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Legends of the really long fall

The Alternatives

Even at the championships, skydiving's about thrill, skill and trust in the team.

October 14, 2004|Pete Metzger | Times Staff Writer

To get a good idea of what competitors in the accuracy landing division of this weekend's skydiving championships will go through, follow these steps:

1. Draw a circle about the size of a silver dollar and put it on a dinner plate in an open field.

2. Strap a parachute on your back.

3. Climb aboard a plane with an open door.

4. Fly up to 3,500 feet.

5. Jump out.

6. Float down and plant your heel directly in the center of the tiny target.

Sound easy?

"When you do it enough ... it just becomes natural habit," says Shawn Callahan, 28, a member of the U.S. Army's parachute team, the Golden Knights. "The rush is hitting the center of the dot. And if you don't, you're usually frustrated."

Callahan is one of more than 800 expected entrants in the 47th annual United States Parachute Assn.'s National Skydiving Championships in Perris, about 75 minutes southeast of downtown L.A. The competition, which started Sept. 30, is free for anyone willing to crane their necks skyward. Though many of the predominantly male skydivers are not exactly household names, the level of competition will be fierce.

"These are the best people in the country, which generally are most of the best in world," said Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld, 42, an instructor at the host Perris Skydiving School, as well as a competitor in some events. "This is the top edge of the sport."

Besides the accuracy landing competition, spectators can see events like the canopy formation competition. In the "sequential" division of this sport, teams of four or eight divers have 2 1/2 minutes to complete as many different shapes as possible using their bodies and their brightly colored canopies.

"You literally wrap your foot in your teammate's parachute line and you try to fly this [formation] very uniformly together," says Ken Oka, 52, a competing member of the Lodi Crew who works as a manufacturing engineer.

Isn't that a bit dangerous? Twisting your foot in someone else's line as you fall from the heavens like organized confetti?

"The thought of danger, I guess, plays in there someplace, but that is nowhere near the top," Oka says. "It's just fun with your friends up there, aligning the parachutes and being able to do this skill."

But being so close to one another inherently has risks. Nine years ago during a jump, Oka had a close call in which he and a buddy had to ride down using only Oka's chute. But he walked away to tell about it. "Well, we didn't walk away, but we survived," he says.

Still, Oka is drawn by "the trust you have to place in your teammate that he's not going to entangle you with his parachute. And that kind of frightens other people."

For Brodsky-Chenfeld, planting that perfect landing in the accuracy competition offers quite an uplifting feeling. "You're in a basketball game and you're running out of time," he says, "and you launch [the ball] from half-court and get no rim at all, swish it through -- that's about the same thing."

But it takes plenty of preparation to get that close.

"When you're up in the air, actually you're feeling the wind," Cheryl Stearns, 49, says. A 21-time national champion and Special Forces soldier, Stearns is coaching the Golden Knights this year instead of trying for her 22nd. (She broke her arm in, of all things, a bicycle accident.)

She says skydivers check the condition of flags on the ground or other divers' canopies to get an idea of what kinds of winds to expect when they near the target. "That way it gives you a good idea of what's going on, so you're not surprised when you come in."

Unlike the accuracy divers, participants in competitions involving free-fall moves can practice in the Perris Skydiving School's "Wind Tunnel," which is sort of an extra large phone booth with a giant fan underneath. It's a major reason why this is the first of two consecutive times the school will play host to the national championships. It also gives the public a chance -- for a fee -- to experience a free-fall without much of the danger.

For the divers, many of whom camp and stay at the compound, a strong sense of community is nurtured.

"Skydivers are always there to help each other," says Marylou Laughlin, 48, chair of the competition committee. "There is huge camaraderie from one team to another."

*

National Skydiving Championships

Where: Perris Valley Skydiving, 2091 Goetz Road, Perris

When: Today through Sunday. Sunup to sundown, weather permitting.

Price: Free

Contact: (951) 657-3904

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