One might say, not entirely in pun, that Jerry Irwin fell into his singular hobby. First, he was an ardent photographer. Second, he was an enthusiastic sky diver, with some 300 jumps to his credit. Irwin recalls being frustrated by the fact that some very sharp unrecorded images were taking shape somewhere up there, between ground and sky. From this point it was hardly a leap to the logical conclusion: Irwin's own aerial-action photography, a stimulating sample of which appears in this issue (page 34).
Irwin is understandably awed by one half of his hobby. "There is simply no way to describe the supersensations of sky diving," he says. As for the photography, now that he has mastered the art he does it off the top of his head—literally, by attaching a motorized Pentax to his crash helmet. Thus, what Irwin sees, Irwin shoots.
All this is not as easy as it sounds. A jumper has only so many hands and having solved one problem—where to put the camera—Irwin encountered others. "At last I was able to capture what I was seeing," he says, "things that I had been missing from, say, a helicopter." But he had no way of being sure that the cameras were functioning and, if so, that they would survive the shock of landing.
One photographic disaster struck when Irwin covered a 15-man star attempt, a maneuver in which the jumpers briefly join hands in a pattern on the way down. "It was beautiful," Irwin recalls. "I was the 16th man down, from 15,500 feet. My camera was buzzing away when I jumped, but at 120 mph the wind creates so much noise you can't hear the motor." When they all landed, he found that his camera had failed. "These pictures are rare and hard to get," he says, "and it still hurts."
August 5, 1973
In his grounded moments Irwin, who is married and the father of three children, is an engineer for the Penn Central Railroad. "That may be the best job for a guy like Jerry," says a friend. "Not too many people are tempted to throw themselves out of speeding trains."
When Irwin competes at his sport (1,300 jumps so far), he gets no extra points for photographing the proceedings, but his fans, judges included, are grateful for the colorful images he brings to earth of what goes on way above. Irwin soon will be headed aloft once more, this time above Fort Bragg, N.C. to cover a new attempt at breaking the world record set last August when 26 men jumped and linked up in a star formation. Now 30 men are going to try it. One of them will have a camera on his helmet.