Swoop Dreams Skydivers chasing an extra rush are coming down (almost) to earth for a new high-speed sport

April 18, 2004

In the opening frames of Austin Powers in Goldmember, a skydiver
free-falls past the sandstone cliffs of a Utah canyon, unfurls
a Union Jack parachute and drops in a thousand-foot arcing
dive. He finishes his jump with a flourish: swooping up on a
speeding, remote-controlled "Shaguar" to land in the driver's
seat. "I've done some pretty awesome swoops, but that may have
been the most awesome of all," says Eli Thompson, the stuntman
for the psychedelic era's silliest secret agent, who has also
swooped around temples in Thailand, ruins in Turkey and casinos
in Las Vegas. "Actually, that swoop wasn't as easy as it looked
on-screen. I didn't nail it till the third take."

Oh, behave!

Swooping is the latest craze in skydiving. The crowd-pleasing
stunt is a kind of controlled high-speed parachuting that
features as many dodgy moves as Austin Powers has catchphrases.

Under a canopy slightly larger than a bedspread, swoopers plunge
toward earth before planing out for a horizontal flight inches
above ponds, beaches or obstacle courses. The fastest and
flashiest compete on the Pro Swooping Tour, which next week holds
its season-opening freestyle championships on a pond at an
airstrip in Perris, Calif.

"To swoop is really just to aggressively land your parachute,"
says Thompson, 32, one of 35 pros slated to compete in Perris.
"The extra rush comes from finishing your final turn, staring at
the ground and seeing it swoop right up to you."

Swoopers call the sensation a ground rush. "It's what I love
about swooping," says tour veteran Allen Tonkin. "That moment
about 200 feet from impact when you're like, Wow, I'm going ...
fast !" Pros swoop into the landing zone at speeds of up to 70
miles an hour before slowing for a gentle touchdown.

The breakneck swoosh of swooping has injected a frisson into the
traditionally placid second stage of skydiving. "Normally, the
thrill is in the free fall, and the chute is just a lifesaving
device," says swooper Jon DeVore. "Now, when you're done with the
dive, you start a whole new discipline of sport. Swooping has
transformed the canopy into its own animal. It's like going from
mountain biking to scuba diving."

He's saying this under a sky full of drifting canopies at the
Perris Valley Airport, the parachuting mecca that hosted the 2003
Canopy Piloting World Cup. The starting point and terminus for
some 140,000 jumps a year, it's the only facility in the world
with both a drop zone and a vertical wind tunnel for training
(page A12). we'll always have perris, reads the caption over a
still from Casablanca that hangs in the airport's Bombshelter
Sports Bar. Regulars wear T-shirts that say, growing old is
inevitable, growing up is optional and, more helpfully, don't
forget to pull.

In a sense parachutists have been swooping since 1617, the year,
according to legend, that Croatian mathematician Faust Vrancic
hurled himself from a Venice tower in a canvas-covered
contraption inspired by the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci. Since
Vrancic probably plummeted straight down, he may not have
actually swooped, per se. The first really eye-opening swoop was
taken two centuries later by the sheep that Joseph Montgolfier
harnessed to a seven-foot-wide chute and dropped from a tower.
Perhaps tired of counting sheep, the Frenchman later lashed
himself to a sturdier canopy and jumped off the roof of his house
in Annonay.

Credit Montgolfier's countryman Jean Pierre Blanchard with the
first sweeping advance in swooping. In 1785 he invented the
collapsible chute, made of silk. Until then, all canopies had
been made with rigid frames. Silk begat cloth, which, during the
space race of the early 1960s, begat less-porous synthetics. But
the sport of swooping didn't really take off until the
introduction of the parafoil, or ram-air parachute. Air is driven
into the individual cells of the canopy membrane, creating a
wing, which lets jumpers steer and flare the chute as if piloting
an airplane.

As it turns out, Blanchard may have been the first swooping
casualty. In 1793 he broke a leg after parachuting from a
balloon. Modern-day swoopers are so familiar with trauma to the
leg bones that they use femur as a verb, as in, "He hit the water
and femured."

Longtime swooper Pat McGowan notes, "You turn your chute so close
to the ground that sometimes it doesn't have adequate time to
recover from the arc. You're gonna injure yourself at some
point--that's a given."

Of the 25 parachuting deaths in the U.S. last year, 11 were
caused by landing errors: generally, poor decisions about where
and how to set down or flat-out mishandling of the chute.
(Everyone killed was an adult; due to liability risks, you must
be at least 18 to skydive in the U.S.) To date, the lone swooping
fatality occurred two summers ago at a Chicago drop zone. A
skydiving instructor hung his turn too low, pancaked--slammed
chestfirst into the water--and died of a severed aorta.

"I haven't seen a fatal yet, but I've watched some pretty good
bounces," Tonkin says. He speaks softly, almost wearily, as if,
like a grounded bird, he has been out of the air too long.
"Bounces are intense. I guess the intensity is why I swoop in the
first place."

For sheer intensity, swooping is rivaled only by its frosty
sister, blade running. Invented in 1996 by B.J. Worth, famed for
hopping out of a plane sans chute in the James Bond flick Golden
Eye and landing on his skis, blade running weds skydiving and
slalom skiing. The blade runner typically leaps out of an
aircraft 3,000 feet above a downhill slope, deploys his chute and
weaves through a narrow course of 10-foot-high banners without
touching the snow. The fastest time wins.

Like blade runners, swoopers have been competing for cash since
the late 1990s. The six events on this year's tour stretch from
Baja California to the Italian beach town of Rimini. TV coverage
is negligible--swooping is not tube-friendly--and the total prize
money is a measly $36,000. "We do one of the craziest sports, yet
as far as compensation or exposure, we're at the bottom of the
totem pole," complains tour founder Jim Slaton. "I mean,
Rollerbladers make more than us."

In the early days of pro swooping, contests were judged strictly
on speed. As the sport evolved, prizes were awarded for distance
(measured from the point the swooper reaches five feet off the
ground until touchdown; the current record is 418 feet), accuracy
(landing on three-dimensional targets) and carving, the ability
to change course in mid-swoop.

Freestyle is the newest discipline. To make swoops more
accessible to the public, Slaton has lifted the names of many
moves from motocross, BMX and skateboarding. "We just ripped them
off," grumbles swooper Fritz Pfnur. He cites the Sleeper, the
Nac-Nac, the Can-Can, the Insomniac.... "It's stupid," he says.
"Swooping doesn't parallel those other sports in any way."

Next week's pond swoop in Perris features three events: free
rounds, randoms and freestyle accuracy. Jumpers will be judged on
approach, execution, precision and landing on a 10-point scale,
much like gymnasts. The aerial coups de theatre range from the
Ghostrider (hands off the controls, at least one foot dragging
the water) to the La-Z-Boy, in which the supine swooper skims the
surface with his heels. Dipping your head back into the water
gets you bonus points.

The two swoopers to watch are Heath Richardson and Clint Clawson.
Their styles and compact builds are strikingly similar, their
signature moves radically different. The reigning King of the Air
is Richardson, a 26-year-old ex-Marine who was born in Texas,
lives in Pennsylvania and trains in New Jersey. The winner of
last year's inaugural World Cup excels at the Boomerang (carving
rooster tails through the water) and the Wingover (tipping a wing
into the water).

His chief rival is last year's top-ranked swooper, Clawson, a
28-year-old Hawaiian whom Richardson has dubbed Jedi Knight. "To
swoop well, you must learn to master the chute's rear riser,"
Richardson says. "No one has mastered it quite like Clint. A wave
of the hand and out comes this super-smooth maneuver."

Clawson is smoothest at the Superman (face forward, body prone,
feet dragging in the drink) and the Blind Man (body twisted in a
half-turn). "Heath is better at speed and distance," Clawson
says. "I definitely have a little advantage in the freestyle."

First place is worth all of $2,500. "In terms of making a living,
swooping doesn't add up to a whole lot," says Richardson. "As far
as having fun, though, it's a total blast. The cool thing about
swooping is you've got infinite space. The entire sky is your
playground. I'm not into fame or attention, but I am into
accomplishing goals. At competitions I put the squeeze on myself.
Everything is a buildup to winning."

In other words, he swoops to conquer.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRANCISCO NERI WING TIPS Ex-Marine Robinson (left and inset) won last year's World Cup and will be the swooper to beat at this month's freestyle worlds. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRANCISCO NERI COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER LAID-BACK No slippers, but Slaton settled into a comfy La-Z-Boy on the pond in Perris. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRANCISCO NERI TRUCKIN' After a crowded lift to the plane, Slaton (red hat) and Luigi Cani (above, right) get a wide-open ride back down. COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER HANG TIME In the Perris tunnel pros and novices alike float in a 140-mph airstream.

Swoopers are so familiar with trauma to the leg bones that THEY
USE FEMUR AS A VERB, as in, "He hit the water and femured."

A vertical wind tunnel gives skydivers a place to practice

Always wanted to skydive but afraid of jumping out of a plane at
10,000 feet and going splat? Well, the new Perris SkyVenture, in
Perris, Calif., offers a down-to-earth alternative: a massive,
vertical wind tunnel that simulates free fall. Powered by five
200-horsepower suction fans suspended above a flight chamber, the
structure allows you to experience "body flight"--spinning,
somersaulting and other eye-popping acrobatics--while hovering
over a column of air blowing up to 140 mph.

Perris SkyVenture is one of only two such wind tunnels in the
country. (The other is in Orlando.) From the outside, the
10-story tower looks alarmingly like the hideout of Dr. No.
Inside, it looks more like a seaquarium. The 12-foot-wide,
40-foot-tall simulator is enclosed in clear plexiglass and
surrounded by observation benches. It's big enough for a
four-person skydiving team to practice formations before a
competition. Squads from Brazil, Japan and Switzerland have
trained in the tunnel, as have military units from Britain,
Thailand and the U.S. Navy. "It's the next evolution of the
sport," says swooper Jim Slaton. "You can now accomplish in a
one-hour session what it would have taken a whole season to

A 30-minute session, including two minutes in the simulator,
costs $50. Fliers are outfitted with goggles, a helmet, elbow and
knee pads, earplugs and baggy jumpsuits. An instructor
accompanies them the entire time, standing on the wire mesh
flooring to monitor and guide their flights. In the din of that
mighty wind, the tunnel coach signals with his hands, like a
conductor leading the piccolos.

Cheeks rippling, the fliers flutter in the updraft. The slightest
twitch or shrug makes them flail and flip and float up or down.
When time is up, they clamber out through a side door. "For the
first minute you think, God, this is harder than I thought it
would be," says tunnel owner Ben Conatser. "But usually it all
comes together 15 seconds into the second minute. You think, God,
I'm actually flying." --F.L.