In The Zone
At terminal velocity, the wind can have a troubling effect on the male body.
Consider that a plummeting adult falls at a rate of about 120 mph, a freefall fast enough to ripple your lips back around your ears.
Nude, the whipping winds can actually flip a penis backward, thrusting it between the buttocks where it cowers like a tiny, tortured tail.
Photography by Jackie Mercandetti
Men who have braved a naked skydive, and there are several at Eloy's Skydive Arizona, confirm that jumping in the buff is no walk in the park.
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With much grimacing and shaking of the head, one of them tries to explain the discomfort he suffered to his friends.
"There are these metal buckles on the harness that can be quite painful," offers Ash, a bleached-blond Australian, motioning to his groin. His subsequent description of a penis in flight calls to mind a fluttering fleshy windsock caught in the spokes of a bicycle.
But for naked women, Ash quickly adds, the rushing wind can provoke a decidedly different reaction. The men's faces relax as they exchange knowing glances. "Ah, the orgasm myth," says one of Ash's friends with a wide grin.
Some male instructors swear their female students have gotten off sexually, on their very first jumps, and fully clothed. They say that even when these women don't actually announce their climax, it's obvious by the flush that begins in the middle of their cheeks and the way the women moan all the way down to the ground.
Perhaps the instructors are ignoring the possibility that a student's extreme terror might provoke the same reaction.
At first, this whole female orgasm thing sounds like a story wily skydiver dudes might concoct to attract more women to the sport and the drop zone. Typical for skydiving, Eloy's about 80 percent young virile and attractive men. Unlike other extreme sports, women are physically at no disadvantage. Especially, the guys insist, single women.
Suspicions about the motive behind spreading spontaneous orgasm stories are soon erased in the drop zone bar. As the clock nears midnight, the climaxes come up again, this time in the words of a tipsy skydiver named Rebecca who tells a table full of guys it's happened to her.
Several times. Almost every time she does it naked.
All ears prick up.
She doesn't elaborate much, but when Rebecca makes her way out the door a short while later, a curious young skydiver is not far behind.
In an addictive sport devoted to pushing the extremes, it's not surprising that getting naked, whether painful or pleasurable, makes an extensive list of bizarre aerial antics.
Eloy daredevils are full of stories about landing on the backs of moving motorcycles, jumping from one plane in flight to another, leaping from office buildings and radio antennas, throwing themselves out of hot air balloons or into thousand-foot holes in the earth.
"You take a sip of wine and pretty soon you're going to want whiskey," cautions Greg Foster, an instructor who has recently found the need to add jumping off cliffs and bridges to his daily adrenaline fix.
That there are junkies in Eloy should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the town's nefarious reputation. Once known as the per capita murder capital of America in the late '40s, the town of about 10,000 has become enough of a drug den in recent years to warrant deployment of a special DEA Mobile Enforcement Team.
Located halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, Eloy was at one time a booming agricultural hamlet. But years of cotton farming sucked the ground dry, depleting the water table. In protest, the desiccated earth erupted in giant fissures powerful enough to tear up the interstate.
Eloy's a hellish place outside of the drop zone. Even the town's name is indicative of the wasteland typical of this portion of the Sonoran Desert. "Eloy" is said to be taken from the Spanish pronunciation of a Biblical quotation, "Eli, Eli lama sabachthani?"
In English: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
But make one jump and you'll discover what draws people from all over the world to such an otherwise barren and inhospitable location. There's no better place in the world for skydivers to get high.
Skydive Arizona has the largest fleet of aircraft in the sport and an average of 350 jumpable days of sunshine a year. In 12 years, the drop zone has quietly evolved into a self-contained universe where world champions and drop zone rats jump side by side, then wash down a day's worth of adrenaline with warm mugs of cheap beer as one buzz melts deliciously into another.
A University of Kentucky study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, confirms that the brains of thrill seekers, such as skydivers, are stimulated in the same manner as those of drug users. This prompted NIDA to launch a television campaign hoping to turn young thrill seekers on to extreme sports like skydiving or bungee jumping instead of cocaine or acid. Perhaps they didn't realize that there is a price for any addiction, and that hooking people on skydiving can have a drastic effect on their futures, and their bank accounts.
Getting really good can cost half a million dollars or more, says Betsy Barnhouse, who has logged more than 2,500 jumps in four years and earned a spot on the U.S. Freestyle Skydiving Team. Barnhouse seems polite enough on the ground, but make no mistake: The girl's got a serious habit. Get her in the air, and the spark in her eyes could ignite a gasoline fire.
On a recent afternoon, Barnhouse struts onto the landing pad and hoists a turkey-size tumbleweed into the air, tossing it back into the desert whence it came. She then tilts her head way back to track one of her students, a middle-aged man named Bryce who descends to nail a perfect landing directly in the center of the large sand pit. His precision has her smiling proudly, as he steps delicately to one side, his orange-and-yellow chute falling to the ground next to him like an obedient puppy.
Moments later, a member of the Russian National Skydiving Team, resplendent in a red-and-black jumpsuit, touches down a few yards to his left. The stone-faced Russian is coming in too fast for grace and hits the ground running hard -- pumping his legs like a cartoon character-- nearly stumbling to compensate for his excessive speed.
Barnhouse erupts in a smirk that belies her competitive spirit. The Russians may be world champions in freefall, but they're not known for their graceful landings, she can't help but explain.
A former Nike employee and synchronized swimmer, Barnhouse takes jumping out of planes very seriously, and it's unlikely she would classify skydiving as an addiction. For her it's a sport worthy of respect. Yet as she speaks, her devotion to the rush is evident.
"I was in my 30s, and there were still things I wanted to do," says Barnhouse, trying to explain how she ended up jumping out of airplanes. "After my first tandem in Miami, I went right back up on the next load. Then I went home and packed up all my stuff." (Novice skydivers jump attached to a tandem instructor.)
Many of the people roaming the drop zone in brightly colored jumpsuits are actually doctors, lawyers and engineers in the real world, people who can afford to support a regular skydiving habit -- which easily costs more than $10,000 annually for the recreational jumper. "This is an expensive sport," Barnhouse explains. "So many of these people had lucrative careers."
As an employee of Skydive Arizona, Barnhouse trains at the drop zone for free. She is also one of the few lucky skydivers who has found a way to make the sport pay for itself. She works as events coordinator for the drop zone, and also coaches students like Bryce.
There are other ways to fund your habit, such as working as a camera flyer (videographer) or a tandem instructor where you get paid to jump.
Winning competitions isn't a way to pay the bills. Skydiving's not a spectator sport. The action happens more than a mile up in the air and is seen only by judges on the ground for the most part. Thus, the big advertising money that has latched onto other sports hasn't found its way to skydiving yet, Barnhouse says.
Barnhouse keeps one blue eye on the landing area as she dutifully goes over terms like relative work, freeflight, freestyle and sky-surfing, each a different style of making your way out of the plane and onto the ground.
The more traditional of the skydiving disciplines is relative work, or formation skydiving in which teams of usually four or eight form a series of kaleidoscope-like maneuvers in the air before deploying their parachutes.
Skydive Arizona is home to a former world champion team in the relative category, Arizona Airspeed, now ranked second in the world. The reigning Russian champions and the Army's legendary Golden Knights also train at Eloy.
But for the last decade or so, skydiving has gone through a revolution. Experiments during freefall in the early '90s led to the creation of freeflying. Instead of soaring belly to the ground, Barnhouse explains, freeflyers are on their backs and heads, flipping and spinning through a routine of poses, executed at much higher speeds than those of relative divers. The dives are videotaped and then judged on the ground for accuracy and skill. Freestyle is a more artistic version of freeflight, employing ballet-like moves down to the pointed toes. Sometimes freeflyers sky-surf, flipping and spinning with a board strapped to their feet.
Eloy hosted the first ever world freefly cup in 2000, and many world champions live and train at the drop zone during the winter. Unlike here in Arizona, summer brings better weather in most parts of the world, and marks the beginning of the skydiving "boogie" circuit. Divers travel to Montana, Utah, Illinois and sometimes places such as Brazil and Croatia for world championship meets.
Although Barnhouse (and reigning champion Amy Chmelecki) will travel to Brazil for the world freestyle championships in September, she'll spend the bulk of the summer sweating it out in Eloy along with a core staff and a few hard-core jumpers who remain at the drop zone during the area's infernal low season.
"Those who stay for the summer form an extremely close-knit family," she says. "Skydivers are wired a little differently than most people. Maybe we're all just misfits."
And it takes a special brand of misfit to hang around when the Eloy desert (normally ideal for jumpers) begins to turn ugly.
On a recent Saturday, a wall of sand rises from the desert floor, swirling and growing larger by the second. It's a dust devil, common in Eloy as summer approaches, and it's among a skydiver's worst nightmares. Unlike the rest of what can go wrong on a skydive, wind is something that cannot be controlled.
A crowd of 16 waiting impatiently for the Twin Otter prop plane to taxi to their portion of the runway watches the dust devil dance frenetically, stirring up sand and grit next to a hangar.
"What you see there -- all that dust -- that's only one third of the thing. The other two thirds you can't see are the winds around it, and that's what gets you," Greg Foster warns. His tandem student looks solemnly at the whirlpool and swallows hard.
While the newbies imagine themselves being swept off to Oz by demonic winds, veteran skydivers discuss a woman last year who found herself caught in a dust devil when she was about as high as a telephone pole above the landing area. The winds shot her 300 feet straight up, where she was left with a deflated parachute and twisted lines. Somehow -- and at that altitude it all comes down to seconds -- she managed to untangle the lines and land safely. She was lucky to have lived through that one, they agree, as they walk to the awaiting plane and clamber into its belly.
"You can't be in the sport very long before you realize that it's not safe," says Bryan Burke, the drop zone's safety coordinator. "We all know someone somewhere who's gotten hurt or killed." Eloy has seen deaths as well, but Burke calls the six fatalities last year an acceptable level considering the number of annual jumps at Eloy, close to 150,000.
"Anyone who says skydiving is safer than driving a car is a nutcase. There are about 40,000 skydivers in the U.S. and 30 to 40 deaths a year. I don't think one out of every thousand people getting in a car ends up dead."
Skydivers who are meticulous about their equipment can minimize risks. For the most part, they take accidents in stride.
"When there's an accident, nobody really cares," says Burke, with a small shrug of his shoulders. "Seeing somebody whose legs are broken is like seeing a car wreck. If a car flips, it's gonna make you go 'whoa.' But it's not gonna make you stop driving."
Except for maybe the tandem students, thoughts of dust devils are forgotten as the plane ascends and the desert below becomes a patchwork of barren sand and farms.
During the 10-minute rise to 13,000 feet, skydivers discuss the previous night's rampage in the Bent Prop saloon. Amy Chmelecki, a champion freeflyer and member of the all-girl Sugar Gliderz freefly team, leans back against the wall of the plane and catches her breath for a minute.
Chmelecki's an adorable twentysomething blonde, and although she's got a boyfriend, she remains the official drop zone sweetheart. "She's totally cool, totally beautiful, and a fuckin' awesome skydiver," says one male admirer. "If she didn't have a boyfriend, any guy on the drop zone would marry her in a second."
Amy smiles at the tandem students, smoothes her sleek white suit and takes off her Walkman headphones to chat a bit as the plane makes its way to altitude. Amy's training for this year's competitive circuit, and is up and down all day, rushing from each landing to catch the next plane up.
Her furious pace continues after sunset, when she steps behind the bar at the Bent Prop, where she works during the winter season as bartender. Last night, it seems, several of the skydivers were doing some serious beer drinking. Amy tells Greg and those around her about how Swifty, a British double amputee below the knees, and Punisher, a hulking skydiver from the East Coast, got into a heated arm-wrestling bout, in which Punisher actually lifted Swifty's truncated body off the ground.
The night ended, she says, with a woman cornering Punisher and begging for a kiss. And then the cargo door opens and the plane falls silent. Amy adjusts her goggles and headphones, inches her way to the back of the plane as bodies fall one by one, then casts a sweetly searing last grin over her shoulder as she flips out the door.
While Amy may be every Eloy skydiver's secret crush, Omar Algehelan is revered by his peers as one of the sport's great athletes. His talent has taken him to the very pinnacle of skydiving.
Everyone watches him in the air and on the drop zone. Even at a party held on the alternate landing site, he holds the crowd's attention.
He's handsome, cultivated and multilingual. But, unlike most places in Arizona, the drop zone has lots of people who fit that description. With so many foreign jumpers training during winter months, Skydive Arizona feels like an international summer camp. What sets Algehelan apart is what he can do in the sky.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
Not long after breakfast, gray-haired snowbirds in glittery visors drag lawn chairs up to the landing area where they gasp and applaud each landing.
At night, when the skydivers come home to roost, the activity concentrates at the Bent Prop or at various fires in the surrounding desert. The jumpers smoke, drink, laugh and race motorbikes well into the night.
One of the biggest draws to the Eloy skydiving mecca is its nearly perfect weather.
But once in a while, even during the peak season, nature intervenes -- which means all the adrenaline has nowhere to go during the day. The drop zone on rainy days is like a Disneyland of sugared-up kids when none of the rides is working.
During four days of rain recently, which forced the grounding of planes, the drop zone's volleyball and basketball courts, pool, fitness center and climbing wall held little appeal to the grounded jumpers.
They wandered the muddy campus like an army of hyperactive lost souls.
Some spent the few days holed up in the trailers and RVs, imbibing controlled substances and living vicariously through endless rounds of X-Box games. Others did laundry as slowly as possible, or ventured to nearby Casa Grande, where a skydiver-owned movie theater lets jumpers in for free.
As the rain continued a second and third day, alcohol stashes were soon depleted and pocket money squandered on pitcher after pitcher of beer and countless games of pool at the Bent Prop.
On the fourth day, the rain ended. But the sky was still too overcast to put a plane up by early afternoon. Yet a group of skydivers decided to position themselves at an outside table of the saloon, ready to make a mad dash to the hangar to grab their gear should the clouds lift.
Nadina, a normally perky Canadian blonde, took a glance up at the sky and held up crossed fingers.
She and a group of Canadians, recreational skydivers and a few members of a national search-and-rescue team, pilgrimage to Eloy annually. Unfortunately, this year they had spent more time on the ground than in the air. In Alberta, she says, a little bad weather would not deter pilots or the jumpers. The normally good weather has spoiled Eloy, she complains.
Back home, Nadina says, she and her friends often jump in temperatures of 15 below zero. During their short summers, she says, they aren't spoiled in Alberta by soft grassy landing areas like Eloy's. They drop out of the sky into canola fields.
"Canola grows in stalks that can reach six feet high before harvest," she says, and landing among the plants can feel like tumbling into a rain forest. It's hard to judge how tall the plants are and where the ground is, and once you hit, you can't even see where you are, she explains, or make it out on your own.
"We have to use radios to get out, plus there's an acid in the canola pods that burns through your parachute," she says, so immediately upon landing, you have to gather your chute and trudge with it held high over your head to wherever the voice on the other end of the radio dictates.
And for the privilege of making one jump into such hostile territory, Nadina says, she has had to wait in line for up to six hours because of the crowds and few aircraft.
No wonder she's maxed out her Visa card to come to Eloy. She can usually fit in about 100 jumps during each two-week trip. And despite the weather this time, she says (holding up crossed fingers again) she still may get in 70.
The skydivers on the porch with her climb up on chairs and the fence rail to get a better look at the horizon. Small talk isn't cutting it anymore. Drop zone conversations are always about skydiving, and there's no distracting divers from fantasizing about what they could be doing if the sun were out.
Someone suggests that maybe they should just get in a car and try to find something, anything, big enough to jump off.
Fuck planes and pilots and all this waiting around! Any tall object will do. Even a big radio- or TV-station antenna, provided they could get inside fences and up and down before the cops busted them.
"You watch out for microwave antennas, though," someone cautions. "You have to jump quick or you'll get fried up there. Anything more than a minute and all the fillings in your mouth start to heat up."
They ponder heading up to Phoenix and jumping off a 200-foot cliff at Camelback Mountain, but they decide the 15-second ride down wouldn't be worth leaving the drop zone. The weather could improve any minute . . .
Soon, they're getting desperate enough to resort to superstition. "What we need is a sacrificial lamb," one of them says.
Drop zone rules say skydivers can't drink and jump. Drop zone voodoo holds that if a skydiver yearning to jump can be persuaded to go into the bar and take a drink, the sun will come out immediately. They've seen it work before. The trick is finding a true skydiver willing to take the alcohol plunge for his mates.
There are no takers.
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