Death by fun in Sacramento
Skydiving is deadly, unregulated and growing in popularity. Our writer free-falls to find out why.
As our utility plane breaches the troposphere, the skydiving instructor strapped to my back practices his bombing.
“Why do blind people hate skydiving?” he says. “Scares the shit out of their dogs!”
Nothing. He tries again.
“What’s the hardest part about skydiving?” he says. “The ground!”
Veteran instructor Blane Moler cracks one cornball joke after another, trying to elicit a chuckle, a sound, anything. But no luck. My voice disappeared before we reached the 2-mile mark. I long to do the same.
Skydiving is nuts. Human lemmings dare gravity into a 110 mph game of chicken, then shout “psych” at the last moment. An estimated 25 parachuting deaths a year proves gravity is one sore loser.
So why is its popularity thriving, with more than 3.1 million jumps anticipated this year, up nearly 20 percent from 2007? And why, roughly nine centuries after becoming the world’s first extreme sport, is skydiving still so unregulated?
The answers are as elusive as Bill Dause, a Sacramento-area skydiving legend and someone whose counsel I’ll seek before this is over. Assuming I live.
The cabin tilts roughly as our 1960s-era Twin Otter chugs into position over the drop zone. Our lunches roll with it. Below us: a vast field traced by an airport runway in the small agricultural town of Acampo, just south of Sacramento County. At the frigid altitude of 13,000 feet, the asphalt strip looks like a dead vein.
This is where skydivers come to die. Or so the haters say.
The Parachute Center is one of the more famous—or infamous—drop zones in the nation. Since Dause opened it in 1981, some 18 brave souls perished here, according to news reports. Yet area skydivers swear by Dause and the home he’s built for an itinerant, thrill-seeking community.
“There is a lot of bad rap that this drop zone gets,” says Jhonathan Florez, a world-class wingsuit flier who frequents the Parachute Center.
Just then, Moler grabs my shoulder. “Listen up!” he barks. “What I’m about to say is super important.”
Someone pries open the plane door, and Moler’s instructions are lost to the roaring wind. He starts humping us toward the exit. This is how all 18 of us go to meet our maker, sliding our crotches up narrow benches. Ahead, the first wave of tandem duos vanishes into a gray void. The force at which they’re ripped into the ether verges on the biblical.
Moler bellies me to the razor’s edge, not giving me time to object. There is nothing to grip along the hull’s smooth surface, nothing to stall what is coming. The makers of this craft built it with cowards in mind.
“On three!” Moler calls. “One!”
There is no two.Trust falls
Popular legend (and the self-published book, Parachuting: The Skydiver’s Handbook) has it that the earliest prototype chute may have been deployed in 12th-century China.
Some 900 years later, the particulars of skydiving—and its consequences—remain murky, even to the one organization that regulates the sport.
The U.S. Parachute Association estimates that 323 people died in skydiving-related accidents between 2000 and 2012, the most recent year for which the association has figures. But even these numbers might not be completely accurate.
The USPA relies solely on its 34,000-plus members to report death and injury statistics during annual membership renewals. “It’s just self-reporting,” says Nancy Koreen, the USPA’s director of sport promotion. “It’s just a good estimate from what information we can gather.”
Neither the Federal Aviation administration nor the National Transportation Safety Board, which have limited authority over skydiving practices, does their own tracking. Neither do state or federal public-health departments, for the most part. Even local officials draw a blank.
“We just don’t have data that we can share with you,” says Barb Alberson of San Joaquin County Public Health Services. “It doesn’t come up as anything other than ’other.’”
Which means informal counts by the media and safety watchdogs are the only kind likely taking place.
Dropzone.com, which relies on user-submitted information, recorded 28 skydiving deaths in the United States last year, and three so far this year—including two at a parachute center in Arizona and one involving a 34-year-old Army paratrooper, who died of a torn aorta after landing a jump in Alaska.
Closer to home, two Sacramento-area drop zones account for roughly two-dozen skydiving deaths going back to 1985, according to a compilation of news reports.
The most recent occurred in August 2013 at SkyDance SkyDiving in Davis, where a 23-year-old Lodi man with more than 600 jumps under his belt fell out of his harness. That was one of six fatalities linked to SkyDance since the business opened in 1987, say media accounts.
A male skydiver was injured there last June, when he collided with another parachutist and knocked himself out midair, reported the Daily Democrat. The man suffered a hard but non-lethal landing, however, when his reserve chute deployed automatically.
That same month also saw a close call at the Parachute Center in Acampo. Veteran skydiver Mark Elizondo had already landed multiple jumps that Sunday when one got away from him, according to various media reports. The 62-year-old was said to have drifted too far downwind, suffering electrical burns when he landed atop power lines.
The most recent death at the Acampo center occurred April 2012, when a chute’s hard opening may have knocked out a 71-year-old Novato man, who plunged into a nearby vineyard.
No fatalities have been reported at the relatively new Skydive Sacramento in Placer County.
Skydiving proponents say the sport has gotten much safer since it went mainstream in the 1950s, when the homeland started making use of surplus military rigs held over from the great wars.
“Thirty years ago, the equipment was not as reliable as it is today,” Koreen says.
A death or injury due to equipment failure is almost unheard of these days, she adds. It’s mostly human error—especially among veteran divers pushing their limits—that accounts for things going wrong. “You can get ahead of yourself,” Koreen says.
The USPA appoints safety and training advisers at every drop zone. These sentries are tasked with reporting problems to the USPA’s 14 regional boards.
Even so, Koreen acknowledges that disciplinary actions are “pretty rare” and can’t provide figures when asked.
Meanwhile, federal regulatory agencies are largely restricted to making sure backup chutes are rigged properly and that commercial skydiving aircraft are up to code. Their limited authority occasionally results in action—sort of.
According to FAA records, the agency sanctioned the Parachute Center twice, in 2010 and 2011, for operating two de Havilland Twin Otters that violated “airworthiness directives.” The federal agency proposed civil penalties totaling $933,000, but has yet to collect.
“We referred the cases to the U.S. Attorney’s Office … because we couldn’t reach a settlement with the company,” says FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.
Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, says a 7-year-old investigation “into some compliance issues” at the center remains ongoing. “I know [owner Bill Dause] has several issues with various agencies,” she adds.Chasing Bill
At first glance, there isn’t much to the wide, squat building that houses the Parachute Center. The hangar is one of three on the south side of the Lodi Airport, at the tail end of a quiet access road that loops around the country airport complex, past a throwback diner and decommissioned planes with shark teeth painted below their snouts.
But inside, a funky, flophouse aesthetic bares its earthy guts. Flags and banners—representing nations, athletic brands and, in one case, Snoopy—teem from the rafters, listing over a graveyard of mismatched couches and love seats. A pack of small dogs nips about aimlessly, paying little attention to the cosmopolitan adventurers gathering up their nylon chutes and conversing in various foreign tongues.
Sitting quietly behind the register is the owner of this place. With his willowy white hair, narrow eyeglasses and wiry build, Bill Dause resembles a mad scientist of sorts, one forged by the counterculture. As such, he can be hard to read.
Is it humility or orneriness that prompts Dause to wave off an interview request? “Go talk to her,” he says, nodding at a muscled redhead disrobing and dropping into a yoga pose. “She’s a world champion.”
“What’s her name?” I ask.
Dause shrugs. “I don’t know.”
The woman in question is Hayley Ashburn. She is indeed a world champion, in women’s tricklining, a sport where people execute stunts atop a loosely suspended wire. Ashburn also wrote a paper on Dause that earned her entry to the University of Colorado Boulder’s creative-writing program. Asked if she interviewed Dause for the project, Ashburn laughs at the question and flops on a couch.
“Wait until the end of the day, after he’s done with all this. He’s usually more talkative then,” she suggests. “Though not always.”
Florez appears through an awning and flashes a toothy grin. He peels off his wingsuit, webbed with fabric under his armpits and between his legs. The Red Bull-sponsored athlete blames the Parachute Center’s bad reputation on media fear-mongers and jealous competitors. Considering how busy the Parachute Center is, he says, its safety record is better than most. It’s equal to Perris Valley Skydiving in Riverside County, which has tallied a comparable number of fatalities—18—in a shorter span of time. The Perris location opened in 2000, 19 years after the Parachute Center.
Much of the scrutiny is also probably due to the legend of the “skydiving granny.”
In May 2011, an Oakdale woman by the name of Laverne Everett decided to celebrate her 80th birthday with a tandem jump at the Parachute Center. A video of the fumbling attempt went viral when Everett’s sister posted it to YouTube a year later.
It depicts Everett slipping out of her harness backward mid-free fall. The worst part? The near-death experience unfolds to an Offspring song.
It’s worth noting that Everett didn’t blame her tandem partner or the Parachute Center for the scary experience. (Skydivers say in private that Everett’s body type was to blame.)
Despite the pandemonium the video caused, Florez points out that not one tandem diver has died in the company’s 33-year history. “Everyone who comes in here walks out of that door.”
To support his point, Florez leads the way to a neatly curated storage area, where oversized cubbyholes are stuffed with new tandem rigs, worth $15,000 apiece. Each one is outfitted with an automatic activation device. Dause turns over his inventory on the regular, Florez says.
Over the course of an afternoon, it becomes clear that Dause is considered a prickly hero by the friendly vagabonds who frequent here. No one in this community makes much money doing what they love, even rising stars like Florez and Ashburn, and they appreciate Dause and his wife for running one of the least expensive shops around.
“They give enough of a damn to keep it affordable,” says Christine Wolfers, who’s studying to be a tandem instructor.
At one point, Dause tells the young Frenchwoman to get off the couch and into the air. “Why am I the only one to get skied?” she faux-complains.
Every skydiver knows they can only lounge so long before Dause reminds them why they’re here.
Outside, a small group waiting on a plane lists off Dause’s accomplishments: world record in accumulated free-fall time at around 420 hours, and near the top when it comes to total jumps, at more than 30,000. The man continues adding to those totals.
Just then, the legend appears. He’s not happy.
“You make a better door than a window,” he carps.
We clear a path and watch him pedal a bicycle toward a distant hangar. Behind him, a white spear of a plane carries his admirers in the opposite direction.
At the end of an atypically busy weekday, Dause finally agrees to talk. He sets his leg on a pew that faces a TV screen where a younger version of him espouses the proper way to leap out of a perfectly good airplane.
“Now, droopy knees are quite awkward for us,” television Dause says. “Just relax, and let the wind skew them back.”
This year marks his 50th as an instructor in the sport. Back then, there were no drop zones like the one he operates, just “sport-jumping clubs” that couldn’t always get access to equipment and planes. “I came to the realization that if I wanted to skydive … I would have to organize everything myself,” he says.
In 1968, Dause opened a commercial skydiving center in Utah. It thrived for a while, but the sparse population and long winters eventually drove him west. “I decided that California would be the place to be,” he says.
Over the decades, Dause watched the sport evolve from a fringe interest—a curio performed at airshows by orphans and runaways calling themselves “barnstormers”—to the mainstream activity it is today, appropriate for dads and grannies, sorority chicks and bros.
Dause still thinks it holds its edge. “That’s the reason most people are here today,” he says. “You can’t compare it to anything else. It’s not like it tastes like chicken.”Sky dying
Behind a curtain-shrouded doorway awaits Moler, a chummy Las Vegas native with a dark-brown soul patch. He outfits me in a crotch-hugging pack and leads me to a bench outside, where I request the most boring jump possible. “I basically want the missionary-position version of a jump,” I say.
Moler squints. “You can still do anal in the missionary position.”
Most tandem instructors are this irreverent, Florez says. They’re such old hats that their only fun comes from goosing the newbies. Moler takes pity on me, though, distracting me with groaners. “OK, this one’s actually a little racist. Hope you don’t mind,” he begins. “A sandwich walks into a bar. The bartender says, ’We don’t serve your kind here.’”
A Russian instructor the others call “Red Dawn” torments my brother with his boyish poker face.
Brother: “Is this strap supposed to be loose?”
Red Dawn: “Probably not.”
Brother: “What happens if I don’t remember everything? Could I die?”
Red Dawn: “Probably.”
Moments later, we’re crammed into a sardine can thousands of feet above a pale-green stitch of earth. Moler barks instructions into my right ear—keep my head back at the drop, fold my legs behind me once we clear the exit and some other things lost to the currents—and pelvic-thrusts me to the exit, where the other first-timers blink out of existence. Look, there goes my brother.
When it’s my turn, I don’t even have a chance to scream “rape” before my sneakers leave the turreted floor. For that first inverted instant, when my equilibrium goes haywire, I want to die.
“The first one-tenth of a second is the worst,” Wolfers says of her own first free fall. “But the second one-tenth, it’s the best.”
She’s right. Once we clear the grumbling belly of the plane and pierce a tattered layer of clouds, I peel open my eyelids and see the green-and-yellow Central Valley reveal its bounty. And, beyond my capacity to conjure such a possibility, the moment is beautiful. Sacred, even.
Under Moler’s advice, I roar my love song to the ripping sky.