Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Space Shuttle Atlantis Launch Wingsuit Flock

This past Monday the Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off, and wouldn’t you know it we just happened to be at Skydive Sebastian exiting a not so perfectly good airplane at that exact moment.

Twelve wingsuit pilots were on hand to flock in hopes of a successful launch. Our original plan was to do a fly-by on two skydivers flying their parachutes in a “drag-plane” configuration. This is when one parachute is flying upside down under the other parachute and the guys are connected with a strap and buckles. This was a lofty plan to undertake on such a short notice with only a few practice jumps. If only everyone had rolled out of bed a little earlier we would have had the time to pull it off. The four practice jumps we hoped for turned into two and it was clear after the second jump that we did not have enough time to figure out all of the details. I am not sure why NASA ignored my request to delay the launch by a couple of hours. You would think they would realize the importance of what we were trying. Be that as it may our backup plan was to fly a nice tightly spaced flock with the shuttle in the background. Having already practiced that aspect of the jump it seemed we would have no problems achieving it.

Here we were again 25 minutes prior to launch and people were still getting their gear on and climbing into the plane. We were on short time and it just kept ticking away. Finally the door was closed, the engines were turning, and we were on our way taxiing to the runway. We were in a major hurry to get the plane climbing to altitude and wouldn’t you know it, we had to wait for the slowest airplane on the planet to set up for final approach and landing. This was the moment that everyone just had to laugh. We were at the Sebastian Airport, which is not known for being busy, you almost never have to wait your turn to take off.

Finally the plane was out of our way and we were speeding down the runway to lift off with a full planeload of passengers and almost full fuel tanks. We were heavy and it was going to be a longer than usual climb to altitude. What else could we stack onto this plane ride? The warm temperature and humid air by itself make the plane climb slower. On top of that there was the extra air traffic watching the launch and getting in our way. It seemed like Murphy was riding in the plane with us forcing us to adhere to his crazy laws.

Luckily we made it to altitude just in time and the first group of high-pullers started exiting two minutes prior to ignition as planned. This jump was once again turning into a logistical nightmare. There were now eight high canopies in the air for us to potentially collide with. I tried not to think of it and focus on my task: which was to fly lead slot and make sure we were heading back to the dropzone. Also, it was up to me to maintain a steady fall rate and consistent forward speed.

Once again our plan was to exit the plane at ignition, but the launch pad was obscured by clouds. Luckily our trusty pilot, Dave was timing the launch and gave us an accurate countdown. For some reason my camera did not want to turn on, and once you are flying it is almost impossible to turn on while maintaining a steady flight path. I guess it was ok because almost everyone on the jump had a camera, plus we had Scotty Burns filming from outside of the formation.

Trusting Dave, we jumped off the plane and began to fly back to the dropzone. This was when I noticed something very bad. An airplane was on a collision course with our flock and I knew I was the only one seeing it. Everyone else was focused on maintaining their sight lines and not taking their eyes off of the person flying next to them. I was trying to think of how I was going to corral everyone else away from this plane not knowing what way it was going to fly past us. Having seconds to make a life or death decision I decided it was best to give the plane a little longer to make a turn away from us.

This unknown pilot must have sensed my urgency because at that moment he turned abruptly away from us and all was well. The jump was nearing completion and I was now thinking of my next task which was to go on the hunt for Mike, one of the fliers. While on the plane he threw a sweat soaked sock at my head and it was time for my revenge. It just so happened that I carried that sock on the jump in hopes of releasing it just under his face mid flight. He must have known I was coming for him because as soon as I looked in his direction he was high tailing it to the south. It was clear that I had no chance of catching him, so I let go of his sock and proceeded to deploy my parachute.

I now could finally get a good look at the shuttle as it was climbing out of our atmosphere. Maybe I should have stayed on the ground I would have had a better view. No, I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to fly my wingsuit any day. It was after all a Monday afternoon and most of the people in the world were working away, wishing they were somewhere else.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Getting Back To Being An Artist

I have always considered myself to be very fortunate: having amazing parents that pushed me to follow my dreams. They were always inspiring me to do the things I wanted to do. It did not take them that long to figure out I wanted to be an artist, so they put me in art school at the age of nine.

This was just to learn the basics of drawing. I loved it, and spent a couple of years going to classes. It was then that my dad realized I was ready for something more serious and enrolled me in the Swain School of Design. This peaked my interest in art and was my first exposure to sculpture. After attending classes for a year I started to produce my own works on a regular basis.

After spending several years in college studying art I saw someone making an ice sculpture and was hooked. I then focused every waking hour to learning the ins and outs of how to successfully sculpt ice. This led to a great career doing something I truly loved. One day I saw an ad for a stone sculptor position and jumped on it. The medium was alabaster and it wasn't long before I understood how to work with stone. I spent a couple years sculpting ice in the early morning hours then going to my stone sculpture job for the rest of the day. I'll never forget how proud my parents were to see me living my dream.

Over the years I had also made a lot of paintings, mostly in acrylic. Then one day after my father had passed away I found some of his VCR tapes and realized he had recorded almost every Bob Ross show that was aired. I began watching the tapes every day, mostly because there are not too many good shows on TV. This inspired me to go out and buy a set of oil paints, brushes and stretched canvases. I was always amazed by the fact that Bob Ross could paint so fast and challenged myself to be able to keep up with him. This took a while, but eventually I could keep up and learned a lot in the process.

Painting with oil is one of my favorite mediums. The performance of oil paint makes it a pleasure to use. It is easier to produce real looking effects and gradients than with any other paint medium. One aspect is the length of time it takes to dry. This can help when you want to take your time as well as if you need to take a break. This can be a drawback if you want to paint a base layer that does not blend with the foreground, if you are impatient or want to sell a piece, as it needs to dry for as long as a few weeks. The opposite is true of acrylic paint: you have to paint in a timely fashion, and clean your brushes more often because it tends to dry in minutes versus days. I have created a lot more sculpture than paintings in my time as an ice sculptor and stone sculptor. The more I paint the more I enjoy it and want to continue painting.

I have been an artist for as long as I can remember and I took some time off to follow a dream: which was to fly. I started designing wingsuits and quickly became very well known in the skydiving community as an innovator in the sport. It wasn't until I had traveled around the world selling my suits for a few years, that I started to miss being an artist. I have now made the decision to go back to my roots and pursue a career as an artist.

It has been very fun designing wingsuits and teaching people how to fly them, as almost everyone has dreams about flying. Many of my students have told me that jumping a wingsuit was the best experience of their life. I have no intentions of quitting wingsuit flying, just slowing down a little bit, to spend more time creating art.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Space Shuttle Launch Wingsuit Jump - My Perspective

I am at the drop zone, Skydive Sebastian when I get the call from Scotty. “Hey did you know the Space shuttle is going to launch on Friday night? We should go skydive at the same time. Maybe I can get some nice pictures.” I immediately think, a night jump is dangerous by itself, but add on the major distraction of the Space Shuttle launching, and it seems to be a recipe for disaster. Somehow I make the smart decision and say “No I don't want to go.” Shortly after the drop zone asks if I will organize the skydive to make sure everyone has a coordinated plan, making the jump as safe as possible. So I change my mind and decide to go, only to find out Nasa postponed the Launch.

The next day, I found out that the shuttle would launch right after sunset on Sunday evening. The lighting conditions will be a little better than they would while on a night jump, so I was a little more comfortable, not much though.

The familiar rumble of the piston engines in Scotty and Mike's planes signaled their arrival Sunday afternoon. As we were getting ready it started to become clear to me that this would be a jump that I would vividly remember for the rest of my life. Everyone was very excited to be a part of this, it might be the last shuttle launch at sunset.

Our plan was to exit the aircraft at the moment of ignition. We proceeded to figure out the timing of the other skydivers on the plane; we all had different plans. Some were deploying their parachute as they jumped off the plane and most of the others deployed their chute at a higher altitude than normal. This added some danger to our jump as we would have to avoid colliding with them. It was decided that we would lift off 25 minutes prior to the launch, mainly because it takes 20 minutes for the Dehaviland Otter to climb to altitude. Some of the skydivers wanted to jump out of the plane 3 minutes prior to launch, deploy their parachute immediately at 13000 feet, and watch the shuttle from that altitude.

Time is ticking away, it is 25 minutes prior to launch and people are still boarding the airplane. Someone says “It’s not going to launch, I have been chasing this shuttle for 20 years!” The engines fire up and we taxi to the runway. The climb to altitude is exciting, everyone's anticipating what they are about to experience and reviewing their plans. T minus three minutes and the first group is out of the plane. I am busy checking my parachute one last time to make sure everything is in order, while the last group exits this almost perfectly good airplane.

Everyone was finally out of the plane, except for the three wingsuit fliers. Watching north of our position Scotty saw the shuttle and yelled “There it is! Go! Exit! Go!” I reacted immediately jumping the gun a bit, as I flew away from the plane I noticed it was taking what seemed like an eternity for Mike and Scotty to exit. Perfect, here we are about to miss our window of opportunity. I slowed my fall rate while Mike dove and we were flying together in no time, except it was just Mike and I with no outside camera man “Where the heck is Scotty?” Mike pointed down, I laughed and we dove to Scotty’s altitude to set up for the shot.

The first part of the plan was for me to back fly directly under Mike to get a few pictures, so I maneuvered myself into place, saw a few flashes from Scotty’s camera, and flew to Mike’s side. This did not seem to give Scotty a good picture opportunity, so I decided to fly to the next position which was flying vertically above Mike, this is very challenging because it is easy to get pulled into someone’s wake and usually a crash ensues.

So there I am, about to crash into Mike thinking, oh great I am messing up on this, of all jumps. No biggie, a hand plant on his backside, flip over, start back flying and all is well. Except the jump isn’t over, we still have to deploy our parachutes and land safely in semi darkness.

What was I thinking, I told myself I was not going on this jump because it was not as safe, not with 22 skydivers flying around during twilight, being distracted by the the amazing multi colored shuttle vapor trail. I don’t know how I let myself get convinced to go on this crazy jump.

I am sure glad I did though. Hundreds of thousands of people have watched the video already and it’s only been a couple of weeks. I have been interviewed by Barcroft Media, The Jack E Jett Show, and CNN International since.

Yes, that was a great jump, one of my most memorable.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Casino Night at Skydive Sebastian

This past weekend jumping was hampered by some low clouds and high winds. I still managed to get one jump in on Saturday, and had to cutaway my parachute because of a line over. I then had to land my reserve parachute in a small yard surrounded by tall trees. This was fine except that there was a little old lady painting that almost had a heart attack. "Did you just come from the sky?" she said "Yes I did" "Wow, your like Super Man." Good thing my main parachute landed close by and grandma was kind enough to give me a lift back to the DZ.
I did not get back into the air that day because of the winds picking up. Saturday night we had an authentic casino party complete with real gaming tables and dealers. Needless to say everyone was dressed to the nines. I even sported some of my finer threads.

The next day I had an interview on The Jack E Jett Show, if your not familiar, Google him. He is not your average talk show host. I was told to Google him about 30 minutes prior to the show and got a laugh. Thank goodness for friends, the pre-show coaching I received really helped to loosen me up. All and all the interview went well, he seemed more fascinated by the fact that I was an Ice Sculptor, than a Wingsuit Designer.

Right now I am planning my schedule for the next year, there are so many places to go. I would love to go to them all, but having come off of a two and a half year long tour of Skydiving Dropzones, I am looking forward to staying in one place for a while. I do have trips to Europe and Brazil planned so I hope they become a reality. Right now I am off to train some wingsuit students, it is always a very satisfying feeling to hear a someone say "That was the best experience of my life"!

Yes I love my job :)

Friday, March 27, 2009

This is my first blog ever, most skydivers would say that I owe beer. It is common place in the skydiving culture to buy beer for everyone every time you do something big for the first time, or do something stupid. This could be categorized both ways I suppose.
I am starting this blog to tell my story, so far it has been very interesting and continues to get more and more exciting every day.
Today I am working on a website for myself, and it is taking a long time to learn the program and web design, a subject that I have very little experience with.
I only did one wingsuit skydive today, because of bad weather setting in, but it was a good jump.
I was coaching a wingsuit student that wanted to learn how to better deploy his parachute to be more stable and consistent. This is something that is very important on a skydive but even more important on a wingsuit BASE jump, which is what he is training for.
The dive went well, this guy was 35lbs - 17kgs lighter than me, so it was a challenge to keep up with him, but somehow I did. Part of it was the fact that I was jumping a higher performance wingsuit than he was.
The dive had an interesting ending with my student flying through a cloud and deploying on the other side, you can imagine my surprise flying out of the same cloud to see a parachute a few feet in front of me, one agressive left turn and I was safe again, phew.
The weekend is starting and many familiar faces are showing up to the dropzone, Skydive Sebastian, Florida, for a skydiving event. This is going to be a fun weekend :)