In The Zone

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

Orozco's possessions for the most part are contained in his Firebird and in a few boxes inside his small tent. He briefly considered selling the car for a stack of $18 jump tickets at the end of March, when he compromised between living the dream and affording to jump. He landed a job in a glass factory in Casa Grande, and the job allows him time to get in one or two jumps a day after work.

As much a fixture in the party scene as he is in the air, Orozco staked his tent in a choice location within spitting distance of the Bent Prop bar.

Insatiable in the air and on the ground, Orozco longs for the next Holiday Boogie, Eloy's 10-day annual skydiving meet where about 800 skydivers from around the country show up at the drop zone. The crowds can be irritating, he says, especially when visitors are unfamiliar with drop zone etiquette, but the parties are well worth the aggravation.

Skydive Arizona is the world's largest drop zone.
Skydive Arizona is the world's largest drop zone.
After jumping from 13,000 feet, skydivers furiously repack their parachutes to get back in the air as quickly as possible. Below: The entrance to Skydive Arizona.
After jumping from 13,000 feet, skydivers furiously repack their parachutes to get back in the air as quickly as possible. Below: The entrance to Skydive Arizona.


Photography by Jackie Mercandetti

"New Year's Eve was sick," he remembers with a wide grin, recalling a previous year's event. "There was a disco. The food was all catered. They filled the hangar with balloons that had prizes inside them. They always do these night jumps at 11:59, and people land in the dark, with kegs of free beer all over the place."

Even the hobbling injury he got jumping didn't dissuade him from partying and more jumping at the Boogie. "That day there were some winds, and when I landed, I ate shit good. Tore a bunch of shit in my ankle, and I couldn't walk. But fuck it, it was New Year's Eve! And I still had four jump tickets left. I wrapped my ankle up good and was partying and dancing on it all night."

It was three years and about 800 jumps ago that Orozco was part owner of a glass company in Olympia, Washington. His biggest thrills then were the barbecues he'd have on the weekends at his house on a lake. "That kind of thing seemed important then," he says, seeming bewildered by the memory.

His first jump at a small drop zone near his home was primitive compared to what is offered at Skydive Arizona.

Instead of tandems, new students performed static line jumps. This is what skydivers dismissively call "dope on a rope," in which a cord attached to the plane pulls the rip cord, not the student.

First jumps are made after a morning of ground school. Jumpers wear a radio that the ground crew uses to guide them to the landing pad.

Orozco still has his video from that day. It shows him sitting uncharacteristically silent on the floor of a small plane, wedged between the pilot and the door. Then, he gently climbs out of the front door of the Cessna, clinging for several long seconds to the wing strut by his arms before summoning up the courage to let go.

The now fearless Orozco admits he was terrified.

More recent jump footage shows him flipping through the air like a trained seal, grinning broadly, then sticking out his tongue and flashing peace signs at the camera. He writhes and twists in flight, making docks (grabbing hands, legs, heads) with jump partners. He corkscrews his feet in the air, at times screaming down to the earth. He finishes with a swift, sleek landing in which he cruises just inches over the grass until he finds the right spot and steps delicately out of the air.

It's taken a while, but he says he's earning the respect of his peers.

Although (with about 800 jumps) he's nowhere near the expertise of freeflying stars like Omar, Orozco's proud to have made a few skydives with Amy Chmelecki and the legendary Saudi in recent weeks. He says he always watches them closely, learning all he can. He says they are beginning to notice him, too. He mentions proudly that one of his skydives appeared in a recent issue of Parachutist magazine.

"Gimme five years!" he begs.

"What I really want to do, what I'm trying to achieve, is that hummingbird status," he says, referring to the tiny bird's ability to hover motionless above the earth. "Maybe it's impossible, but I'm hungry enough that I'll get there."

Ricardo Orozco is among 200 or so skydivers and support staff who live at the drop zone. Some rough it in Tent City, where camping is free. Staff and those who have enough money live in trailers -- ranging from plywood boxes to Airstreams -- in a parking lot known as the Concentration Camp. Some sleep in their cars until it gets too hot, then take refuge in the drop zone's air-conditioned, rent-free bunkhouse in the relatively quiet summer months. (Skydive Arizona can well afford to subsidize the bunkhouse during the off season. With more than 150,000 jumps a year at $18 each, the drop zone brings in millions. The Eloy Chamber of Commerce says skydiving has replaced cotton as Eloy's largest industry.)

From November through May, Skydive Arizona is anything but peaceful. Planes buzz overhead just after dawn and continue until sunset, dropping load after load of skydivers.

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