"No kidding, there I was!" Those are the first words of every parachute story. Next comes the Pucker Factor, a scale from 1 to 10. A PF-10 can be a near-mythical achievement, but more often it is merely terminal. According to sky divers, you earn it when both chutes fail, you are gyrating wildly at 120 mph, heading straight down, and fear puckers your sphincter with such force that your eyeballs pop out of your head before you "bounce." First-time jumpers often believe that they have experienced a PF-10 on that initial step out of an airplane. But unless something goes monstrously wrong, the objective PF rating for a first jump is closer to 1½. To get close to double digits you have to do something outrageous or stupid, or both.
There is, however, one exception to the first rule of telling a parachute story, and it comes from a "bandit" jump that earns a PF of at least nine. Like the one-mile free-fall through the night sky over New York City that culminated in a landing in Shea Stadium, smack in the middle of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The perpetrator of that jump, Mike Sergio, is Central Casting's idea of a New Yorker—a rock musician-actor-screenwriter. Sergio starts his parachute tale like this: "No kidding, there I was, PF-9... but I can't talk about it."
To parachute into Shea Stadium, Sergio and his pilot played dodge 'em with jetliners taking off from nearby LaGuardia Airport. As a result, lawyers representing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sought "maximum sanctions" against the pair to set an example for the rest of the parachuting community. Most of all, the FAA wanted the pilot: If it could catch him, it could strip him of his license—and probably his livelihood—thus threatening the code of silence between jumpers and their pilots that makes bandit stunts possible. Sergio and most of his buddies were subpoenaed and examined under oath. When no one would break the code, the FAA played hardball. Sergio was jailed for contempt of court with a fine of $100 for each day he refused to talk. Meanwhile, his brother, David, a New York policeman, was dying of cancer. After three weeks, it became obvious that Sergio would never talk, and the FAA figured they had made their point, so Sergio was let go. David died six weeks later.
When I met Sergio for the first time in February 1988, he still wasn't talking. But he gave me the name of his nemesis, a Yankee fan in the FAA named Loretta Alkalay, a lawyer who allowed me to read the transcripts of the hearings. Alkalay believes the FAA was very close to solving the mystery. It knew the identity of the plane, a 1964 Cessna 182, and where it had flown from, the Ranch Skydiving Club in Gardiner, N.Y. But Alkalay missed one big clue to finding the pilot: a PF-10 stunt in 1975 that helped launch the madman sport of BASE (buildings, antenna towers, spans and earth) jumping.
October 8, 1989
The Ranch is about 80 miles north of New York City. It doesn't look like much. The runway is a narrow asphalt strip through a field of weeds and mud where jumpers set up tents each weekend. The "summer clubhouse" is a corrugated steel building left over from World War II. Apparently no work has been done on it since.
There's a bulletin board on a wall of the clubhouse. On it is a snapshot of the torso of a man wearing a T-shirt that reads I FLEW SERGIO: THE WORLD SERIES 1986, but no photo of Sergio himself. I asked one of the members about Sergio's jump. At first he only shrugged, but when I continued to press him, he turned surprisingly hostile. Finally he pointed to a larger photo on the wall: a jumper poised on the edge of a tall building. "Find out who took this picture," he said and walked away.
I wandered over to the "winter clubhouse," a dilapidated yellow school bus furnished with ancient couches and a kerosene heater. A tugboat crewman named Stryker said he planned to do some target practice while waiting for the wind to die down. Stryker was friendly enough, but since it didn't seem to be the time to risk provoking him with questions about Sergio, I asked about the club. "The cowboy days are over," he said. "Skydiving has become a yuppie sport." He pointed to the graffiti that someone had spray-painted onto the ceiling. It read: REMEMBER WHEN SEX WAS FUN AND SKYDIVING WAS DANGEROUS?
Stryker muttered wistfully about his "hero," a man named Owen Quinn: "The first guy to parachute off the World Trade Center—or any building, for that matter. Pucker Factor 10. There's a picture of Quinn on top of the World Trade Center over there on the bulletin board," said Stryker, pointing to the shed.
"Oh, really? Who took it?"
"Mike Sergio. Quinn was sort of his guru. If you want to write about parachuting, you ought to talk to Quinn."
Quinn, 48, is a plug of a man who wears his history in tattoos and scars. His work is heavy construction, pounding pilings along New York City's waterfront, and it seems he can't drive by a construction sight without waving to somebody. He has retired from jumping to spend more time with his wife, Roseann, and four children. When we met at his apartment in Queens, he was exultant both about a successful wild turkey hunt with his son and a victory in his 11-year battle to have a stop sign installed at a nearby intersection. To quiet the phone that seemed to ring constantly for his three daughters, he tossed the receiver into the clothes dryer. Then he mixed us tall glasses of Vino Rustico and cream soda with a twist of lemon and started to talk.
Quinn was born in the Bronx. His father, Huey, was a sleepwalker. His mother, Anna, was chronically ill, and when he was three, his parents split up and left him in the care of the Catholic orphanage system in Queens. "The Sisters at the orphanage didn't want to be there either," he says. "They went crazy and tried to beat religion into us." Young Quinn fantasized about flying and jumping out of planes, but his nighttime dreams were not so pleasant. Like his father, he was claustrophobic and would roam and scream in his sleep.
After some nine years of orphanages and foster homes, Quinn was rescued by his parents, who had reunited. He says he was not much of a student: He did not take well to Sacred Heart Middle School, but he was a runner with natural speed and a boxer that "nobody beat in the ring." Outside the ring, his fighting was less successful. When Quinn was 17, a judge gave him a choice of prison or the Army. He signed up for the airborne division, but a three-day pass stretched out to two weeks, a car was stolen, and Quinn landed in Elmira (N.Y.) Correctional Facility. From there he earned a transfer to an eight-by six-foot steel-doored cell at the maximum security prison at West Coxsackie, N.Y. He boxed and read during the day and at night roamed his cell in his sleep, screaming. Said Quinn, "I was young and bad. I wasn't a thief, I was a madman."
Quinn was 20 when a friend of his father's went to the president of the Seafarers International Union in Brooklyn and obtained sailing papers for him. Quinn's first two assignments were crewing aboard munitions ships bound for Vietnam. His third trip out was on a boat supposedly carrying rubber and tin from Indonesia to Malaysia and back, but hidden inside the cargo was an arsenal of high-tech weapons, ammunition and electronics. A unit of the Malaysian army boarded the ship, found the weapons, and Quinn spent nearly two months under ship's arrest awaiting execution for smuggling arms. "No kidding, there I was in Malaysia with a machine gun in my face. PF-9.5," he says. Eventually he was released.
Quinn was 23, on home leave, when he drove with some friends to a parachute school on Long Island. "It was the most terrifying thing in my life," he says. "But when I finally left the airplane, I felt I had total freedom."
It was several years before Quinn could jump again, but when he did, he became obsessed. He caught on as a stunt jumper and a wing-walker for air shows. In 1969, when the Mets were in the NL Championship Series against Atlanta, Quinn planned a bandit jump into Shea Stadium, but the scheme failed. Three hours before he planned to make the jump, his pilot suddenly backed out.
Quinn says that one of his most memorable moments—a turning point in his life—happened when a novice jumper sought his advice on packing a chute. "After all those years of being locked up and told what to do, this guy was asking me—he was trusting me with his life," Quinn says. Quinn became a jumpmaster and later went to West Point for intensive training to become an instructor. The man who had taught Quinn to jump took the same course...and failed. Quinn passed. It was then that he developed his first of many tenets as a skydiving guru: "If the student does not surpass the master, has not the master failed?"
Sergio is eight years younger than Quinn. He can look like a tough construction hand or a rock musician or a soap opera star. He has played all three roles at various times, and it is sometimes hard to know which one you are dealing with. Sergio was born on East 122nd Street in Harlem, around the corner from where his father still runs the family waterproofing business. Like Quinn, Sergio had trouble in high school—all four of them. But Sergio says he was very lucky while growing up: He was arrested once when the police mistakenly took the asthma pills he must carry as something far more potent and far less legal. The night Sergio spent in jail persuaded him to "straighten out." In 1968 he was accepted at Queens College and set about studying to become an actor.
Sergio first parachuted in 1971 when Pete the Greek, a roadie for the band in which Sergio sang, invited him to join an expedition to a parachute center called Ripcord in New Jersey. Says Sergio, "I volunteered to be the first to jump because I didn't want to have to watch the others. I was exploring the discipline of being scared."
Eventually, Sergio started jumping at an upstate New York drop site called Shawanaga, the home of "sky gods" like Owen Quinn. There was something mystical about Quinn. He was full of aphorisms and odd quotes from the Bible. One night, when the jumpers began settling in their tents under a huge pine tree by the runway, Quinn came over and persuaded them to move. Shortly afterward, a bolt of lightning split the tree in half. Sergio had found a guru.
It was in 1973, around the campfire at Shawanaga, that Quinn first began to talk about a pair of buildings that he was working on in Lower Manhattan: the twin-towered World Trade Center, which would rise 1,350 feet above the ground. Quinn had not yet parachuted from a building, but he had jumped from airplanes at altitudes lower than the height of the towers. Ray Maynard, a friend of Quinn's from Shawanaga, remembers the gleam in his eyes as he described how the jump could be done. Quinn estimated that he would have to fall about 50 stories to gather enough speed for the chute to open. Sergio got Quinn to promise to phone him when he was ready to jump.
It was on a Thursday afternoon—July 21. 1975—that Sergio got the call. The North Tower was not yet completed, said Quinn, but the construction equipment was out of the plaza at the foot of the nearly completed towers.
"We met at the World Trade Center the next afternoon at three o'clock," Sergio says. He came directly from his waterproofing job, wearing his hard hat and carrying a roll of roofing tar paper and an old paint can with his camera inside. Quinn had brought the parachute and his crash helmet to work in a duffel bag. Says Sergio, "We wanted to see if we could make it to the roof, so we left the parachute with Owen's cousin at the base and went into the building. The construction elevators were not working, and security was allowing construction workers through the main elevator to the 80th floor. From there we walked to the 110th carrying the roll of tar paper. A security guard blocked the access to the roof, but we convinced him to give us a tour. As the guard pointed out the sights below, we scouted the jump, and then headed back down to collect the parachute and the camera."'
By the time they returned to the top it was after five and a new security guard was on duty. They told him they were from RCA to fix the roof aerial and were allowed on the roof by themselves. "Owen put on his chute and helmet and walked to the edge of the northwest corner." says Sergio. "He kept repeating:
'I'm going to do it. I'm going to do it.' "
"Then reality started to sink in," says Sergio. He took his helmet back off, sat down and said. 'Should I really do it?" "
The building, they had discovered, does not go straight down. A cornice covers the top floors, so you cannot see the marble steps below. To get clear of the cornice, Quinn would need a running start and would have to dive blindly, head first—"No kidding, PF-10!"
Sergio had Quinn framed in his camera as he stood by the edge of the tower gathering his nerve. They waited what seemed like a long time. "Finally," says Sergio, "a cloud started coming over, and I yelled, 'Come on! I'm losing the light!' Quinn leaped over the side."
"It was like jumping into a glass full of pencils," says Quinn. "All those other buildings coming up at me. And you know what I did? I laughed. Once I was over the side I was back in my element." Fifty floors down, level with the top of the old New York Telephone Co. Building, he pulled the rip cord. The chute popped open, spun him 180 degrees and...Wham! He smashed into the side of the tower, face-to-face with a very surprised secretary inside the building. A modern square parachute might have collapsed at that moment, but Quinn had decided to use an old Navy "conical" chute, and it bounced off in good shape. A fashion photographer and a couple of models were at work in the plaza. When Quinn spotted them, he yelled, "Take my picture." but they just scattered. Security people closed in on Quinn as he began stuffing his parachute back into the pack. He was handcuffed and taken to the First Precinct, where three cops brought him into an interrogation room and slammed the door shut. One of them handed him a pad of paper and a pen. He said, "I want you to sign this first one to my granddaughter...."
After Quinn jumped, Sergio didn't know if he was alive or dead. After taking shots of Quinn's running jump, Sergio stuffed his camera back in the paint can, grabbed his bag and started to run down the stairs. The guard said, ''Wait. Where's your friend? Sign out." Sergio was so pumped that it took both hands to sign the book.
"I started running down endless winding flights of stairs." says Sergio. "I heard a door slam above me and people running down, so I ducked into a bathroom and changed into a suit and tie. On the 65th floor, I got into the elevator. As I walked out the revolving doors, the police were coming in. I still didn't know what had happened to Owen."
Sergio took his film to ABC News, and when the pictures appeared. Quinn phoned to ask if he could turn Sergio in. After all, the police knew someone was with Quinn on the building. Sergio agreed, and they ended up in a bar, along with the three detectives, swapping stories. After 13 court appearances, charges against them were finally dropped. Meanwhile Quinn had become one of the most famous jumpers in America. The lounge under construction on the 44th floor of the World Trade Center was named Skydive.
A few years later, Shawanaga closed, and Quinn retired from jumping. Sergio stayed away from BASE jumping, but he competed internationally in the tamer forms of skydiving. He also worked at becoming an actor. In 1977 he quit construction for good and began a full-time show business career with a two-year stint on Broadway in the musical comedy / Love My Wife. In 1986, when the Mets were climbing toward the Series, he was a regular on the TV soap opera Loving. By then demonstration jumps into stadiums had become fairly common, but a bandit jump into the World Series remained the stuff of barroom fantasies.
After the Mets held off the Astros in the 16th inning to win the National League pennant, the skydiving community, like everyone else in New York, caught World Series fever. Maynard planned a bandit jump into Shea for the opening game, but his pilot refused. Then, with the Mets two games down to Boston and looking tired, Sergio was part of a group of jumpers at Benson's, a bar in Gardiner, N.Y., that began plotting to make a jump of their own. On Monday, Oct. 20, when Met pitcher Ron Darling complained in a press conference at Fenway Park that the fans who had supported the team throughout the season were not in the stands because they had been replaced by the corporate expense account crowd, the jump seemed a matter of civic duty.
"Sergio said he had a pilot and an aircraft but would not mention any details," says Maynard. 'The less anybody knew, the better off everyone would be." The sixth and seventh games of the Series were scheduled for Shea, and there was some argument about which game Sergio should jump into. When the Mets lost the fifth game, Sergio saw no choice. The Mets would need all the help they could get to make it to the seventh.
Friday morning, the day before Game 6, Sergio went to a company that makes banners for parachutes, but the design he wanted would cost $300 and the company could not guarantee overnight delivery. On his way back home, he stopped at a Woolworth's and bought a twin-sized sheet and some spray paint and headed back to his apartment in Manhattan. There he painted the words GO METS on the sheet.
Meanwhile the man who was to pilot the jump plane must have asked himself what he stood to gain from the stunt—which, at best, was nothing—and what he might lose, which could be his freedom and his livelihood. He called Sergio and said he was bowing out. Sergio got on the phone to find another pilot but came up with nothing. Finally he called Quinn. Yes. Quinn knew a man who could fly the mission—a pilot who owed him a debt dating back to 1969. If Sergio was completely serious, Quinn said, he would give the pilot a chance to "redeem himself." Said Quinn, "I really put the screws to the guy."
On Saturday morning Sergio was at the Ranch early to connect the bed sheet to the rigging of his parachute and to try a couple of practice jumps to make sure the sheet would open. The official story was that Sergio and a friend had been hired to do a demonstration jump on Sunday for some Mets fans on Long Island, and it required an American flag flying from the parachute rigging.
On Saturday evening, just before dusk, Carl Zatts, a pilot from the Ranch, flew a Cessna six miles south to a tiny airfield, Kobelt, which has a lighted runway. From there Sergio would take off for "Long Island.' " Zatts flew to Kobelt, left the keys and the radio headphones in the unlocked plane and went to Benson's to join other members of the Ranch gathered to watch Sergio come in on TV.
Kobelt Airport was completely deserted when the real pilot arrived. He was joined by three jumpers. One of them backed out before he got in the plane. After a slight delay Sergio and a man with an American flag got in.
To protect the pilot, the plan was to spend as little time in the air as possible. From Kobelt they flew directly toward Shea Stadium at full throttle—about 140 miles per hour—climbing steadily before leveling off below a deck of broken clouds at 10,000 feet. Most airplanes have a transponder, which automatically reports the plane's location and identity to air traffic control, but this Cessna 182 was flying "dark," without its transponder or its running lights turned on. The three men listened to the Mets pre-game show on the radio. They also monitored the LaGuardia air traffic control.
It was a beautiful night under the clouds, with unlimited visibility. Shea's lights reflected against the clouds and the stadium itself could be picked out from almost 60 miles away. Says Sergio, "If you monitor the frequency of the Tower Control Area [TCA] and have radar, you can know more about the airspace than they do." Sergio says La-Guardia Runway 31, the one that sends planes almost directly over Shea, was closed that night. He also says that air traffic was being diverted elsewhere because of the presence of the Goodyear Blimp over Shea. The FAA says otherwise: Two airliners were in the vicinity of Shea within two minutes of Sergio's flight.
As Sergio and his companions flew toward the stadium, a problem suddenly appeared. They planned to be in jump position just before the end of the pregame show so they would sail into the stadium with their own flag and banner during the national anthem. But last-minute preparations had cost them some time before takeoff and they were flying into a headwind. They weren't going to make it during the anthem; instead they were going to drop into the first inning. As they listened to the end of the pregame show, the man with the flag decided not to jump. Sergio would go it alone.
About six miles away from Shea, the pilot kicked the right rudder hard, banking the Cessna so the gull-wing door fell open in the plane's shadow. Sergio grabbed the wing strut and stuck his head out to track their speed and direction along the ground. He signaled the pilot. A little more than three miles away, the plane was lined up with Shea. It was Sergio's day—made possible by the favor owed to Quinn—and there was no turning back.
Normally a plane's engines are throttled back before a jumper leaves, but Sergio had a couple of miles to fly to reach Shea and he needed all the momentum possible. He would have to leave the plane while it was at full throttle. Sergio lunged back and forth in the open doorway, like a downhill skier in the starting gate. On the third lunge, he plunged out of the aircraft into the night.
Every movement in free-fall is expended against a wall of air pushing the jumper at 120 miles per hour. The roar is deafening. Even under goggles one's eyeballs jiggle. Sergio arched his back, pointed his toes and brought his arms to his sides, like a sweptwing fighter plane. He fell for about 50 seconds, a mile down and about three quarters of a mile toward Shea. At 4.000 feet, he pulled his rip cord. Meshed in the rigging of a parachute is a "slider," a device that keeps the canopy from opening too fast. For an instant the slider jammed—it was hung up on the rope to the banner—but then it slipped free, the chute opened, and the bed sheet unfurled. "Shea under the lights was the most beautiful sight imaginable, like a crystal-green pool," says Sergio. He knew he had about four minutes under the parachute canopy before he hit the ground. Within a couple of minutes he was directly over the stadium lights, spiraling down. He could see that the Red Sox were still at bat, and he tried to locate the ball so he could decide whether to land on the field or turn away to the parking lot.
"Then [pitcher Bob] Ojeda threw the ball to [Gary] Carter." Sergio says. "Carter dropped it for a second. I could see the play was dead, and I turned into the stadium. I heard a roar. I was confused because there was no play going on, and then I realized the noise was for me. I wanted to land on home plate, but Carter and the umpire were not moving, so I cut toward the first base line. The fans were on their feet screaming—all those smiling faces." As the police escorted Sergio off the field, Ron Darling slapped him a high five.
By the time Sergio touched down, the Cessna was about 10 miles away. By the time anyone thought to call the FAA, the plane was more than 20 miles away. Over Kobelt the pilot banked out of his approach pattern to check for police, then landed. Quickly he shut down the plane and then drove away in a car. At this point, the FAA was tracing another small plane that had inadvertently crossed through air traffic control. FAA agents would not get to Gardiner until the trail was cold—hours after the Mets had won Game 6 with the help of Bill Buckner's 10th-inning error that allowed New York to overcome Boston's 5-3 lead.
Quinn was at a wedding on Long Island when his friend parachuted into Shea. He had promised the bride and groom a special present. Quinn says he "was not at all surprised" when it was delivered. "No kidding, there he was."
Author Stephen Kiesling has made one parachute jump—and that was enough, he says.