memories I have in skydiving—and I’ve got some pretty strange memories. I was pretty low time with fewer than 500 jumps, and working at my first “real” drop zone as a cameraman when I was asked to film a very unusual jump. One which I unfortunately still remember quite clearly.
I hit the record button and started, as rehearsed, with a tight shot of an 18-inch semi-realistic black dildo. I panned the camera back to show the full scene: the dildo held firmly in the gloved left hand of Mr. Simon Wade, who stood fully geared up on the ramp of Skydive Las Vegas.
“This video is being filmed to show whether or not a skydiver in freefall is able to properly track away from another jumper while holding this.” The dildo was then raised toward the camera so that anyone not already focused on the rather large phallic item could now focus their attention completely on it. Without any further fanfare, Simon somberly turned from the camera and started walking toward the C-206 behind him.
The ride to altitude was as quiet as Cessna rides usually are, and as we turned toward jump run, Simon and I leaned in to once again go over the dive. The plan was simple: Exit, face off for a few seconds then continue to film, without changing perspective or angle, while Simon first tracked away from me for about 10 seconds, then tracked back. Exit we did, face off we did, back and forth Simon went, then at break-off he tracked and pitched, I filmed, I pitched, we landed.
Once the video was dumped down on tape and a few copies made, that was that. It should have been a fucking joke. I can imagine so many different reasons why we might have made such a video and most of them would have been funny as hell. Simon Wade, white as white, tracking around the skies over Boulder City, Nevada holding a massive black cock in his hand.
The actual reason we made this video was unfortunately the one in which there was simply no humor at all. As we knew then, it was also a very important video for the entire sport of skydiving.
It’s a fight that hasn’t happened too many times in the sport, but it has happened, and it’s a fight that skydiving can never afford to lose. The legal battle over the validity of the waiver that each and every one of us has signed. The footage that I shot, along with the testimony of many jumpers and non-jumpers alike, was used to fight a lawsuit over the death of someone a lot of you may have never heard of, but whom some of you loved dearly.
Vic Pappadato was a Perris camera flyer, known by many, and as far as I could ever tell, loved by all. Vic and his partner Troy Hartman leapt to what—by skydiving standards—was huge mainstream fame when they won the 1997 X-Games in what was by far the most publicized and watched form of our sport at the time, skysurfing. By the time Vic hit 33, he’d managed not only to rank at the top in the world flying camera, but he had brought home the gold in numerous competitions with and without Troy. He’d filmed Super Bowl commercials, and been given an Emmy for his skill.
Then the unthinkable happened. On Mother’s Day in May 1998, Vic was killed during a skydive after a body-to-body canopy collision with another friend of mine. It not only shocked and horrified everyone in Las Vegas where the jump had taken place, it devastated all in Perris Valley, and indeed the entire skydiving world and all who knew him. None more of course than his family, who not only had to deal with the fact that they had lost a loved one, but had lost him under what seemed to be such ridiculous circumstances.
Without going into too much of the jump, the plan had been for Vic to film a birthday 4-way between friends over Skydive Las Vegas which would, unbeknownst to the birthday boy, include the rubber dildo. The plan had been to build a round, pull out and pass around the dildo while thumping the birthday boy with it, all of which would be captured on a film everyone would no doubt laugh their asses off while watching later on. The jump had gone pretty much to plan until break-off, when Vic was supposed to dump in place as the rest tracked off. The next thing anyone knew, Vic had a main malfunction and spun into the jumper below him, who’d been holding the dildo. He hit with such force that Vic’s helmet and shoes were thrown off from the violent impact. When the sun set that day, Vic was gone, the jumper he hit in critical condition and the skydiving world just a little less bright.
I don’t think a single person didn’t hurt for Vic’s family and friends, and when the lawsuit was filed and finally went to court a few years later, it wasn’t difficult to understand why. They were destroyed over the loss as we all would be, confused by the events themselves, and pissed off by rumors and guesses over what really happened. Even though every jumper cringed when they found out about the lawsuit, they understood what the family was feeling, but they just couldn’t win. If they won …
The worst part about the lawsuit for most of us in Las Vegas was that we pretty much all absolutely hated Michael Hawkes, the DZO. Under any other circumstances, we all would have wished he’d end up eviscerated and spread out across The Strip to be picked apart by small furry animals. As far as I know, nobody else in the sport had ever been as universally hated as Hawkes, but we simply had no choice but to stand behind him in regard to the case. Why? Well it’s a sick, fucked-up and very simple answer. If the waiver we sign in skydiving is ever beaten in court, our sport as we know it is done.
The day a skydive waiver of liability is found to be unenforceable, your days of jumping are over. It is, as we all know, an agreement signed between the jumper and the DZ stating that the jumper releases the drop zone of all liability for any injury or loss of life. If that statement no longer stands up in court, there won’t be a single jump operation left in the States, or more than likely any other country for that matter. Who in their right mind would run a skydiving operation if they knew they could be sued for any twisted ankle, broken leg, death or even stiff neck after a camera jump?
So, hate Hawkes though we might, each of us did what we needed to do in order to make sure the waiver Vic had signed was enforced and that the truth was made clear—that he, just like all of us, was held responsible for every jump he made, even the one that took his life. We did it because it was the right thing to do, we did it because we wanted to continue the lives we had chosen, and we hated every damn bit of it.
When the case was over, it was decided by the court that the waiver was enforceable, and that Vic held responsibility for the accident when, for a reason we’ll never know, he chose to track above the jumper he hit. It decided that it was his decisions that led to the collision, and the court released Skydive Las Vegas and the jumper he hit from all liability. The other jumper, who eventually recovered from his injuries enough to jump again was quoted as saying, “I have no animosity toward the Pappadato family, that’s why I only asked for one dollar in my counter suit. I only filed the suit to clear my name. The accident happened as the result of a few bad decisions made over a 9-second period. Who hasn’t made bad decisions? I had forgiven Vic before I even hit the ground.”
The win didn’t make anyone feel any better. For the jumpers, it drew out the process of grief and caused an uneasy tension; for Vic’s family it was a financial burden which could only have amplified their pain. Even though the right decision was made, nobody won. So …
If you jump, you’ve signed a waiver. If you’ve signed a waiver, tell everyone you love. Tell the people you like. Tell the people you fucking hate. Look each and every one of them in the eye and say, “I choose to skydive. I choose to jump for me, and I and I alone take responsibility for EVERY jump that I make.”
Do this not only to save your sport, not only to save your friends and family the true and unimaginable pain Vic’s family suffered, but for your own damn piece of mind. In many conversations during those days we often wondered what Vic would have thought of it all, and I’m sure you’ll agree, he would have been deeply hurt. So tell your people what you’ve signed, and explain to them why you signed it. The entire sport could one day depend on it.
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