"Excuse me, while I kiss the sky"


From the song Purple Haze, by Jimi Hendrix,

a former US Army paratrooper.


 I have always wondered if the above lyric had its roots in Hendrix's jumping. He was discharged from the Army after a year due to an injury, but he did jump. The more popular interpretation is that it refers to being sky high on drugs, but I prefer the parachuting explanation. Hendrix died from a drug overdose before he ever explained the origins of the lyric, so one guess is as good as another. I saw him live at the Fillmore in the 60s and really liked his music, particularly "The Wind Cried Mary." He was an incredibly talented and creative guitarist and everyone in his band was a virtuoso as well. 


New Rx goggles

 Old Russian biplane  Falling over Chanute AFB

DC 9-21 jet jump, high speed exit


DC 3 jump. I love DC 3s!!!

RAAF surplus C 130A, built in 1958. Great jumpship.

I have wanted to jump since I was 4 years old. I jumped as soon as turned 18, the minimum legal age and am still doing it forty years later. Every jump is a huge thrill. I never get tired of, jaded or accustomed to freefalling. Try a tandem jump. Many experienced jumpers scoff at tandems, but I don't. You will get the full freefall experience and be harnessed to an expert jumpmaster. Once you experience freefall, it changes you. The sky becomes a different place, with thickness, volume and texture. You will dream about freefall for the rest of your life, even if you have only experienced it once.



Mark's skydiving history

First jump 1968. Still active.




ARR 15 receivers, 1950s vintage




musings on my childhood addiction to electronics 

also with some recent amateur radio stuff





ART 13 transmitter, WW 2 vintage


In the air since 1968 

On the air since 2008


I was born to jump. I started making parachutes out of my Mom's scarves and launching my toy soldiers at age 4. By age 7, I was making chutes out of bedsheets and clothesline and jumping off our garage. At age 12 my family stopped at a DZ in Calistoga CA. I had never seen skydiving before. I was HOOKED! The jumpers were nice to me and tolerated endless "kid" questions about their gear, training and freefall. After about 30 minutes my parents and three brothers grew tired of the DZ and wanted to leave. I BEGGED them to stay and got another hour of hanging out with real skydivers. One of them told me that I should be patient, wait until I was 18 and then come back and jump with them.

not me, but that's often how I looked walking to school

I was also crazy about airplanes as a kid. When I walked to elementary school, I often had my arms outstretched like wings, imagining I was flying. I wasn't crazy about Cessnas, military fighters or bombers but rather those big noisy prop transports that flew right over my neighborhood every day on their way to land at SFO. I don't think a single propliner ever flew within earshot without getting an upward look from me. For some reason the DC 4s, 6s, 7s, Constellations, Stratocruisers and other propliners of the 1950s absolutely fascinated me and still do. I longed to fly in one, but my family had no extra money for such frivolities as air travel and I remained grounded until adulthood. Later, when I had enough money to fly in a propliner, they were all gone. I never dreamed that skydiving would allow me to ride in some of these planes long after they disappeared from airline service. It was like a dream come true.

Transocean Stratocruiser

I used to take public transit to the Oakland Airport North Field which still had a bunch of semi derelict propliners sitting on the tarmac well into the 1960s. I just liked looking at the old planes and hanging out. There was lots to see back then before 9-11. The unfenced fire dump had a Lockheed Connie carcass and you could walk around inside it.  Radial engines were often tested on an outside test stand with earsplitting noise and flaming exhausts. A contractor was overhauling T 33 jets for the USAF and the work was done right next to the fence. Once a guard let me inside the fence to peek inside an old Transocean Stratocruiser (my favorite derelict) that had been sitting unused for years. The seats had been removed but otherwise it appeared complete and almost ready to fly. It appeared that the old Strat was getting some mechanical attention that day. Perhaps my optimistic outlook was skewing the picture and I was really just witnessing a pre-scrapping inspection. The plane seemed like a living thing to me and I dearly hoped that it would not be slaughtered. I always wondered what happened to that beautiful plane. Not even one Stratocruiser survives today so it was either scrapped or perhaps converted into a Guppy (oversized cargo plane based on a Strat airframe) giving it a few more years of flight.


Boeing Super Guppy

Highly modified Boeing 377 Stratocruiser (civil) or C 97 (military)


I took my skydiving ground school classes at this airport at Stevens Paraloft in 1968. Perry Stevens was a great teacher who emphasized safety and cautioned against taking unnecessary risks. He gave our class case studies of skydiving fatalities and drilled into us how each could have been prevented. He suspended us in a harness and projected slides on the ceiling showing various canopy problems. He would spin us, shake us and yell at us calling out descending altitude numbers and telling us that we'd be dead in ten seconds unless we made the right decisions and acted on them immediately.  When I faced my first canopy malfunction, Perry's training paid off. Everything he taught popped back into my head fueled by massive adrenaline flow and fear. It is scary looking up, expecting to see an open canopy and seeing a mess. Even under stress I fortunately made all the right decisions and made them quickly. I survived my first skydiving emergency because of Perry's excellent training. I am forever indebted to him.

At the risk of sounding like an old geezer,  static line first jump training was much more rigorous back in the day. I had to go to a week of night classes lasting several hours each before I was cleared for my first jump. Today, the few DZs that start your skydive training with static line jumps just give a short morning class and then you jump.

Static line jump. Line attached to plane extracts the chute.

Freefall training, however, is far better today than it was back then. When I was cleared for transition to freefall in 1968, there was no such thing as a tandem jump or AFF (accelerated free fall) training. There was a buddy system used by skydiving pioneer Bob Sinclair to help TV night show host Johnny Carson make his first freefall jump, but it was experimental and not used by any DZs in my area.  You were simply told to exit the plane, arch your back and try to stay stable. You were completely on your own in freefall. I got into wild spins, flips and all sorts of unstable positions before I got the knack, but I persevered. It was scary to be wildly tumbling, unable to stabilize and coming down fast to your pull altitude. Several times I had to pull my ripcord while I was tumbling and just hoped that the chute would deploy OK. It did, more than once.

After seven tries I finally I "got" it. All it took was to finally just loosen up, relax, feel the air and literally "go with the flow." On my prior jumps I got scared at the first signs of instability and tightened up, making it immediately worse. Now, just by relaxing, I could instinctively fly my body in stable freefall. It was such an amazing thing to be able to turn, flip, and dive at will without tumbling wildly. I remember that day vividly. Up until then, I felt like a clumsy apprentice who had not mastered his craft and perhaps never would. When I landed after my first stable freefall, I felt like I had arrived, that I could finally call myself a skydiver. I was walking on air. Today, new freefall students exit with a couple of instructors holding onto them and assisting them in getting stable. This AFF method is clearly superior to "throw the kid out of the plane by himself and hope he figures it out" method that was used on me.

Once you learn it, falling stable is like riding a bicycle. It comes back quickly. This was shot over Rantoul Illinois in 2005. Falling among (and sometimes even through) puffy cumulus clouds is a real thrill. You never become tired of it or take it as routine. The red and white pouch hanging from my chest strap houses a hook knife for cutting suspension lines should it be necessary. Possible situations which would require use of a knife are tangles, entanglement with another jumper's canopy,  or cutting one or two of your own suspension lines to restore symmetry if others have broken. Usually your best bet if facing a serious canopy problem is to initiate an immediate cutaway and deploy your reserve chute. A cutaway doesn't require use of the knife. You just pull a handle and your main canopy is jettisoned. It was much more difficult to do a cutaway with the old surplus gear I used to jump. It was a more complex multi-step procedure which was time consuming. Time is altitude and altitude is your most precious commodity when facing a skydiving emergency. You cannot procrastinate in skydiving. Decisiveness is an essential attribute. Your life literally depends on your ability to make quick and correct decisions under high stress situations. Many experienced skydivers have died because they waited just a few seconds too long to make the cutaway decision. Many skydivers would do anything to avoid using their reserve, including trying to land a canopy which has marginal controllability. Not me. If my main canopy has a control problem I am not going to gamble on being able to land it safely. I'll cutaway and deploy my reserve. Some jumpers hesitate because you can lose expensive gear when you do a cutaway. When I did my first cutaway I was relatively poor and my gear wasn't worth much. Even if I had lost my main chute it wouldn't have been a big deal. Now that I have more money and better gear a cutaway could cost me close to $2000 in a lost main canopy, lost reserve pilot chute and freebag and repacking costs. Still, I don't hesitate on economic grounds. I feel so bad for those jumpers who hesitated too long, thought they could land a malfunctioning main and decided to do a cutaway way too late when they realized the main actually wasn't safe to land. They didn't have enough altitude to allow full reserve inflation and died on impact.

In addition to my childhood fascination with airplanes, I was also intrigued by radio. The fact that a box of interconnected electrical components would allow communication without wires over long distances simply amazed and astounded me. To me, radio had a mystique to it. It seemed impossible, yet it existed. You couldn't feel, taste or hear radio waves, but they were there. They could travel through walls which seemed like something out of a science fiction story. To top off the miracle, the radio waves traveled at the speed of light, as fast as anything could possibly travel in this universe. 

I am pretty sure my radio obsession started in nursery school at age 4. Back in the 1950s, war surplus material was still in great abundance and the government freely dispensed it to schools and other public institutions. My nursery school was given a pile of army radio transmitters which I can now identify as BC 604 tank radios.

Army surplus BC 604 tank radio transmitter.

                                              Dissected by me using screwdriver and pliers at age  4.


They were brand new and visually fascinating inside. They were placed outdoors near our sandbox and we were given pliers and screwdrivers should we want to disassemble any mechanical parts. It is a shame that todays concerns about liability would preclude a similar adventure for young children. I went to work immediately taking things apart. The resistors had colored bands around them which was a code identifying their specifications.There were chromed push buttons on the front panel which engaged a geared rack which rotated a tuning capacitor to ten preset positions. The sets had a dynamotor which was a DC electric motor and a high voltage DC generator on a common shaft around which bright copper wires were woven in a fascinating pattern forming field coils. There was a meter, toggle switches and many other components which I proceeded to thoroughly investigate, even breaking things open to see how they worked. After a few days the other kids tired of the radios and I had the pile all to myself. I kept "working" on them for the remainder of the school year. My attachment to radio was cemented early and it never went away. 

The North Field at Oakland airport was an oasis for me, a place where I could quench my thirst for planes, radios and atmosphere. I used to rummage around the various used and surplus electronics and avionics businesses that thrived in the low rent run down wooden buildings that were scattered about the airport perimeter.



one man's junk, another man's treasure


need a meter?


They were full of junk and gems, and the line between the two was thin and flexible depending on who was making the appraisal. Their inventory ranged from beat up WW2 radios with missing parts to pristine communication and radar gear that Uncle Sam had declared surplus before it was even unpacked from the manufacturers crates. I was polite, didn't bother the owners and even straightened up a few parts bins that other customers had made a mess of. As a result I was welcomed in all of the places even though I usually had only enough money for bus fare home. Once I needed tubes for my Hallicrafters shortwave receiver and had enough cash to buy them, but the owner of the place insisted that I just take them free. He had also seen me eying a nice USAF multimeter that had a price tag of $10 on it. He told me that he was tired of seeing it on the shelf and that I could have it for $1. I was thrilled. I now had a piece of test gear and could start fixing things. I eventually built up a small after school business fixing radios and later TVs.

I had a paper route and inserted a mimeographed sheet into every paper advertising my repair services. At first business was slow, but once word got out that I could actually fix things at low prices, the work rolled in. I got really good at cheap radio and TV repairs if that's all the customer could afford. I used paper and glue to restore torn speaker cones. I rewound burnt out power transformers. I pulled good used tubes and parts from unrepairable TV and radio carcasses.

My paper route and repair business spanned two adjacent cities that differed hugely in economics. Atherton was a wealthy town and Redwood City, especially in my area, was not. Back in the 50s and 60s every supermarket had a self service vacuum tube tester and stock of replacement tubes in a locked cabinet below it. Poor people would try to do their own troubleshooting. They almost always tested their own tubes and replaced the bad ones before seeking expert repair. If the set owner didn't know how to remove and test tubes, usually a neighbor did. Money was tight and they were resourceful in fixing things. Rich people just didn't do this. Instead they used the services of a repairman. As a result, I rarely got easy tube swapping repair jobs from poor people. I had a tougher time collecting from rich people than I did from poor ones. I always got paid, but some rich people would have me come back several times saying that they had no cash on them. Poor people just paid me on the spot and that was that. I guess it all balanced out. I got a lot of easy repair work from wealthy people but collections were tougher. The repair jobs for poor people almost always involved difficult under-chassis troubleshooting, but collecting payment was easy.


Self service tube testers

These were common in supermarkets during the 50s and 60s


I got a big boost in business when a local picture tube distributor who was amused at having a kid as a cash customer cut me a really great deal. He would sell me any black and white picture tube in his rebuilt inventory for $17.95, with no minimums. I think he was just trying to help me out and was selling at close to his cost. He also saw color TV on the horizon and this was a good way to sell out his black and white tube inventory. The rebuilds were good and I never had one come back with a problem. That deal allowed me to offer a high quality rebuilt black and white picture tube installed for $35 complete. A new picture tube in an older set usually made a huge improvement in the viewed TV images. Word spread fast. I got tons of customers for that deal and actually turned away business so I didn't have to spend every weekend doing repairs. I was proud of my business. I sold real rebuilt picture tubes in which the vacuum was released, glass neck opened up, electron gun and filament assemblies replaced and the phosphor screen recoated if necessary. Then, the tube was evacuated in a vacuum chamber  and sealed with molten glass. Other places were pawning off "rejuvenated" or "reconditioned" picture tubes which were just old picture tubes which had their filament voltages temporarily boosted to burn off oxide coatings and increase electron emission. Others sold customers a device called a picture tube booster which was simply an inline transformer that permanently boosted the picture tube filament voltage giving tired old picture tunes a brighter image for a short time. The boosters usually washed out contrast and were a poor substitute for a new or rebuilt tube.  I always gave my customers a choice, new or used parts. I charged very little for used parts, typically 10% of new prices since they cost me almost nothing. I gave written estimates and always stuck to them even if I lost money on the deal. I gave myself some headroom in the estimates for the unforeseen and this usually resulted in the bill being less than the estimate. That made customers very happy.

I learned a lot about business from doing radio and TV repairs. Most repairmen carried huge tube inventories and had portable boxes called tube caddies which they would bring on house calls. I did not build up an inventory of anything besides solder, some common resistors and capacitors and a few very commonly used tubes. I  was making a steady profit, but I put the cash into a college saving account rather than buying a large parts inventory. Radio Shack really shook things up in the 60s by selling house branded tubes that carried a lifetime guarantee which they really honored. Quite a few customers insisted that I use Radio Shack tubes, but I often dissuaded them. The Shack tubes were actually inferior to GE, Sylvania and RCA.  They just had a better guarantee. The only Shack tubes I used were horizontal sweep tubes because they were run hard in many TV designs. Consequently, they failed often enough that a lifetime guarantee had some real value. I had a great electronics supply store in town and they held "my" inventory at no cost.  Tubes had great longevity for the most part and I dont recall replacing many tubes a second time. My time was cheap, I was just a kid so a bicycle trip to the parts store after school was no big deal. Big things like picture tubes needed a car to transport. My parents helped with that problem on weekends. They were proud of my repair work and supported it.

                      A well stocked "tube caddy" from the 1960s. I had a much smaller tube inventory.




The picture tube replacement work was boring but profitable. It was really a mechanical job not an electronic one. I preferred solving the difficult circuit diagnosis problems, called "tough dogs" by the professional radio-TV repair techs. I once spent more than 24 hours troubleshooting a tough dog TV that two other repair guys had given up on. I only charged the customer for one hour because that's all they could afford. I learned a lot about electronics from fixing "tough dogs." I was given another tough dog TV that I never could fix. I am embarrassed to say how many hours I spent trying. It was like a war between me and that broken TV. I was not going to surrender. It had multiple complex problems. I solved problem after problem only to find more revealed. In the end I realized that it had become an obsession rather than a rational pursuit and gave up. Up to that point, I assumed that I could fix just about anything if given the tech documents and enough time. I now knew that was not true. I rationalized my repair failure by telling myself that the set probably took a lightning hit through the antenna which cooked most of the circuit components, but I knew in my heart it wasn't true. It was a local set and we never had any serious thunderstorms. I salvaged a lot of good parts from the carcass of that horrible beast and I must say it gave me considerable pleasure to cut it up.

I also learned a life lesson working on sets that had prior repair histories. Many times an owner would show me a prior repair bill that detailed major work and replacement of expensive parts. When I got into the set it was obvious that the work detailed and billed had never been done. It woke me up to the harsh realities of business. I was naive before, but this brought me into the real world. It saddened me, because one of the phony bills I saw was from a TV repairman who I had previously held in high esteem. I never would have thought him to be dishonest, but I had concrete proof that he was. It made me start thinking about people and what motivates them to act in certain ways. Why was he cheating and overcharging his customers? Did he have a gambling habit? Was he having an affair? Was he a drug addict? Or, was it just plain greed and nothing more? If I had to guess on which local repairman would have been crooked, this guy would have been last on my list. He was polite, well spoken, attended church and was considered a good citizen by all who knew him. The guy who I'd have put at the top of the suspects list was a heavy drinker, swore like a sailor, was unkempt, caroused, had a bad temper and just seemed "shifty". Turns out that my number one suspect was scrupulously honest and was also a top flight technician who did beautiful repairs. When I saw how neat his repairs were I upped my own quality. It was all so puzzling to me. It made me realize I was still just a kid emotionally.There were things about people that I didn't yet understand. I just kept my mouth shut and my eyes open as I entered the adult business world at age 12.

Back in my youth there were technical publications called SAMS Photofacts that were written by astute technicians on just about every radio and TV ever made. Each model had its own Photofact, a folder of about ten pages with schematic circuit diagrams, scope waveforms and repair tips. They were great troubleshooting guides and made diagnosis easy in most cases. The local SAMS distributor liked me and let me look at and take notes from any Photofact  I wanted to, saving me the expense of buying one for every set I repaired. I only bought the ones that covered very popular sets since I would be making frequent use of them.

When I finally found a cheap triggered sweep oscilloscope (it needed repair, but I knew the repair would be easy and it was), my repair times went way down. It was a Tektronix scope and was beautiful inside. All the components were mounted on aligned strips making it easy to diagnose and repair any problems. It was big and used a LOT of vacuum tubes.

My scope was a different model but similar. This is a 535 Tek Scope.

You could warm a room with that scope and I did. I could now trace electrical waveforms and actually "see" what a circuit was doing. I repaired my last TV for a customer in 1967, the year I graduated from high school. As a result of my repair work, window washing and janitorial work at the local mall, a paper route, summer work on commercial fishing boats and various odd jobs, I had saved up a pretty good nest egg for college.

I headed for college in 1967 intending to become an electrical engineer. I figured I had a big head start having learned about electronics from my repair work. Boy, was I wrong! EE training at a big university turned out to be 99% math and 1% actually working with circuits. I just put my head to the grindstone and toughed it out. What I lacked in talent I made up in stamina. I saw a lot of kids become discouraged and drop out of engineering, but I was not a quitter. I made a promise to myself that I would complete the program no matter what. There were times when I cursed that promise, but I kept it.

Being an engineering student was grueling, but I did learn a lot about physics, math and circuit theory. I was usually up past midnight working on problem sets. The liberal arts students were often partying while the EEs slaved away. I sometimes  wondered if I had picked the wrong major, but despite all the hard work, I did have fun in college. On the whole, it was a great experience. I had a wonderful girlfriend and great house mates who remain friends to this day. It wasn't all work and no play. It was just that engineering students seemed to get a smaller slice of the fun pie than the history or poli sci majors did. How do you spell jealous?

I worked hard, got good grades and graduated with honors. The kids who were true geniuses did just as well and better with far less effort than I had expended.  In the end it worked out just fine. I was able to combine engineering with another profession which resulted in a very interesting and rewarding career. Even though I do not have an engineering job title these days, I can't resist tinkering with circuit ideas. I have made a few inventions that my employers have patented, mostly in the field of implantable heart defibrillator circuits.

One of our house mates in college who was a true genius, died before he could realize the tremendous potential that he had. Mario Aycinena was a good friend from day one of college. He was a science major and could ace math and physics finals without even studying. He understood quantum mechanics and its associated math intuitively. His razor sharp intellect allowed him to lead the fun life of a liberal arts major while pursuing a degree in science. He went to England shortly after graduating to visit his girlfriend who was touring the UK. Mario stepped off a London sidewalk and absent mindedly looked the wrong way for oncoming traffic. He was struck by a car and suffered massive and unrecoverable brain damage leaving him in a coma. He was taken off the respirator a few days later by his father, a physician, in what must have been the most difficult thing he had ever done as a doctor or a parent. I felt just as sorry for Mario's Dad and I did for him. I miss Mario to this day and so do all of my college house mates. I often wonder what amazing things he would have done in science or medicine, the careers he was pondering before his death. I am positive that he would have made a major contribution to any field he worked in. He was that smart.

Remembering the Calistoga skydiver's invitation to join them when I turned 18, I counted the days for six subsequent years. By the time I was 18, the Calistoga DZ was gone, but I had joined the sport of skydiving right on schedule. When I think about some of the gear compromises I made to get into the air with almost no money, it scares me. Sure, some new jumpers get free hand me down gear from friends who skydive, but I entered the sport without knowing any jumpers. I doubt if any skydiver ever spent less on gear than I did. My first rig, main, reserve, container, jumpsuit and helmet cost me $50. I had it inspected by an FAA licensed master parachute rigger who pronounced it airworthy, but added "I'd never jump this old junk." The inspection cost half as much as the gear did. 

Back then I could go up to 4500 ft for $5 at Livermore CA in a beat up Aeronca Sedan known as The Rat. Once in a while I would splurge and spend $12 to go to 12,500 ft in a twin engined Beech 18. The Beech 18 had no name, we just called it The Beech. Some pronounced its name as rhyming with witch. It was no showpiece. It was dented and scratched, leaked lots of oil, and would look more at home is a desert boneyard than at a busy airport. Looks aside, it flew well and was rarely down for mechanical problems. It was amazing to see how fast ten jumpers could exit through that small passenger door. They were all out in just a couple of seconds. Exiting close together was essential in building a free fall formation. If the last jumpers were a few seconds late on their exit, the first ones out would be far below them and valuable freefall time would be lost catching up. The push out the door from those behind you was so intense that sometimes injuries occurred as someone mashed or even broke a finger as they were shoved out the narrow door. You learned to keep your hands directly in front of you.

I had two close calls in the Beech. On one jump run someone had made a mistake in spotting (visually calculating) the exit point. The go signal was given but a jumper saw that we were too far from the DZ and balked at the door. The pile up of jumpers behind him shifted the center of gravity too far back and the plane began a pre stall buffet. I yelled at the guys behind me to go forward and they did, as the pilot was screaming bloody murder. After that incident he flew his jump runs 20 knots faster to give him a better stall margin. We hated it because it gave us a rougher exit. A stall with too many jumpers at the back of the plane can be fatal as recovery isn't possible and the centrifugal forces in the ensuing spin can keep jumpers pinned inside the plane even with an open door only a few feet away. That stall and unrecoverable spin scenario has happened more than once in skydiving. http://www.ntsb.gov/Recs/letters/1994/A94_20_23.pdf

In the second close call we were climbing to 12,500 ft over the Livermore CA hills when for an instant, the cabin went dark. A Navy P3 Orion had flown right over the top of us on our course not more than 50 feet above us. Our pilot claimed 10 feet, but I caught a glance of the departing P3 through the cockpit windows and it looked more like 30-40 feet to me. You could actually smell his propjet exhaust in our cabin and we got slammed around a few seconds later by his wake turbulence. Our pilot was screaming again, this time to air traffic controllers in Oakland. I don't know whose fault it was, but we came dangerously close to a midair collision.

When the Cal Club DZ at Livermore shut down, I migrated to Pope Valley Parachute Ranch near Lake Berryessa CA. Pope Valley was the coolest DZ I have ever been to. They had a resident Twin Beech and Cessna 180, and often got visits from propliners such as a DC 3 or Lockheed Lodestar. Pope Valley DZ is just a memory now, but a sweet one. As land values rise, DZs struggle to survive. The latest SF Bay Area DZ to succumb was Adrenaline Air DZ at Sonoma County Airport near Santa Rosa CA. I liked jumping at that busy airport where you'd see an occasional airliner and many exec jets in the pattern. We landed just outside the perimeter fence. Lord help you if you landed on the airport itself. We'd share our beer at sundown with the ATC guys who had ended their tower shift. That helped keep the peace with the factions that wanted jumping banned at the airport. The controllers enjoyed the challenge of coordinating ballistic missiles (skydivers) taking up 10,000 ft of vertical airspace right on the edge of their busy runways. They were real pros and did a great job.

I loved the Sonoma County airport in the summer as it was a CDF Air Tanker base. There were often fires in the area and that meant frequent visits from P2V Neptunes, S 2 Trackers, P3A Orions, DC 4s, C 130As and once in a while even a DC 7 air tanker. I am a propliner fan and really soaked up the atmosphere when the tankers came to town. My interest was so great that I would sometimes skip a jump just to watch the action. There is no sound on earth like a heavily loaded P2V7 Neptune roaring down the runway with two Wright 3350 radials and two GE J 36 turbojets at full takeoff power. Acoustic magic!

P2V5 Neptune fire tanker with piston and jet power playing a symphony with flame fed rotating and reciprocating combustive instruments.



Once I was amazed to see a tiny older woman with white hair climb down from an S2 Tracker as it was being tanked up with fuel and fire retardant. She looked like my grandmother yet here she was single piloting a balky Grumman S2 through the most hellish flying conditions encountered outside of combat. So much for stereotypes. I remember another incident which challenged my gender based stereotype thinking. I was 10 years old, building a B 17G model airplane. A woman friend of my Mom's was visiting and remarked: "oh, that's a G model. I flew those." I was puzzled at how a woman could tell a G from any other B 17 model, but was downright dumbfounded about why my Mom's friend would lie about flying B 17s. They were big four engined bombers flown by men. Everybody knew that.  Her statement made no sense to me at all so I wrote it off. I just grunted "uh huh" and went on building my model. Dumb kid, I didn't know about the WAAF ferry pilots. Turned out that she flew many different WW2 bomber aircraft during the war on delivery flights from the factories to Maine where there were taken over by male pilots for the trip to the UK. Unfortunately I found out about all that after she had passed away. Now I listen with less scepticism than I had when I was 10. You just never know who someone might be and what they have experienced in life. Years later I was in Bodega Bay CA refueling a commercial fishing boat that I was skippering. The fuel dock man in greasy coveralls noticed an aviation magazine lying on a hatch cover. There was a B 47 Stratojet bomber on the cover. "I used to fly B 47s" he said. This time, hopefully not just because he was a man, I believed him and inquired further. He was a retired USAF Lt. Col. and had indeed been a B 47 pilot with a lot of interesting tales to tell.

I jumped "boat anchor" surplus parachute gear exclusively for many years. It worked. It was dirt cheap. I had grown accustomed to the brutal landings and knew how to roll with it. My main chute was a USAF 28 ft C9 jet ejection canopy made in 1952 and my reserve was a USN 26 ft conical made in 1956. The landings under that tired porous C9 were hard, really hard. At least it looked good. The canopy was bright orange and white with alternating panels. Although quite porous from the many jumps made prior to my ownership, it had no rips or patches and I was proud of it. I stuck with that gear until it was laughed at and hopelessly obsolete. I am pretty sure I was the last guy to jump a surplus round at Pope Valley DZ in CA. The PCs (PC=Paracommander, a commercial round canopy) had already come and gone. There I was in a sky full of square ram air canopies with my old surplus round C9. It was like a model T running in a NASCAR race. Fortune smiled on me and I lived long enough to get a good career going and eventually buy decent gear.


Top: Boeing C 97G Stratofreighter, surplus ex USAF, dropping skydivers. Reportedly seized later for smuggling. This fate has befallen many an old propliner. Their low capital cost and big payload capacity makes them attractive to smugglers.

Bottom: Lockheed 1049 Super Constellation dropping skydivers. Presently dormant in Kansas City, but fully airworthy. I really hope she flies again.

Both are planes I long to jump from, but it's not likely. Insurance companies balk at covering liability for such operations or quote unreasonably high prices. Owners who used to charter their big propliners for skydive events no longer do so. I consider myself lucky to have jumped from four rare four engined propliners: A B 24 WW 2 bomber, C 54G ex USAF cargo plane, C130A ex Australian military tactical freighter and ATL 98 oversized cargo freighter.


Modern ram air canopies will give you tip toe feather soft landings if you flare them properly and that's what I jump now. My main is a Triathlon 190 (sq ft). It is a versatile but conservative canopy known more for reliability and stability in turbulence than it is for canopy aerobatics. My reserve is a Performance Designs 193 (sq ft). The PD reserves are acknowledged to be tops in quality and reliability. I tested my luck with a cheap surplus reserve and came out OK, but now I am not looking for the cheapest reserve chute, just the best.

Close calls? Not really. I have had two malfunctions in 40 years. I cut away from my malfunctioning main canopy both times and came down safely under my reserve chute. In both cases I was under a fully open reserve chute by 1500 ft. which is how it is supposed to go. On the first cutaway, in the early 70's, my reserve was my $25 US Navy surplus 26 foot conical canopy. On the second, in 2005, I came down under my $900 ram air PD 193 reserve canopy. Regardless of cost, when I needed them, both were priceless. Custom requires that you buy your rigger (the FAA licensed person who inspects and packs your reserve) a bottle of his favorite liquor when a reserve he packed saves you. Both times the requests were modest and identical: a bottle of Cuervo Gold Tequila. I would have bought a $100 bottle of champagne without a bit of regret had they asked.


                                          Mark, in blue jumpsuit, exiting from C 54G over Quincy Illinois

I love old propliner transport aircraft.  This one (an ex USAF C 54G) that showed up at the 1999 World Free Fall Convention (WFFC) was a true classic.  I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and made jump after jump after jump from this beauty. I think I made every C 54 load but one.

I got to know the crew and invited them out to dinner. We spent the evening talking propliners, a subject that interested them as much as it did me. To some pilots,  flying this tired aluminum is a hassle. They'd rather be flying a  747  or a Gulfstream 4 and taking home the big bucks. These people were different, they were aerial nomads going wherever they could make a dollar. This crew truly loved their magnificent propliner and had no jet jealousy at all.

On the next load and all subsequent ones, I was allowed to ride in the cockpit after the loadmaster gave the OK to release seat belts at about 1000 ft.  I was in heaven being up front where all the action was.  My cockpit position meant that I was last out.  Normally that would put you far from the DZ, but my buddies in the cockpit took that into account and the jumpers first out were the furthest from the DZ.  I exited a lot closer to the DZ than they did.  

This gorgeous plane was owned and skippered by Jim Blumenthal, a DC 4 expert.  He has restored many DC 4s. Most vintage transports like this are tired and in need of many repairs, upgrades and overhauls, but Jim's plane ran like a Swiss watch.  Everything worked. Vintage transports like this normally have INOP placards all over the place indicating that a placarded system, radio or instrument not flight essential is inoperative. I spied no INOP placards.  Even the surplus Collins 618T vacuum tube HF radio worked.  Jim  arrived at the WFFC  event with a spare engine, spare wheels,  spare starter etc. This plane was very self sufficient and had  a cargo winch and rotating boom that allowed heavy items to be loaded and unloaded through the spacious rear cargo door.  Only the spare starter was needed and was swapped in 40 minutes to replace a balky one on the number two engine.

The dispatch reliability of this ancient plane was truly remarkable. Jim later sold this plane and it is currently a "freight dog"  flying cargo in Alaska. Nobody will pamper her like Jim did but hopefully she will be well cared for. Jim still owns a C 123K ex USAF cargo plane with two R 2800 recips and two turbojets. The C 123 is used mostly for parachute test work performed by govt contractors.

For more photos of propliner jumpships, click on the link below:



Skydiving is a dangerous sport so I do everything I can to minimize the risk. It has been said that when you take that first step out of the plane, you will know in less than two minutes whether you will live or die. That can be said about any activity or about any moment in your life, but it takes on a more immediate feeling in skydiving. Some skydivers really like the macho death cheating aspects of the sport and celebrate it. These types favor skulls and grim reapers on their tatoos and t-shirts. They recite all sorts of death themed slogans such as : every weekend I commit suicide, then chicken out at 2500 feet. One of skydivings most classic chants, repeated hundreds of times in jump aircraft every weekend, is: BLUE SKY, BLACK DEATH. Seen below is a very popular skydiving t-shirt with those words and a grim image:


artwork by Guy MacLachlan 


I don't have any reaper or skull tattoos. I'd actually like skydiving more if it had less risk because then, you could let down your guard a little bit. You just can't do that in skydiving. One little detail which is overlooked can be fatal. Jumpers have been killed by grommets on their rig that were not set tight and flush against the underlying nylon. Jumpers have been killed by a $2 loop of nylon cord called a closing loop that got a little bit too loose. The tiniest little details are critical and you ignore them at your peril. Just having a reserve is no guarantee you will live. There are certain kinds of main canopy malfunctions (i.e. horseshoes) that dramatically reduce your chances of a successful reserve deployment. Skydivers may act very nonchalant in a public setting, but these same jumpers will obsess over the tiniest detail when they are inspecting or packing their gear. If you are nonchalant about your gear it will kill you. Things wear, chafe, fray, loosen and you have to stay on top of it. The law only requires that an FAA licensed parachute rigger inspect and pack your reserve canopy. Your main canopy is up to you. Even though it isn't required, I pay a rigger to do periodic inspections of everything, including my main chute. They are seasoned pros and sometimes spot problems that an amateur might miss. They also stay on top of service bulletins, recalls and general gossip about gear problems. You literally trust your life to your rigger as he (or she, there are a few women riggers) inspects and packs your last chance to stay alive, your reserve chute.


a potentially deadly horseshoe malfunction



http://tinyurl.com/4vfsax   link to info on parachute malfunctions

Skydiving is risky so the best I can do is manage the risks as carefully as I can.  I fly with two visual altimeters, two audible altimeters (they beep when you get below preset alert altitudes), a reserve static line (deploys your reserve as you cut away from your main) and an AAD (automatic opening device) which fires an explosive squib to deploy your reserve if you pass through 700 ft at a descent speed higher than 70 mph. I've never needed any of this extra safety stuff, but why not have it just in case? I have pretty good judgment now, but I don't think I did in my earlier days

When I started jumping in 1968 I had very little extra spending money. I did have money in the bank, but I had budgeted it for my college education and couldn't spend it on a hobby.  In the beginning, I did some  things that testify to my youthful immaturity, like jumping worn out military surplus gear. It wasn't unsafe, but it was sure less safe than more modern commercial gear. My surplus main chute landed really hard. The descent rate and ground impact seemed like what I'd experience if I were jumping from a platform about 12 feet above the ground. It was a miracle that I didn't break some bones. I got really good at PLFs (parachute landing falls), a  paratrooper technique in which you collapse and roll to distribute the landing shock over a large area of your body. The fact that I had no landing injuries testifies to the effectiveness of my PLFs. 

Modern commercial gear cost at least 20 times what I paid for my surplus gear. I should have just waited until I could afford the good stuff, but oh no, I was 18 and I was going to jump RIGHT NOW. I was on a mission. There was simply no stopping me. I had no altimeter in the early days. They cost about $35 and I viewed it as non essential. I could buy seven jumps for $35 so why buy a non essential piece of gear? DUHHHH. I just counted out seconds in my head. I got REALLY good at judging altitude by sight using automobiles as my standard. Even if my altimeters (I now jump with two) were to fail, I would be deploying my chute at the right altitude. To this day I know exactly what a car looks like at 2500 feet.  


                                                                   Mark exiting Antonov 2 biplane


This Russian biplane arrived at the 2005 World Free Fall Convention (WFFC) and ran into immediate FAA hassles.  They were skirted by forming the "AN2 Demonstration Jump Club" and selling memberships rather than tickets in order to jump.  I guess this avoided the "carrying passengers for hire" issue. This plane had a big radial engine and was slow, but fun. I still have my club t-shirt. Reportedly, these skytruck planes are still being manufactured. Our AN2 had fabric covered wings.


                                                  Mark next to AN 2 Russian biplane 2005 WFFC


The smoke in the top photo is not an engine fire. The plane has a system which can inject an oil spray into the exhaust to produce thick white smoke on demand. At WFFC most planes drop jumpers above 14,000 ft. The AN 2 would take forever to get that high so our exit altitude was 6000 ft. The smoke made us highly visible to the air boss on the ground  and to the planes above. This  helped minimize conflicts. 

Have freefalling skydivers ever hit planes? Yes.  In the most publicized incident a freefalling jumper collided with the tail section of a private aircraft that was flying over the DZ (it is not illegal to fly over a DZ). The plane lost control and crashed killing an entire family. The skydiver broke his leg but survived. The skydiver sued the estate of the pilot and won, based on the fact that the pilot was taking a medication that affected his ability to fly.  You Tube has a few videos of near misses. I always wonder why they are called near misses. Near hits seems more accurate.

Sometimes skydivers like to come close to things in freefall, such as clouds or occasionally semi stationary aircraft. I was riding in a hot air balloon at an earlier WFFC event  and heard a roaring sound. Our gas burner was idling which made it very quiet. We could even hear dogs barking nearly a mile below.  I looked out to see skydivers freefalling past our balloon making a roaring jet-like sound as they rocketed past. I wouldn't try to freefall close to a balloon, too easy to misjudge relative positions.

In the old days when we were jumping DC 3s, Beech 18s, Lockheed Lodestars and similar vintage propliners. We used to joke that when they were too beat up for the airlines, the cargo haulers bought em. When they were too beat up for the cargo haulers, the dope smugglers bought em. When they were too beat up to run drugs, they became jumpships. There were a few times taking off on a hot summer day (hot air degrades wing lift and engine performance), when I really worried that if we lost an engine we would not be able to maintain level flight much less climb. I am not a pilot, but I am sure we exceeded max gross weight many times. In hindsight, I should have sat out those rides and waited for cooler temperatures later in the day. In more recent times, I have wisely declined a few lifts in old piston powered aircraft when conditions were marginal (e.g. short runway, high air temp., heavy load). Some of those loads barely (and I mean BARELY) cleared treetops on takeoff and climbed ever so slowly. One engine hiccup and they would have been in serious trouble. Now, with modern turboprop jumpships, the aircraft related skydiving risks are much lower.

In 1973 I jumped from a plane that crashed just minutes later, right in front of me, but there was no aircraft problem when I left it. The crash killed our pilot John Lewis, a wonderful guy who I still miss. The FAA/NTSB said he died doing a snap roll with his seat belt unfastened. I have always had a hard time accepting that. He made a low VERY high speed pass right over us as we landed. Next, in an instant, the plane snap rolled right into the ground. The incredibly high roll rate looked more like something you'd see in an F 18 rather than a Cessna 180. I always wondered whether something broke. I was first on the scene and it was horrible, still gives me bad dreams to this day.


Jumpship pilots and skydivers love "buzz jobs", where the plane makes a VERY low pass. I used to think buzz jobs were sooo cool until I saw the one described above go horribly wrong. Now, when I hear one in the making, I try really hard to discourage it. The NTSB/FAA incident reports are full accidents that were related to low altitude show off stuff. If I want to see low level aerobatics I'll go to an airshow, not a dropzone. The average jumpship pilot is often a low time kid working for peanuts trying to build hours for an airline job. I am actually a lot more comfortable with some gray hair in the left seat.  


Mark (lowest) exiting DC 3 N26MA 2004


This plane is a movie star having been in most recent flicks that needed a few DC 3 shots.  It has been in many print ads, commercials and TV shows.  Skip Evans owns and flies her from her Lake Elsinore CA base.  Skip is a DC 3 expert and has owned, flown and restored many examples of this amazing aircraft.  N26MA was a real DC 3, not a military surplus C 47. It was built in the late 1930s! What an amazing design. How many 70 year old aircraft can still earn their keep?

 Rene Devault shot this evening exit scene by falling on his back and shooting up at me (lowest) and Tracy Williams (just leaving plane). My main regret is not having flown from CA to the WFFC event in Illinois aboard her. The DC 3 ride was cheaper than the airline fare, but took several days and I just didn't have the time. I should have made the time.

To illustrate how wild WFFC gets, I recount the following true story: We were flying in this plane (N26MA), heavily loaded, climbing towards a planned jump run at 12,500 ft. It was slow going in the hot afternoon air. I was hanging out up front watching the cockpit crew carefully managing CHT (cylinder head temps). A tall young redheaded girl walks up to the cockpit and asks (well actually shouts, it's loud up there) :  "If I take my top off , will you give us some extra altitude?"  Well... we exited at  15,300 ft, highest I have even flown in a DC 3.  Can you  guess what got us there?  

Most people ask two questions when they learn that I am a skydiver: how many jumps have you made and what's your highest? Although I've been jumping for decades, it's just one hobby of many that I enjoy. As much as I love jumping, it is not a constant "every weekend" obsession. I don't log my jumps any more but I'd guess I have around 500 which is a small number for as many years as I have been in the sport. Many of my cohorts have well over 3000 jumps. One has well over 23,000 jumps, Bill Dause who owns the Lodi DZ (actually located at Acampo but everyone calls it Lodi) CA. 


Mike Mullin's super powerful King Air, our high altitude jumpship. Crew is loading oxygen tanks.


In 2004 I made a couple of jumps from 24,000 ft, breathing oxygen in the plane but exiting without an oxygen "bailout bottle." The jumpship was Mike Mullen's "Rocketship" King Air pictured above. This particular King Air is outfitted with aftermarket engines far more powerful than the ones the Beechcraft factory supplied when they made the plane. Mullen's plane climbs incredibly fast. Mike, an airline pilot and skydiver, treated us to a weightless pushover maneuver that had jumpers floating around the cabin like astronauts in orbit. No extra charge. I wore an oxygen mask during ascent and kept it on until seconds before my exit.  If I had opened right after exit at 24,000 ft I'd probably have gone unconscious from hypoxia. I probably would have been hypothermic too. It was soooo COLD up there even during the summer. My goggles actually iced up and didn't fully clear until I had fallen to warmer altitudes thousands of feet below. Those 24,000 ft jumps were an absolute steal at $48 each, but two jumps was enough to satisfy my curiosity. There are civilian jumpers (including K6MFW, a local ham) who jump from 30,000 ft on occasion, but the high costs ($400-$600 per jump), more complex life support gear and greater risks outweigh the benefits for me. Normal jump altitudes are 14,000 to 15,000 ft and cost about $20. I am a conservative low key weekend fun jumper. I did enter a few local novice skydiving  competitions in my early days. I got a second place trophy in one, but I no longer compete. I do not instruct nor am I licensed to take tandem passengers. I don't make the highest jumps, lowest pulls or flashiest landings. I just have a lot of fun and try to minimize the risks. I have seen hotshots leave the DZ in a body bag. I want to leave in the driver's seat of my car.

Pictured at the top of the webpage is my jump from a rare ATL 98 Carvair over Chanute AFB Rantoul Illinois in 2005. This aerial tramp steamer showed up at the annual World Free Fall Convention (WFFC). I have been going to the WFFC since 1999. The picture of me hanging upside down from Freddy Cabana's Pitts acro biplane was taken at the same event. Freddy is a thrill junkie who flies a 450 mph Sea Fury in the unlimited class at the Reno Air Races. When the convention is going full blast it has over 3000 jumpers and more takeoffs and landings per hour than Chicago's O'Hare Airport. The WFFC planned for 2008 has been canceled. At $4.60+ per gallon for aircraft fuel, getting a fleet to and from the event is cost prohibitive. I am keeping my fingers crossed for 2009.


Pictured here is C 130A  N131EC

Earl Cherry is a well known air show aerobatic pilot who decided to buy a C 130A surplussed from the Royal Australian Air Force tactical cargo fleet. The plane had been sitting in the Arizona desert for some time before he bought it, but she fired right up and flew with very little work. Note the 3 bladed props. This is the only Herc in the world that still uses these early propellers. Earl Cherry reports that  at altitudes below 17,000 ft they are actually more efficient than the four bladed props that superseded them. He has four zero time spare 3 bladed props and accordingly sees no reason to switch to the more modern props which cost a fortune. The plane is ex RAAF cargo bird and is truly IMMACULATE even though it is over FIFTY years old!!! This plane was built in the late 1950s. It is an ideal jumpship if you own a few oil wells and a refinery.

The FAA is always in attendance at WFFC and they see a lot they don't like.  They are up against some clever jumpers however who will not let government bureaucracy stand between them and a rare jumpship opportunity. To legally jump the C 130A we had to all fill out some sort of Screen Actors Guild waiver cards. Cameramen were hired and every jump was filmed for a movie, which of course was never actually produced. We were on the manifest as actors or stuntmen in a movie production.  I think the Herc was licensed for movie work but could not carry passengers for hire.

I desperately wanted to jump the C 130A Herc but was a bit scared having seen recent footage of another A model Herc shedding its wings fighting a forest fire near Yosemite CA. 



I used the Internet to query experts who told me that the wing box structure in the A model was marginal and could not withstand abuse such as overloading or fire fighting where flying heavily loaded in extreme turbulence is normal.  Amazingly,  I was able to establish contact with folks who had records of this very  plane's service in the RAAF. They sent me scans of military maintenance logs/cards showing major wing box inspection and rework by Lockheed shortly before it was sold as surplus. It had never been abused in RAAF service and it had not ever flown as an air tanker. The Lockheed  rework was recent so I took my chances. Obviously nothing bad happened.

This plane stopped coming to WFFC and rumors abounded that it had found lucrative work in the shadowy part of government service. Some reports indicated that it was flying terror suspects to foreign countries on behalf of Uncle Sam in so-called "rendition" work. Others said it was doing clandestine airdrops. The owner did place some ads seeking crew with airdrop experience long after N131EC stopped dropping skydivers, so the second guess might have been right. 

This C 130A Hercules has also been used to test the use of tip tanks in place of the underwing external tanks. Reportedly this gives extra range and improved performance. When I flew on her the mods had not yet been made.

N131EC with tip tank mod, done by Snow Aviation.


I was actually scared during climb to jump altitude on my first Herc jump. It had nothing to do with fear about my jump.  Some kids who were crewing the flight were showing off, nonchalantly walking within inches of the edge of the open tailgate, wearing no chute or safety harness.  It was just teenage machismo, but it literally made me queasy watching it. One bump and bye bye.  I finally had to just look away or I would have lost my lunch.

Below is an exit photo from N131EC, probably the world's oldest flying C 130.

A tragic and terribly sad aspect of the WFFC event is that in every year I have attended, except one, there have been fatalities. It is an eerie, even haunting feeling jumping and socializing with so many happy excited people knowing that a couple of them will not survive the event. Nobody thinks they will die at WFFC, but one or two of them are wrong every year. Ordinary skydivers tend to push the limit when they are in the company of some of the best jumpers in the world. An average jumper trying to emulate the spectacular stunts of a seasoned pro is a surefire recipe for disaster. It's like a Cessna pilot trying to fly like a Blue Angel. It can and does lead to tragedy at WFFC and at other big jump events as well. 

Here is a video of a WFFC skydiver who thought it would be cool to make a high speed landing INSIDE a hanger, entering through a big door. Good judgment? You decide.


Experienced highly skilled jumpers don't hesitate to confront and critique less able jumpers who are pushing the limits of safety. It isn't an effort to belittle, it is an attempt to save their life. One WFFC jumper from Canada had been earlier warned both in person and on an Internet blog, that he was cutting it way too close in his swoop landings. A swoop landing is a high speed canopy dive (initiated by a sharp spiraling "hook turn") followed by a sharp ground skimming pullout just inches above the earth. He died at WFFC clipping the front of a parked truck as he pulled out of his dive. He was just "off" by a few inches, but it was enough to kill him. His epitaph remains in an ironic blog on dropzone.com. In this blog, he pushed back hard. He blasted his critics. He told them to back off because he knew exactly what he was doing.

Another two WFFC jumpers died riding malfunctioning canopies too long, trying to fix the problem and cutting away at an altitude too low for reserve canopy inflation. Had they cut away ten seconds sooner, both would be alive toiday. In a skydiving emergency, he who hesitates is lost. I suffered a main canopy malfunction at WFFC and I can see how easily you could get sucked into trying to clear the problem or trying to land a barely controllable canopy. My canopy was open, but a number of suspension lines had broken. When I tried to steer, brake or flare, it dived off sharply to one side. I tried asymmetrical riser pulls to counter it, but it still was not flying safely. It was really tempting to keep trying different solutions, but time was running out. I cut away (released my main chute) above my "hard deck altitude" and safely deployed my reserve. A "hard deck" is an imaginary deck in the sky, usually at 1500 feet. If you have an uncontrollable main canopy, you need to immediately cut away and be under an open reserve by the time you reach your hard deck at 1500 ft. If you have a total malfunction you need to pull your reserve ripcord in time to be under an inflated canopy above your hard deck. No hesitating, no procrastinating, just decide, commit and execute emergency procedures RIGHT NOW. 

It is psychologically difficult to "chop" a fully open but uncontrollable main canopy, go back into freefall, and trust your life to your reserve. I am speaking from experience. The ground looks really close. You are not falling fast and often your malfunctioning main canopy looks semi-OK visually. It may even fly quite well for brief periods before you lose control. You keep thinking " I know I can fix this or maybe even land it, I just need a little more time to work things out." That thought process can easily seduce a jumper into messing around with a malfunctioning main canopy too long. Time is altitude. Altitude is life. Run out of altitude under a bad main canopy and you run out of life. Landing a modern ram air canopy requires control. Without full control, ram air canopies can dive, collapse or stall, often with fatal results.

One more WFFC jumper died attempting a high speed skim over a big pond. He had little experience doing this but had seen expert competition jumpers making spectacular swoops and throwing up rooster tails of water. He tried to do the same thing but misjudged his pullout from a canopy dive. Even though he hit water, the impact killed him.

A visiting WFFC jumper from Brazil got his hand tangled up in an air inflated streamer tube device that he was holding on to and could not let go of it as he had planned. As he got lower and lower,  trying unsuccessfully to free himself from the tube, he tossed his pilot chute and hoped his main canopy would deploy cleanly. Sadly, his luck ran out. His main canopy tangled with the streamer tube and he died on impact.

Another WFFC skydiver, who had been explicitly warned against it, tried to catch a photo of a low highly banked helicopter jumpship takeoff run by popping up out of the cornstalks with his camera. He was instantly decapitated right in front of his fiance' who was riding in the helo. I was at WFFC, but thankfully was not a witness to this horrific accident. Those who saw it have lasting emotional trauma. I can only imagine how horrible it was for his fiance'.

I am a conservative skydiver to start with and jump even more cautiously at WFFC given the dense canopy, aircraft and freefall traffic. My head is on a swivel at WFFC constantly looking for other jumpers in freefall and under open canopies. A collision in either mode can be fatal. It isn't supposed to happen, but once I spotted a group of freefallers from a different plane rocketing past our group way too close for comfort. They were doing head down freefall and we were flying belly to earth in a linked formation. Head down freefallers have exceeded 300 mph but about 165 mph is probably average. Belly fliers average about 120 mph. That vertical delta V can be very dangerous in mixed company. 


Mark doing a straight ahead slow boring safe airliner style landing at WFFC 2005. Note the brake lines being pulled downward which pulls the trailing edge of the canopy down to act as a wing flap. This is called flaring the canopy and assures a slow soft landing if done right. If you flare too high you will stall the canopy which causes it to lose lift, lose inflation and collapse. If you flare too late, you can hit the ground with high forward speed and high descent rate. People have died doing flares too early or too late. With a properly sized canopy it isn't very hard to do it right. If you fly a very small canopy for your weight, things get a lot trickier and more critical. My canopy is 190 sq ft. A truly insane Brazilian jumper named Luigi Cani jumped a 38 sq ft canopy at this event. It was scary to watch him land, with a forward speed that had to be at least 70 mph. Luigi flared it perfectly and did a tip toe standup landing. He is living on the ragged edge. I am to Luigi Cani as a 747 is to an F 18. Odds are that I will outlive him even though he is half my age and has ten times my skill.  My landings never get nods, thumbs up or high fives from the hotshots. but that's OK. Many of the hotshots have titanium plates and screws where I have flesh and bone. Orthopedic surgeons and, sadly,  undertakers love hook turns and swoop landings. It's good for business.


The top photo can be seen at the very top edge of the WFFC website at http://www.freefall.com/


The picture to the left looks a lot like the picture above, but they are different landings. I hope all my landings are as indistinguishable as these two are. I want them all to be slow, soft and safe. 


I have tried head down freefall but I am not good at it. It is like trying to stand on a slippery ball and takes constant attention to aerodynamic symmetry and balance. I did get up to 186 mph once as registered on my "black box" freefall logger, but I don't know how accurate that reading was. It is hard enough just keeping in a head down freefall attitude much less doing formation work while falling that way. Head down freefall formation work is extremely demanding and beyond my current ability. Belly flying is a lot easier and is going to remain my primary mode of freefall.


                                                          Mark next to DC 3 at WFFC 2005

This DC 3 had uprated Wright 1820-86 engines and climbed way faster  than any DC 3 I had been in before. She performed flawlessly and didnt miss a single flight. The FAA made the owners patch a few empty rivet holes. You just have to wonder what they were thinking. The plane is unpressurized and flies without a door.

The pilot was Dick Delafield, a retired airline jet captain in his 70s.  The copilot was 24 year old Patrick Terry who owns the plane with his brother Liam. I actually feel safer when the combined ages of the pilots exceeds 100. There is no substitute for experience. Sure, reaction times slow with age, but I'd take an old pilot with good judgment over a young kid with lightning fast reflexes any day.

Southern Cross has been a jumpship for many years.  I hope she lives on in that role forever. The DC 3, once a common skydiving jumpship is no longer economically competitive with planes like DH Twin Otters, CASA 212s and Short Skyvans. Still, a few soldier on.  I never miss a chance to jump a DC 3  if one is around. 

My first ten man (now they are called ten way) freefall formation was done at Lake Elsinore CA out of a DC 3. Back then we just made a circle in the sky called a "star" and held it until breakoff altitude, usally 4500 ft.  Now, formations are very complex. Jumpers form one formation, break their grips then form others in sequence all during a single freefall. Some pro teams can do over 20 different formations during a single jump.

Another reason that I am extra cautious at WFFC is that I will inevitably be near other jumpers who are simply pushing the limits too hard. Jumping conservatively means that you can live to be an old man who still jumps. Graveyards are full of older jumpers who jumped like wild young kids. I intend to jump for a long time so I avoid extra risks that could cut my jump career short. I don't do high speed swoop landings, don't BASE jump, won't jump with streamer tubes and only do small freefall formations with other jumpers. The world record freefall formation had 400 jumpers! Only the sport's very best were invited to participate. My largest was 16 and I typically jump with 3-5 others.  I will never be invited for a world record formation attempt and thats OK with me.  

BASE jumps are skydives made from fixed objects such as antenna towers, buildings or cliffs. It's real simple for me: if the jump doesn't have enough altitude to permit use of a reserve chute if the main malfunctions, I won't do it. Most BASE jumpers don't even carry reserve chutes as there is no chance to use one if their main fails. They are just braver or more optimistic than I am, probably both. I would definitely jump from El Capitan in Yosemite because its high enough to permit the use of a reserve, but it's still illegal to jump off El Cap. The law against it is of questionable validity and I expect it to be overturned eventually. That would be a thrilling jump and I plan to make it. One of the scariest BASE jumps has to be the freefall into a vertical cave shaft in Mexico called the Cave of the Swallows. It is not deep enough to allow the use of a reserve so it is not on my to-do list.


My jet jump, from a DC 9-21 at Rantoul Illinois, WFFC 2006. .                             

The FAA in their infinite wisdom mandated that we have flight attendants and an air marshal on our jet even though it was lightly fueled and only flying to and from the Rantoul Illinois airport.  Oh well.  The flight attendants gave us safety briefings and served in flight snacks.  It had an immaculate passenger interior from its glory days as an SAS airliner.  It is now owned by the Perris Valley DZ in CA. The wind blast on exit was very strong.  Some people lost helmets, goggles and other accessories. Subsequent jump runs were flown slower. Could DB Cooper have survived his jump from the Northwest Airlines 727? I think he could have. A jet jump over a DZ in good weather isn't a huge deal, even for a beginner. Just be prepared to do some tumbling if you are not perfectly symmetrical on exit. Cooper, however,  did a high speed jet exit at night in bad weather over rugged country. That changes the odds considerably.

I got a kick out the pilot's announcement prior to jump run: " Ladies and gentlemen, you are free to unfasten your seat belts and move about the cabin. You do NOT have to wait until the aircraft comes to a complete stop at the gate before exiting."

WFFC always has a big fleet of turboprops including Casa 212s, Short Skyvans, DH Twin Otters, PAC 750, and even a old C 130A Hercules. In 1999 I jumped from a rare WW II B 24 bomber, exiting through the bomb bay. In 2006 we had a DC 9-21 jet airliner as a jumpship. Jumping from the jet was a blast, literally. This ten day convention operates almost as a separate nation where federal laws do not apply, at least in jumper's minds they don't. They have a powerful unlicensed FM station, some specialty jumps which are not exactly done by the rule book and a few rare old planes that are operating on the ragged edge of the FAA regs. After working all year in a rule bound occupation, it is fun being part of this wild community where anarchy and freedom prevail. Unlimited free beer every night and good live bands really get things rolling. Some of the women find clothes too restrictive for jumping or dancing in the hot Illinois summer. Who am I to question their modesty?

The mighty CARVAIR.  Still earning its keep in 2005. Some town folks who didn't know airplanes thought it was an early model of the 747! It sure has the Jumbo Jet look, but no jets.


Dick Zerbie, in suspenders on the left,  owns this Carvair which is based in Sherman Texas. He and the local Rantoul mechanic are trying to diagnose a problem with a cowl flap that lets cooling air into the engine nacelle. It would not respond properly to the cockpit control that opens and closes the flaps. Proper cowl flap operation is essential to keep the air cooled radial engines from overheating.

There is ALWAYS  something to fix on a sixty year old plane. In this case it was a balky cowl flap actuator. Later it suffered electrical problems with the generator tie in buss, but they were all ironed out eventually. The plane is named Fat Annie.



 Cars used to drive in through a nose ramp, hence the name Carvair, probably meaning car via air. 


Very roomy cockpit, much  larger than a 747's actually.  Behind is a passenger seating area/ crew lounge.


Passing through 5500 ft on the way to jump run. Very roomy interior.


Matt Dowling got this shot of me with the Carvair above.

N 89FA Rantoul Illinois, August 2005.

FAA FLIGHT STANDARDS  "plane cops"  are shown above discussing airworthiness, logbooks and AD compliance. Despite FAA suspicions about its authenticity, all the paperwork was in order and we flew! What a sweet ride that was. This ATL 98 Carvair  is a VERY rare plane and the only example  currently flying. It is essentially a double decker mod to a DC 4. I am sooo lucky to have flown in and jumped from this living dinosaur. It was originally designed to take passengers (upper deck) and their cars (lower deck) between London and Paris.

Now it has found a niche flying oversized cargo, sometimes to remote airstrips.  It can carry a longer object than a C 130 Herc can. It can operate out of strips that are too short for jets. It is not a frequent flyer, but when it flies it makes money.  If someone needs a shaft, drill gear or some other piece of lengthy cargo delivered directly to a North Slope strip in AK, this is the plane that can do it.

The FAA Flight Standards folks were all over the Carvair pilots and the maintenance logbooks, but the paperwork was in order and we flew. I know the FAA suspected pencil overhauls and doubted that some of the logged AD compliance work had actually been done, but they couldn't prove a thing. When you own an ancient propliner it is almost essential to be a licensed A&P... if you catch my drift. The Carvair is a DC4 conversion into a double decker cargo hauler that looks like a 747 with props. In fact, a lot of unsophisticated people who saw it thought it was some sort of early 747 prototype They were made in the UK by Freddy Laker in the 1960s. Only this one, N89FA still flies. There was a lot of experience in the cockpit with the combined age of the two pilots exceeding 150!


Wheelhouse of AN 2 Soviet biplane. LOTS of windows.


Jumping through clouds is not FAA legal, but there is some wiggle room if you can see the ground and other traffic. I'd never jump through a solid overcast but I and every other experienced skydiver has done their fair share of "cloud punching." It is incredibly exciting and actually a bit scary. As you approach the cloud at 120 mph your instincts tell you that it is solid and that high speed contact will be fatal. You have to strongly resist the urge to deploy your chute and let yourself freefall through the cloud. When you hit it you can definitely feel it. I am not sure if it is a density difference or the moisture that clues your body, but there is a very noticeable change when you enter and exit a cloud. 

Sometimes, on a sundown jump at Monterey California, I take about twelve seconds extra time before exiting as the last jumper from the plane. That safely separates me from the others who exited earlier provided that the winds aloft are not super high. I exit, get stable, scan for traffic and then flip over on my back. I put my hands behind my head and just relax falling back to earth, looking out at the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean. It is the most incredible feeling to actually relax while falling in a soft warm summer sky looking out at a gorgeous ocean view. Non jumpers do this only in dreams. 

My son Eric (18) took the ham radio licensing exam with me in April 2008 with zero prep. He just didn't want to wait in the car while I took the test. Eric got his Tech license (KI6PQR) which made me very proud. He has little interest in ham radio ("the Internet is better") or skydiving ("stupidly risky"), but I can always hope that he will change his mind. My daughter Amy (15) has less than zero interest in radio and refers to our licenses as "official nerd certificates issued by the government." I tried to pique her interest by telling her that celebrities such as Joe Walsh of the Eagles rock band were avid hams. Her response? "Dad, the Eagles??? Uh, no offense... but they are like soooo yesterday." I wish Amy Winehouse (wildly popular Emmy award winning singer) would get licensed during one of her rare sober moments. That might bring some new blood into the hobby.

Someday I'd like to work HF while under canopy. My plan is to open right after exiting at 15,000 ft, then deploy a long very fine wire antenna and use a QRP rig with an autotuner like an Icom 703 or similar. I'd jettison the antenna over the DZ at 3000 ft to avoid any possibility of dragging it over power lines on my approach. Wonder if anyone else has done parachute mobile HF?

I love old propliners and old radios. I went from SWL (no FCC license) to Extra Class (highest FCC ham license) in one test session in April 2008, but I am not getting a big head about it. It was all multiple choice and there was no Morse Code test. I will always view my license as a "lite" version of a REAL Extra, the kind the old timers had to master 20 WPM CW (Morse Code) to obtain.

I hope to be on the air soon with military surplus "boat anchors" (meaning old heavy stuff better suited as an anchor than a radio), specifically ART 13, BC 348 and ARR 15. The ART 13 transmitter has a B+ power supply that can deliver over one thousand volts at about half an ampere. In some ways working on the ART 13 is more dangerous than skydiving. In skydiving your reserve canopy gives you a second chance. In tube type transmitters, contact with a kilovolt of DC at half an amp is likely to be instantly fatal. There is no second chance. Needless to say I am not going to be bypassing any safety interlock switches.

Comments, criticisms, corrections and suggestions regarding the foregoing content are welcomed:  af6im at arrl dot net



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