Peace at 1,400 feet with Jhonny Florez
With Point Break, audiences can experience the drop zone via the late Sacramento champion wingsuit pilot
When Point Break premieres Christmas Day, holiday moviegoers drawn by its promise of airborne stunts will learn, almost literally, what it was like to be in Jhonathan Florez’s head.
The Sacramento resident and world-champion aerial athlete died in a wingsuit accident July 3 in Switzerland. But a full year before the 32-year-old’s death, Florez strapped a 15-pound RED Digital Cinema camera to his helmet and leaped off peaks to record a dizzying midair action sequence for the movie, a remake of the 1991 action flick starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze.
“It’s so spectacular that it doesn’t look real,” says Jeb Corliss, who served as the film’s technical adviser to the wingsuit flying unit. He stresses no wires or digital trickery were used to shortcut the peril. “You fear for them for real.”
For the audience, the kinetic scene is meant to deliver a “you are there” jolt to the adrenal gland.
For those closest to Florez, it’s one more chance to commune with a man who found peace and purpose high in the drop zone.
“It wasn’t the adrenaline,” says wife Kaci Florez, who lives in the couple’s Land Park home. “It was the complete presence in the moment that was required when he was doing it.
“It’s interesting to say now, but skydiving saved his life.”
A native of Medellin, Colombia, Jhonny started launching himself from high things at a young age, remembers his sister, Diana Cerri. She broke bones and learned her lesson. But not Jhonny. Trees, rooftops, balconies, “he would jump from everywhere,” she emails from Zurich, and never a scratch: “he never broke anything and he was never scared.”
Kaci says her husband, as a kid, would stare up at the birds with envy, already plotting ways he could join them. Jhonny told the Guardian something similar in a 2014 interview. “I’ve been obsessed with birds since I was 6 years old,” he told the newspaper. At the age of 13, he skydived for the first time.
After high school, Jhonny followed his sister to Florida, where he became serious about the sport. Cerri says all of her younger brother’s rambunctious and sometimes reckless energy tightened into focus. The skydiving Jhonny, the one who woke up early and didn’t party or drink, “was with out questions the better Jhonathan.”
Kaci met Jhonny at the Parachute Center in Lodi on March 21, 2010. (Yeah, she remembers the exact date.) He had moved to California to join a skydiving team and lived in Petaluma at the time. She remembers feeling one of those gravitational attractions that sometimes happens. A day after they parachuted back down to earth, Jhonny asked her out. Less than two months later, the couple lived together.
“The weird thing is, I never was nervous,” she says. “It was never wrong.”
Jhonny’s professional ascent was similarly quick. In 2012, he was invited to participate in the inaugural World Wingsuit League competition in China, placing fifth. For those who don’t follow the constellation of aerial disciplines that knit skydiving, base jumps and wingsuit flights together like Orion’s Belt, just know that it’s a big deal. He nabbed the gold medal the following year, then placed second in 2014.
“Everyone in our world knew Jhonny Florez,” says Rex Pemberton, a friend and fellow athlete who participated in this year’s WWL Grand Prix. “He came a really long way really fast. It was inspiring.”
Corliss was the one who lobbied filmmakers to hire Jhonny to the stunt crew. At the time, Corliss says, Jhonny was one of the top three wingsuit videographers in the world, and the other two had already been hired. “Wingsuit cameramen are the best wingsuit pilots on earth,” he says. “They have to be.”
It’s like that line about how Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backward and in heels. Except in this scenario, Ginger Rogers is ripping through the atmosphere at triple-digit speeds with a “heavy and weird-looking” contraption on her head. “It’s the hardest job there is,” Corliss says. “I wouldn’t jump with it.”
This means that moviegoers won’t see Jhonny during the movie’s harrowing climax, which required more than a year of advance training and 60 jumps to shoot. His job was to be the audience’s eyes during a sequence in which the audience might want to look away. Think of it as a high-speed pursuit, in midair, involving men outfitted like flying squirrels.
Filmed in Walenstadt, Switzerland, in an area imposingly known as “the crack” because of its steep, narrow cliffs, stunt divers in tight formation—“wingtip to wingtip,” Corliss says—descended to subterranean levels, where they zipped through tree croppings and flared hard when they were 1 foot above the ground. “Nothing has ever been more dangerous. Nothing has ever been more precise,” Corliss says. “It was truly a spectacular stunt.”
“It’s cool for me, because I get to see what Jhonny saw when he was flying,” says brother-in-law Clinton Reed. “He had a gift, and that’s probably the only way I’ll ever get to experience his gift.”
While Jhonny specialized in a dangerous sport, Kaci remembers her husband as a stickler for safety.
His personal Facebook wall includes frequent posts about near misses and how they could have been avoided, as well as at least one personal plea. In October 2014, he posted the following: “Im tired of friends dying, I want to see more videos of people just having fun and maybe less hardcore flying. Hardcore no margin flying is sooo 2009”
In August 2014, Jhonny’s friend Brian Drake died in a wingsuit diving accident in the Swiss Alps. In May, another friend, base jumper Dean Potter, died at Yosemite.
When these incidents occurred, Kaci says her husband wrestled with his chosen profession. “I watched him question it and then I watched him jump anyway,” she says. “What kept me from being angry … is jumping made him a better person.”
That person, she says, “was always the one making jokes, always asking questions, always saying something inappropriate and getting away with it.”
Including just moments before his death, apparently.
In July, Jhonny and his friend Scotty Bob Morgan arrived in Lucerne, Switzerland, where they met a guide and prepared for a wingsuit dive off Mount Titlis. All through the cable car ride and hike up the mountain, Kaci heard, Jhonny would say, “She may be Titlis, but she has a nice ass.”
That’s the Jhonny that Cerri and Pemberton remember, too, a gallant goofball who loved to needle friends but always stuck up for the little guy. The consummate little brother, in other words. “He was and is the biggest gentleman I know,” Cerri says.
It’s not fully known what happened atop Titlis. Because Jhonny and Morgan had never base jumped from there, the plan was to keep it basic, with the three launching from the exit point in quick succession. Because he was going to record the dive with a helmet-mounted camera, Johnny jumped last.
A Swiss rescue team found Jhonny’s body close to the exit point, Kaci says. They never did find his helmet. The best guess is that he slipped at the exit and struck his head.
A few days after his death, 14 mourners took small clumps of Jhonny’s ashes and scattered them in the Engelberg valley. Kaci is planning another celebration for what would have been his 33rd birthday in April. There will be feats of daring and athletes painting the sky with cremains as they fall.
“Ash days.” They’ve become a tradition in the sport.
Kaci has to pause the conversation. DeVotchKa’s “Till the End of Time” is playing through the speakers inside Insight Coffee Roasters in Midtown. The instrumental is probably most recognized from Little Miss Sunshine. But it’s also the song her late husband chose as the soundtrack for a video in which he and Drake added a new twist to an already breathtaking stunt: Here a parachutist sails the back of a descending wingsuit diver while a plane barrel-rolls around them.
But in this moment, Kaci isn’t thinking legacies. “Jhonny speaks to me through music,” she says, smiling. “Every once in a while, a song will come on and it’s like, ’I’m here, listen to me.’”
She does just that for a moment. Then, nodding slightly, she carries on with her favorite subject.