YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Chuting Stars

The Peculiar People Behind Happy Landings

November 12, 2000|NOA JONES

When Michael Ortiz bellies out of a twin-engine plane 12,500 feet above the ground, he's trusting the laws of physics, the altimeter on his chest and his packer--a 28-year-old modern-day gypsy who spent the previous evening at the Perris Valley Skydiving's Polyester Pool Party.

"We've done over 20 jumps in one day and you definitely gotta trust your packer," Ortiz says.

The packer's integral part in the sport was obvious last month at Perris Valley Skydiving. There Ortiz, his Flyboyz and hundreds of other skydivers competed in the U.S. National 2000 Championships. Every five minutes, 16 parachutists hit the ground during the formation-jump competition, a 50-second free fall that jump veteran Robin Heid described as "square-dancing at 120 mph." Most formation team were required to perform 10 jumps, and by the end of the week nearly 20,000 parachutes had been deployed. There was no time for jumpers to struggle with canopies and cords.

The crew of about 30 packers moved in for the assist, spending about five minutes repacking each chute into its knapsack, usually charging $5 per packing. They became part of the strange choreography of the drop zone: jumpers in the air, jumpers on the ground "dirt diving" or rehearsing their next jump, and packers kneeling and kneading parachutes into submission like a bunch of scruffy scouts wrestling with tents.

Some packers are locals; others work in teams or as free agents who follow skydiving competitions around the country. They hail from Venezuela, Greece, Germany, Holland, Finland and beyond. At night they retreat to their tents and vans in the adjacent campground, a gypsy camp of death-defying dropouts dedicated to a common love: The Jump.

Many of them pack so they will get the chance to jump at the end of the day.

"It's thrilling," says Yvonne Gniss, a packer from Deland, Fla. "There are no words to describe it."

In 1989, entrepreneur and jump fanatic Cathy Kloess started The Packing Place, a mobile unit that reps freelance packers from its headquarters in Zephyrhills, Fla. Kloess backs up her packers' handiwork with a guarantee: If the main chute fails, the packer will pay the $65 to $75 cost of repacking the reserve chute, which is a much more tedious and time-consuming job.

A packer who traveled with Kloess to Perris looked like a refugee from a Grateful Dead concert in his tie-dyed clothes and unruly long hair. "I don't dress for success," he conceded. "But I do take my work seriously. They shouldn't have to worry."

Kloess, known now as "Pack n' Cathy," says jumpers trust her to screen her uninsured packers: "I don't mind if they pack to jump, but I won't work with people who pack to party."


A Packer's List of Drop Zone Bummers

* Swollen fingers

* Stiff joints

* Repetitive stress disorders

* "Hard" chute openings that jolt the jumper

* Ripped chutes

* Sunburn

* Rub burns

* Type-A personality burnout

* Watching everyone else have all the fun

Los Angeles Times Articles