In The Zone

Page 3 of 7

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."

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Susy Buchanan