Apr 25, 2005, 7:16 PM
Post #1 of 6
article in the paper about swooping
this was in the seattle times:
Swoopers skim earth, and mortality
By Nora Zamichow
Los Angeles Times
E-mail article Print view Search Most e-mailed Most read RSS The airplane had just reached 4,000 feet when Jonathan Tagle leaped. He plummeted, belly-to-the-ground, reaching 120 mph before deploying a rectangular parachute.
At 600 feet, closing in rapidly on a shallow pond, Tagle plunged into a spiraling dive. He accelerated toward the ground, veering horizontally at the last moment in an L-shaped turn that took him so close to the pond that his heels skimmed its surface.
Tagle, 36, belongs to an elite fraternity for whom mere parachuting isn't enough — he is a swooper. The journey starts with voluntarily stepping out of an airplane in flight and concludes with accelerating to the ground in hopes of dragging a limb in the water — proof of a swooper's derring-do.
This weekend in Perris, Calif., 73 miles east of Los Angeles, Tagle is competing against dozens of other top contenders at the U.S. Canopy Piloting Grand Prix, one of 60 U.S. competitions. He set a world record for distance Friday, swooping 494 feet. In July, he hopes to compete in the World Games in Germany, which for the first time will feature a swooping — or canopy piloting — event. A campaign is under way to include the sport at the Olympics.
Swoopers use smaller, high-performance parachutes that leave scant room for error. A split-second hesitation at a critical moment can mean injury or death. In the community of swoopers, breaking a leg is so common that it has become a verb, "to femur."
But to Tagle, the current world champion of swooping, the sport is much like golf. Both demand extreme mental focus, he said, and the amount of time doing the actual sport is minimal.
"In a day at the course, a golfer only spends a few minutes actually swinging the club," Tagle said. "In three or four minutes of canopy flight, swooping is six seconds."
He said swooping is more about Zen than adrenaline. It clears his mind of everyday concerns, leaving him feeling centered and peaceful. And it has taken over his life like nothing else.
Swooper Jim Slaton cannot fathom that someone wouldn't grasp the sheer exhilaration of his sport. "It's like being a Blue Angels pilot but with a parachute," said Slaton, 34, who lives just north of Bakersfield, Calif. "It's like combining NASCAR racing with aviation."
Such high-performance thrills come at a price. Eight skydivers have died this year, said Chris Needels, executive director of the U.S. Parachute Association. While swooping deaths are not calculated separately from other skydiving deaths, pilot error, not equipment failure, causes most deaths. And in many cases, a turn executed close to the ground, as divers do in swooping, is the culprit.
"There's a certain risk involved with the sport; we all agree to the terms of those risks, just like a soldier does," said Tagle, who has no health insurance and never has been injured swooping. "I know the risks, and I try to minimize them."
Most skydivers dance delicately around the subject of danger. Shannon Pilcher, 33, has broken two vertebrae and his leg. It hasn't dampened his interest. "I do it because it's new and exciting for me," he said.
John Charles Colclasure, 34, always says a prayer before his first jump of the day. He has swooped for 12 years without injury. Close calls? Plenty. Like last year when he swooped Mont Blanc in France, encountered turbulence and narrowly averted a crash.
"I was definitely afraid," Colclasure said. "Would I do it again? Absolutely. If you want the excitement, you've got to put up with the risks."
In February, Tagle won the World Cup of Canopy Piloting at the Florida Skydiving Center in Lake Wales. The event drew 70 competitors from 17 countries. In the course of the competition, Tagle set a record for swooping distance by traveling 479.8 feet along the pond and ground.
Tagle's World Cup victory reflects how the sport continues to evolve. Before that contest, swoopers thought that lighter canopies and rigs would allow greater speeds and distances. Tagle, the newest member of the Performance Design team, wore an unprecedented 60 pounds of weight for the competition. He chose his biggest, not smallest, canopy for the distance event.
For Tagle, fame has created pressure. "I feel like I have a target on my back," he said. "If I make a mistake, there's 20 guys waiting to capitalize on it."
He has thought out his game plan. He must stay focused, he tells himself.