Skydivers are an elite cult of adrenaline junkies. Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane is an unnecessary risk most mentally stable people wouldn't consider doing once-let alone more than a thousand times a year.
A day at a drop zone can dispel such assumptions.
Not all skydivers look like they've answered a casting call for a Mountain Dew commercial. Children as young as 2 years old have made tandem jumps, and folks nearly as old as Yoda hurl themselves daily from serious heights. The first freefall jump was made by a woman-Georgia "Tiny" Broadwick-in 1914.
For Luigi Cani, a 33-year-old Brazilian, the obsession manifested itself when, at 5 years old, he prepared to jump from a 30th-floor window using a trash bag as a parachute. "[My mother] said if she hadn't stopped me, I would have jumped," he says. "I don't even know if it's true or not. She's not from Texas, but she likes to tell stories."
Rings true, though-Cani used to love those action figures with tiny parachutes. Used to make 'em himself out of trash bags. Both Cani and his equipment have come a long way since then. His first jump was in 1995; since, he's made more than 7,000 and holds two world records.
He's jumped using the world's smallest parachute (or "canopy")-at 39 square feet, the thing saving him from a gruesome death was roughly the size of an oriental rug.
"Today's parachute is not just something that is going to save your life from freefall," Cani explains. "You can go as fast as you would be going in freefall with the [new] parachute[s]-and you can land it. It's the coolest toy I've ever owned.
"To have the technique and the skills and the technology to be able to land it proves that, shortly, people will be trying to jump out of airplanes and land without a parachute, just like Superman. As a matter of fact, I know two guys who are trying to accomplish that project with the wingsuit."
Cani has another goal in sight-the world record for freefall speed, which he hopes to break by 2005. In 1998, he fell at 309 mph, 21 short of the world record. To pick up speed, he's working with an engineer in Germany to create a very heavy, very aerodynamic weight vest that would, along with the rest of his gear, add 75 pounds to his small frame. Weight is necessary to achieve speed.
Cani also holds the world record for the highest wing load (the weight of the jumper divided by the area of the canopy). A wing load of 2.0 is considered extreme-he jumped with a 4.6.
"That was about three or four years ago," he says. "I don't think I would take that risk anymore."
Not everyone takes the sport to such an extreme, but there are a few. People like Celeste A. Campo, who didn't think of skydiving as a career until the market crashed and she lost her job as an investment banker. "It's a big step, because I had a house with bedrooms and bathrooms," says Campo, who now lives in a trailer close to Perris Valley Skydiving in Riverside County.
"You come home and maybe the power's been out or something, the air conditioning's not on. You kind of miss the luxuries. But I would say I'm happier. I feel better just in general."
Campo has modest goals. She's planning to compete in the National Skydiving Championships this October as part of an all-female, four-person team. It will be her first big competition.
"We're not going out there to take a medal," she says. "We're just going out there to get used to competing."
Then there are people like me, who find themselves at the open door of a piece of machinery hurtling through the air, looking down at the earth from an altitude of 13,000 feet. Strapped to Jumpmaster Mike in a rather submissive position, there's no time to get nervous as we tumble from the plane and into the open air. It's a different perspective of the world, and one that anyone can experience.
As Cani points out, "It's all about the dream of flight."The USPA National Skydiving Championships take place from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3 at Perris Valley Skydiving, 2091 Goetz Road. in Perris. 800-832-8818. (www.skydiveperris.com)