In The Zone

Page 6 of 7

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.

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Susy Buchanan