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Skysurfing

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I can fill in a little more of the history. Skydive Arizona moved from Coolidge to Eloy in April of 1991, and that's when I became increasingly involved in management and Safety and Training. There had already been some experiments with skysurfing, and I put together the 1993 meet because I realized there were enough skysurfers out there, and why not do it? We were trying to raise our profile; 1993 was when we hosted our first World Championships in FS, too.

I had already met Pete McKeeman, who had started the World Freestyle Federation. His main goal was to get skydiving on TV and he succeeded to some extent with the WFF. He had word that ESPN was looking for sports to put into a new extreme sports show and was trying to sell them on Freestyle. At the '92 WFF meet in Eloy, Bob Hallet put on a display of skysurfing. The ESPN guys were kind of funny, they looked like college football coaches and knew NOTHING about skydiving. But they liked the look of skysurfing!

Pete took me on as safety/loadmaster/cat herder for the X-Games, and I worked five out of six of them. (The first one, over the spectacular setting of Newport, RI is one of the best skydiving memories I have, and I've got a lot!) Don't forget that the X-Games Skysurf team was awarded an Emmy for the aerial photography one year. Besides the team camera flyers, a lot of the jumps had outside freefall camera, and the Eagle Cam chase helicopter delivered more spectacular footage. When skysurfing was cancelled, Pete gave us the word like this: "The executives say we're the best team they have worked with, but we just don't sell Slim Jims and Mountain Dew."

Skysurfing was driven almost entirely by television. The famous Pepsi Goose commercial, shot over SDAZ with Troy Hartman, made it all the way to the Super Bowl. Almost everyone taking it up hoped to score on TV. But it never became popular with skydivers in general. I once took a phone call from a journalist looking for a story on skysurfing and she asked me how many people did it. "Oh, worldwide, maybe thirty." "What, I thought it was really popular! Is the small number because it's really hard, or really dangerous?" "No. Most skydivers see no reason whatsoever to tie their feet together with a stick. That really interferes with what you can do."

I'll end with some safety comments. In all the jumps I was present for, the only serious injury was when Patrick de Guayardon and Eric Fradet did a tandem board jump. It got a little sketchy, so they decided to cut away. One system released slightly before the other, then the second system only released one binding, which pretty much tore up the knee of the victim. But he eventually got away clean. The biggest concern was boards falling on something - farmers, airplanes on the ground, cars, whatever. Not as bad as a skyball, but they would definitely do damage, even with a pilot chute to slow them down.

But the perception was interesting. At the X-games immediately after that year three competitors died in non-Skysurf accidents, the whole crew was taken into a meeting by Pete, saying we would be asked about it. He made it clear that he couldn't tell  us what to say, but he asked that we try to explain the circumstances did not involve skysurfing. But it was kind of weird. When we mingled with people from other events and they found out we were from the Skysurf unit, they were like "Wow, these guys are REALLY extreme. I only broke my arm in the half pipe."

When the X-Games dropped Skysurfing, recruitment largely stopped. The media moved on to other fads for commercials. You can't run a Nationals or World Meet without at least 30 plus competitors in an event without losing a lot of money, so I was one of the voices begging USPA and the IPC to drop it. They did, and that pretty much killed Skysurfing.

By the way, at the World Championships in Eloy where Eric Fradet won gold (after being second so many times in so many meets) I checked with the French Head of Delegation about something I suspected should be brought to the attention of the crowd at the awards ceremony. He was then, and still is as far as I know, the only person to ever win gold at the World Championships in two totally different events: 4-way Open and Skysurf. 

Bryan Burke, now retired from SDAZ

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