So we go up in a King Air. I expected an almost impossible chase, super fast and changing fall rates. I’d heard it all from other camera flyers and didn’t know what to expect from my own flying skills. A feeling started to creep up on me, something I knew eight hundred jumps ago, that rush I used to feel chasing an AFF out the door hoping I wouldn’t take out the student and the instructors again.
I was going to bust my ass on this one. On exit, my body was charged. Rob did barrels out the door and swung into a Daffy. Then he started a series of back and twisting layouts. I flew after him contorting my body, arching hard, flaring out, hugging the beach ball to slow fall rate and swooping into a dive to catch up. He was all over the sky and I felt like a human jet on a mission to stay with him, to keep the target in my sites. At deployment, I heard myself panting. I was hooked.
Rob took up skysurfing and when he had around 40 or so jumps, he called me about a competition in Eloy Arizona. It was the first world meet ever in skysurfing. I accepted, and off we went. Board jumpers from around the world were there including the great Patrick De Gayardon, with cameraman, Mike McGowan. We were awestruck. The biggest drop zone in the US with skydivers we recognized from Parachutist and Skydiving. Eric Fradet, Werner Normberg, Scott Smith, Roland Barksdale.
The competition in the intermediate division went like this. Tape five dives, turn in your favorite, and the judges would get back with the results. Bob Griner was there and around four others in our division.
Rob had just over fifty jumps, but his presentation to the camera was smooth. He looked cool. We won! I think I enjoyed that medal as much as any I’d ever taken home. And we were sure our names would turn up in Parachutist. They did in some small article. We felt famous. It was March ‘93.
It marked the beginning of our team. Rob decided to train – learn more about skysurfing. I liked to film skysurfing, I liked him. We trained in Taft, supported by the Jones family, for our first Advanced level competition at the ‘93 world meet in Empuria Brava, Spain. Around a month or so before the meet, Bill Jones gave us a bunch of free jumps from his Cessna. I guess he saw something in our work. And he’d take us for joy rides around whatever puffy clouds we could find and would show us different areas of the San Andreas Fault line (some day beach property) from the air. We did a bunch of jumps before taking off for Spain from Bill’s Cessna.
We flew business class (full flight, got lucky) to Spain via British Airways. From Barcelona we traveled to Empuriabrava via train. The competition was huge. Multilingual skysurfers, freestylists, and camera flyers from around the world. The equipment was slick, boards long, cameras tricked out. Rob reminded me that we were there just to do our best. That was our excuse.
One training day left. The otters at Empuriabrava had CD players jamming cool tunes all the way to altitude. We dialed in our best stuff and settled into the environment. Empuriabrava is one of the more beautiful places in the world to jump. The next day we landed from competition jump #1 in 3rd place just behind Eric Fradet and Werner Normberg with Patrick De Gayardon and Gus Wing in first.
It was amazing! Rob was right up there with the big boys, and Norm Kent (the man) was judging my work! It just felt like we’d landed on some cloud at sunset. I caught the flu – a bad case of it, but we’d come too far.
Rob was shining – I competed on adrenaline and flu medicine. Rob hurt his knee and had to sit on my leg to put his board on. We held onto third and made our way to the podium to be receive our medals with Patrick, Gus, Eric, and Werner.
We took the winter off, aside from an occasional pizza commercial. Pizza companies would send me their shirts, hats and boxes, and we’d take them up for an “Air Delivery”. We did a bunch of them. In the summer of ‘94 we trained on weekends for the ‘94 world meet in Eloy AZ. Something clicked. Call it chemistry. We started to fly really well. The rules of the competition were announced. Moves were rated A – D in order of difficulty – there were lists of advanced skysurf and camera flying moves. We set our sites and trained. Rob practiced D moves, I practiced D camera moves. We choreographed routines and wrote a wish list. Our style was beginning to show.We had good routines.
Round 1 Compulsory: We headed up to altitude. Bob Griner, Cliff Birch, Troy Hartman, and Vic Papadato were seated with us. Barely a word was spoken. I think we all wanted to get the first jump over with, to just get a round in without a board breaking, camera mal, mid air collision, brain lock, loss of grip on exit, passing out. We exited, smooth, in sync, Rob was on his game as usual, I was flying nice. It felt good. We ended the routine with a Grab and Stab where Rob covers the lens to end the routine. A huge weight was lifted, we knew we’d made it in time, my camera light was still on. I figured, if the light had turned off, I’d just hang out till I went in.
We were shocked, the judges were surprised, other competitors were checking the monitors. Who is that guy in first place? Rob Harris had made his mark. I was more concerned with my shots being clean. Rob’s training had paid off. My training with him had paid off. The last thing I wanted was to blow our performance on a camera mal or brain lock.
Round two was another good one. Everyone was more talkative on the ride up, relieved, I guess. Round three and four were good too. By now, the folks at ESPN were on us with the cameras, and we had a second camera flyer on every round. It was a lot of fun, all that attention all of the sudden. I was chomping at the bit to do free rounds. I wanted to show barrel rolls, the up, over, and under shot, and so on. My stuff. Weather kept us waiting, though. We sat through three days of Arizona’s unusually bad skies. It felt like pulling teeth standing around in the cold, checking outside again and again as if it would help to be watching. Kind of like looking down the street to make the bus come faster. The possibility of a canceled meet was growing. Finally, the sky cleared.
ESPN was on us like flies on sh*&. I was almost tripping on the ride to altitude, feeling cold, not current, wanting to get the round over with. I wasn’t alone, the buzz of the turbines were just about the only sound. Rob seemed calm. My mind was humming. What if I blow a barrel?, or over flip on the Tydy Bowl?, or forget to turn on the camera?, or brain lock the routine and just sit there?. I have no idea how skysurfers do it, move after move in a routine, so much to remember, so much to do. Easy enough during practice, but in competition, your brain goes into overdrive, your heart is pumping like a jackhammer. You wonder if you’re going to let go of the plane and just drift off somewhere. Months of training, and you just drift off filming the ground.
But most of us find ourselves performing. The fear, adrenaline… I didn’t feel a brain lock, in fact, I was way ahead of my game. When I’m familiar with a routine, I think a step ahead. In competition, I’m thinking two steps ahead, waiting for the next move, the next cue. I found myself looking out for Rob, analyzing his moves, routing for him, cause I knew my game was covered. Those moments were gems for me. I’d watch Rob nailing move after move, cool as ice, sticking it. And a smile would begin to turn my lips. Through his dark glasses and game face, I could see, Rob grinning back, and my cameras were there capturing this athlete for the judges. What a lucky camera flyer I was.
We felt the energy of the crowd on the ground. I’d make my way to the dubbing room grinning, taking credit for both our performances. The guys copying our tapes would group around the TV to catch a first look at the routine. Being noticed all of the sudden was strange. Rob seemed to handle it comfortably. I’d look around and see people looking back. That was totally new. I liked it, but didn’t quite know how to handle it. And I didn’t quite know how to handle the conversations, people congratulating me, telling me my stuff was great, wondering why they hadn’t heard of me before, and so on and so on. I found myself stumbling over words. But my family was there in force. My dad, my wife, brother, sister, their friends, my in-laws, Rob’s mom and friends, added up to fifteen or so people, and I was able to bury myself a bit. I wouldn’t trade the experience for a million dollars. It was a feeling of being ecstatic, overwhelmed, and off balance, not easy, but good.
As the weather cleared, we finished the competition in first place. The judging wasn’t wrapped, but our lead was solid and the last round was good. Still, Rob would ask again and again, “Do you think we could win this thing?” “You think we won?”. He knew, but couldn’t quite grasp it. We talked about his ambitions as a skysurfer. He wanted to be the best, to win competitions sometimes, trading first and second in competitions with people like Patrick and Eric, to have a title. And we were standing in a hanger at Skydive Arizona soon to be awarded with gold at a world meet, and he couldn’t quite believe it.
October 1994, Rob Harris and I were relatively unknown. Neither of us imagined how quickly that would change. Suddenly our picture was published full page in Parachutist, ESPN was broadcasting the Arizona World Meet, skydiving magazines around the world were publishing photos and articles. It was really a whirlwind, and the process was just beginning.
Thinking back, how lucky I was to fly with Rob. I was damn good and I liked to take credit for half of our team’s performance. After all, my contribution counted for part of the score and I’d come down with images that would blow the judges away. I tried to tune out the nagging thought that just about any camera flyer who could keep Rob in frame would have taken gold. That the resulting scores of a camera flyer’s efforts are mostly determined by the skysurfer he or she captures. I was the co-pilot, the supporting act. It’s a fond memory today, and I like flying camera for an intermediate performer as much as an advanced performer. At the time, though, I hated the thought.
Sponsorship, we’d naively chased it after winning our first intermediate competition, and suddenly we had choices, offers, phone calls, letters. We chose PD canopies and four Javelin containers. Four rigs! Two rigs each so we could jump one while the other was being packed. Of course! And we got the fanciest, smallest, coolest gear. Till then, I was jumping a second hand Vector with a PD 210 main that was nice and easy to flat pack. I hated the new equipment. What’s the use of smaller gear if you can’t pack? Learning to pro pack new Stilettos was like changing my kid’s diaper when he’s fighting back, arms and legs squishing out in every direction. Rob had to pack for me at first.
Our lead was solid at the World Meet, but we considered first place a fragile environment. Rob felt he needed forty plus jumps a week practice to stay ahead of the pack. I’m sure that ten or fifteen jumps a week would have been plenty, but Rob saw, more than me, the qualities of the other skysurfer’s performances and their potential to kick our asses. Skydive AZ was our destination.
Neither of us wanted to tell Bill Jones. Air Adventures West was our home DZ, we had friends there. And we’d lost count of all the times Bill had fired up his Cessna to give us free altitude before the ’93 and ’94 World Meets. One fine evening, we decided to bite the bullet. After a few beers and bowl, we sat down with Bill to slur out our intentions. I broke the ice. “Bill, Rob and I want to talk with you about some decisions we’ve made.” At that moment, Rob quietly excused himself to use the bathroom, and there I was, with half of my brain functioning, sitting face to face with a curious Bill Jones.
So I told him. And it wasn’t so bad! Bill understood our ambitions and didn’t seem to blame us for wanting to move on. I felt the tension in my body ease, and noticed out of the corner of my eye, Rob and Fritz, staring into the room through a crack in the door. Perhaps Rob expected to see me with a fat black eye, but there we were, and things were cool, so he stepped in to rejoin the discussion. By then, Bill and I were onto skydiving stories. Bill told us about how the pilots of international flights over Africa must know certain codes and passwords to pass without intervention. He said something about them having to sing the right tune, and Rob, in his blurred attempt at polite feedback replied in song. “You mean like, Ungula Bunka mo ho, open the doe cause this plane’s got to go?” For a brief moment, Bill and Rob sat in silence. I took a swig of beer. Suddenly, foam blasted from my nose. They were serious! Bill baffled, Rob sincere, me laughing hysterically.
Skydive AZ is the Mecca of training facilities. Weather is almost always perfect, teams come from around the world to practice all of skydiving’s disciplines, the runway is big, paved, the hangars are huge, the airplanes come in all sizes. On a Monday, we’d jump 12 times before 3pm. World champions in RW, Freestyle, CRW, Freeflying, style and accuracy, all were there training. The vibe was good, the place was hopping with activity, all these teams dedicated to living in a small desert town, to train.
Things continued to gel in the media. Just after winning the ’94 meet, Patrick De Gayardon approached us about traveling to Florida to work with him and Norm Kent on an MTV Sports project. I was kind of stunned by his sportsmanship. Here we’d taken his title in a sport he’d personally developed and was strongly favored to win. And we were standing in the laundry room with him just after being awarded, and he was demanding that we be included in this MTV segment with him because he liked our stuff, and he wanted to fly with Rob. It was such a thrill, such an honor.
About a week after returning from Florida, we landed a job on Baywatch. Rob and Troy Hartman played the top two lifeguards on the show. Troy played David Hasselhauf making his first ever skydive over the shoreline on a skysurf board. Rob played his skysurfing buddy. In the story, DH surfs out the door, a bit unstable at first, but soon gets the hang of it and makes a few cool moves under the watchful eye of his buddy. They dice it up until pull time when DH pulls and nothing comes out, so he pulls his reserve, and nothing comes out. He tumbles out of control with his concerned buddy in chase. He cuts away his board to regain some control and his buddy swoops in to help. They grab on to each other and tumble a bit, then DH grabs a hold on Buddy as he deploys his parachute, but they loose grip and DH tumbles away. To save himself, DH takes a feet down position for a splash into the ocean. Then his very fine friends work to resuscitate him. Turns out it was a dream he’d imagined just before making his real skysurf jump.
We shot the entire sequence in seven jumps, one day. Rob and Troy nailed the action on every jump and I was locked on to every move. We jumped over the Ventura Pier, a location that has become one of my favorites. Later we’d return to the same place to shoot a Mountain Dew commercial featuring Mel Torme, and again for routine footage we just wanted.
The ESPN Extreme Games were to be held in June. ESPN did features on Rob and me; Pete McKeeman presented us as “hero types”. I still don’t know how he came up with that description. A few knuckleheads congratulated us for “kicking some French ass”, and so on. Rob was approached a hundred times at the clubs he’d DJ with the same conversation. “Congratulations, how fast do you fall? can you breath up there?, how high do you jump?, did your first parachute ever fail?, what’s it like?”. Rob said he’d love to answer just once, “Its like —-in’ yo grandma!” Course he didn’t, cause he was a hero type and all. It was all kind of fun, the publicity. Everyone had a take on us and that was fine. And now it was expected, that we’d win the Extreme Games.
Rob would pick me up in his white Nissan truck he called “Rolling Thunder” every other Sunday night for a week of training. I wanted a name for my truck – old Datsun with 200 thousand miles; Rob called it “The Bucket”. Some nights, we’d jump by the light of the moon. We’d make a “hop and pop” deploying our parachutes the moment we’d exit the airplane at 13,000 feet and spend the next fifteen or twenty minutes floating through the blackness. From 13,000′ you can see Tucson and Phoenix glowing in the distance. And then I’d notice the cold wet beers I’d stuffed into my shorts. There’s nothing like sipping a few brews under canopy in the middle of the night.
Things I remember: I knew he was a dee jay on weekends, but he didn’t talk about it much. I pictured him announcing the bride and groom’s first dance. I was blown away to find out he was one of the more in demand DJs in Los Angeles’ hottest nightclubs. He told me stories about his LA friends, about things they did, about growing up in LA. He told me how one night he rolled into a supermarket wearing dark shades pretending to be a blind man being led by a completely untrained Labrador that was scarfing things off the shelves. How he and Brad would “throw down with the freaks”… meaning basically, that they’d dated a hell of a lot. The details were good, but I can’t go there. How Brad and some of his friends were hired as characters on tabloid talk shows. Brad played “Johnny Bravo”, the great womanizer. Rob showed me tapes, Johnny Bravo was brilliant, a total freak, proud to play the ultimate sleazy king of women. Rob’s friends played violent couples on tabloid shows and things like that. The more he told me stories, the more I saw depth and diversity in his life. How he and Darren, a night club promoter took on this knucklehead at a club one night and threw him out. How he ran marathons as a kid, twelve years old and he was training for and completing marathons!
We went on to win the Extreme Games and the world championships in Germany. This article is incomplete. I lost part of the document, but I’ll fill in the rest sometime soon.