In The Zone

Eloy's Skies are raining men, and sprinkling hot chicks, too.

A DJ spins techno one night as skydivers work their way through a keg, roasting hot dogs over several burn barrels that send embers shooting into the dark desert sky. Omar and the other freeflyers have spent the day competing in a meet, and much to no one's surprise, Omar has taken first in the free-flight discipline he helped pioneer over the last decade. His prize? Not much more than a backpack, discount coupons on equipment and a free latte.

Omar has a home in Eloy and teaches at the Freeflight School he founded in 1998, just five years after his first dive.

Inspired by watching a scene from Moonraker in which James Bond straps on a chute and chases Jaws out of a plane, Omar says he knew right after he made his first jump in Maryland in October of 1993 that he wanted to be a world champion. It was just a matter of time.

Skydivers from all over the world spend the winter at Eloy.
Skydivers from all over the world spend the winter at Eloy.

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Photography by Jackie Mercandetti

Luckily, he had the money to make his dream happen in short order. A silver spoon can be a fast track to the higher echelons of this sport, provided focus and talent are also present.

Omar's the son of a Saudi sheik who was once ambassador to the United States. He grew up in Spain, Brazil and the U.S. and admits he wore "many different hats" before devoting himself to skydiving. After a stint as an equity dealer, Omar ran a sushi restaurant outside of Washington, D.C. Before that, he says he produced a charity concert that raised $2 million for Bosnian children. He says the band Ambrosia reunited at the gig.

Then he went skydiving, and decided he had to become the best in the world.

Within a year, he took second place -- losing the gold by one point -- in a World Freestyle Federation competition in Eloy.

Instead of the aerial square dancing that the tamer relative arm of the sport entails, Omar's freeflight style is like break-dancing at serious speed. He spins, flips and corkscrews through his freefalls. With freestyle, there's a decrease in wind resistance, because jumpers point their heads straight down and "track" through the air by pulling their arms to their sides, rolling shoulders forward and straightening their legs. This allows them to shoot toward the earth at speeds of from 200 to 300 mph.

In a decade, freeflying has become one of skydiving's most popular disciplines, and Omar has been its world champion 10 times -- winning firsts in competitions in Turkey in 1996, Finland and California in 1997, California in 1998, Eloy in 2000 and 2001, and Poland, Chicago and Spain in 2002.

His focus on the sport remains steadfast. Despite the 14,000 jumps he's made in the past 10 years, he's not bored a bit. "It's like going up to a kid who's playing in a sandbox and saying, 'Aren't you bored yet?' I have the biggest sandbox in the world."

In addition to coaching at his freeflight school (for which he earns about $70 per coached jump), in January he started a business called Aerial Stunt Services with several other skydiving legends that he hopes will better market the sport to Hollywood.

Show business isn't alien to Omar. He's worked as a stunt man for television commercials for Honda and Axe deodorant, and feature films (Three Kings, starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, and Wild California, an IMAX film). He jumped from one plane in flight into the cockpit of a biplane last year, "a world record," he says. And along with partner and videographer Greg Gasson, he has been featured in skydiving films (like Crosswing, Chronicles and Good Stuff) that play continually on the Bent Prop's big-screen TV.

On New Year's Eve, 2000, he was among a group of 15 who simultaneously jumped off the Petronas Tower in Kuala Lumpur, the world's tallest building at 1,483 feet, to usher in the new millennium. And he says he had next planned to jump off a skyscraper in New York, but by late 2001, permits became a bit problematic. "Nobody wanted to hear anything about New York buildings and Saudis," he says quietly.

"Omar's a fucking great skydiver," says Ricardo Orozco. "And he's not stuck up about it."

A scruffy 29-year-old, Orozco's more concerned with where he's going to get the money for his next jump ticket than when he might eat again. Big dreams and limited finances can be a frustrating combination.

"I could be working on getting certified as a tandem instructor, I guess. Make some money that way, but I don't want to jump tandems all day long. I want to coach eventually, I guess."

Orozco drives his motorcycle a little too fast, has a smattering of tattoos on his torso and legs and has a strong passion for opera and symphony music, which he studied and performed at the University of New Mexico.

He came to Arizona last year from a small drop zone in California, tried holding down a job in Phoenix and commuting to Eloy on weekends, but couldn't resist the draw of the skydiving environment. The hourlong commute was agonizing, so he quit the job and moved to Eloy in January. He refers to what he did as "cutting away," same as the skydiving term that means separating yourself from a malfunctioning parachute during a jump and deploying your reserve chute.

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