July 21, 2005
Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld and I shook hands 20 minutes before we were to jump out of an airplane together at 12,500 feet. It would be my first solo jump. Dan has made some 23,000 -- he's stopped counting except by the thousands.
I came to the Perris Skydiving Center, at the eastern end of Riverside County, for two reasons. A publicist for the center had contacted me to promote the National Skydiving Championships, to be held there over Labor Day.
"What," I asked, "does that have to do with The Jewish Journal?"
"Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld," the publicist said.
The other reason I came to the skydiving center was to do something I'd always wanted to do: jump.
The chance to make my first jump under the guidance of Brodsky-Chenfeld, who happens to be Jewish, was worth challenging my wife's strict no-skydiving-while-still-a-father rule. Brodsky-Chenfeld has won 16 national and eight international championships. In a sport that demands athleticism and death-defying cool, Brodsky-Chenfeld is world-renowned. In the skydiving world, he's known as Dan B.C.
"He draws the best competitors from all over the world," said Larry Bagley, who oversees competition for the United States Parachutist Association. "You think: Dan B.C. is the person I want to be when I grow up, if I ever grow up."
That Dan B.C. is Jewish has to be counterintuitive. Take away the short, illustrious history of Israeli combat paratroopers, and you won't find many Jews jumping out of airplanes. History has taught us that danger will find us soon enough without our having to chase it.
"My parents," he told me as we walked toward the small, waiting airplane, "yeah, they probably prefer I did something else."
Family lore has it that Brodsky-Chenfeld, who is 43, was jumping off his bunk bed as a 5-year-old growing up in Columbus, Ohio, using his pillowcase as a parachute. He got his first real opportunity at 18, at Ohio State University, and he was hooked. Soon he was running a nearby drop zone, working his way up the ranks of divers in the nascent sport of skydiving.
Competitive skydiving looks like daredevilry, but Brodsky-Chenfeld and others are out to prove it is a demanding competition, as deserving of Olympic status as skiing or gymnastics.
"All people usually see are the stunts," Brodsky-Chenfeld said. "They never see the sport."
Divers exit the plane going 90-100 m.p.h. at 12,000 feet. As their bodies reach terminal velocity, 120 m.p.h., they begin a series of timed maneuvers, building human formations of four to 16 divers in a required sequence. Plummeting toward the ground at 200 feet per second, they guide their bodies into place with tremendous delicacy and discipline. They must do all this in 35-50 seconds -- then separate, pull their ripcords and land.
A photographer, who is part of the jump team, records the formation for the judges, who determine winners on a point system. At the Labor Day weekend competition at Perris Valley Skydiving, visitors can watch 750 skydivers compete in 26 events -- the largest national event in history.
"You can fly up there," Brodsky-Chenfeld said. "You can go forward, backward, spin around. You surf the air like you surf water."
The sport involves rigorous physical conditioning combined with meditation. Since divers get very little actual airtime to practice, they rehearse on the ground and push themselves to visualize linking sequences in their minds. Brodsky-Chenfeld, who is general manager of the skydiving center, also trains teams from around the world, including Israel.
He's proud of that, and of the Star of David configuration he organized at the Los Angeles Jewish Festival in 1996 -- 48 skydivers jumping from three planes. Until last year, he also held the record for organizing the world's largest link-up: 300 divers from 14 planes.
But the challenge of the sport itself is his primary passion, and Brodsky-Chenfeld combines an athlete's well-muscled frame with a calm, confident Zen-master demeanor.
As he walks me toward the waiting airplane, I look down and notice he is wearing sandals.
My skydiving instruction -- which the skydiving center paid for -- began in front of a video monitor in a small room. On screen, a lawyer with no discernable personality --"I represent the skydiving school. I am not your lawyer" -- informed me that skydiving can lead to serious injury or death. By signing the eight-page waiver, he said, I cannot sue, and if I do sue, I most likely will not recover damages, and that, if I am able to win damages, I must understand the school is not insured.
"Now that I've covered all the grim legal aspects," the lawyer concludes, "why don't you go and have some fun and be safe."
You can do a tandem dive harnessed to an instructor, or you can take a four-hour course, then jump accompanied by, but not attached to, two jumpmasters. I chose the latter, and paid very, very careful attention.
"The ground can come up on you very fast," instructor Josh Hall said. "Skydivers think a lot about the ground."
Landings, though, are soft, thanks to a new generation of glider-like parachutes. Those old mushroom shaped ones, Hall explained, created nothing but "human lawn darts."
Brodsky-Chenfeld and my other jumpmaster, Kai Wolf, told me the key is to breathe and relax. They smiled a lot and took deep, exaggerated breaths. Other than the fact that I was wearing a jumpsuit and a parachute pack in an airplane whose side door slid wide open at 8,000 feet, it was just like a Pilates class.
I'd done my research and knew, rationally, that skydiving was somewhat safer than general aviation, but certainly less safe than not skydiving.
"Think about it," Larry Bagley said later. "There's a slim chance that it's his turn and your turn to go at the same time."
On April 22, 1992, Brodsky-Chenfeld and 22 other skydivers climbed into a de Havilland Twin Otter at Perris Valley, ready for another round of practice. At 700 feet, water in the fuel supply stalled the engine and the plane plummeted nose first into the ground. The pilot and 15 skydivers died -- one of the worst aircraft accidents in skydiving history.
Brodsky-Chenfeld was pulled from the wreckage. He suffered a broken neck, a collapsed lung, numerous broken bones and internal injuries. His close friend James Layne, sitting across from him in the airplane, died instantly.
Brodsky-Chenfeld spent six weeks in a coma, and has no recollection of the crash.
In the hospital he'd lost 40 pounds, and wore a halo screwed into his skull to limit his movements while his broken back tried to heal. A wrong move or a fall could have paralyzed him for life, let alone jumping again out of an airplane.
"There was never any doubt in my mind that if I could physically do it, I would," he said. "It's the job I love."
Just months later, Brodsky-Chenfeld, still in a neck brace, began competing. His team, Arizona Airspeed, took the bronze in the November 1992 Nationals. In 1995, Airspeed beat its trans-Atlantic archrivals, the French Excaliburs, to win an international gold medal.
If it sounds like the movie "Rocky," it reads like it, too -- a screenplay of Brodsky-Chenfeld's ordeal has begun circulating through town.
Brodsky-Chenfeld said the accident didn't change his view of skydiving, but of living.
"I understood how fragile it all is," he said. "I woke up in a different world than the one I passed out in. There were people gone whom I was close to. So you learn to make sure you get the most out of each moment, and make sure the people who mean the most to you know they do."
Brodsky-Chenfeld met his wife, Kristi, when she came to him for skydiving lessons She went on to make more than 300 jumps, but left the sport when she became pregnant with their first child. He carts around his two children, ages 10 and 6, in a white Volvo station wagon.
"It's a safe car," he explained.
I have two children, too, and they're the last images in my mind before I leap out between Brodsky-Chenfeld and Wolf, into the air.
The feeling is indescribable -- a sensation of flying, not falling. My mind frizzes between sensory overload, sheer terror, and wonder.
A videographer, Mike Kindsvater, is circling me with a camera. When I watch later, I'll see my lips frozen in fear, and Brodsky-Chenfeld, smiling broadly.
At 5,000 feet I wave the instructors away, pull my cord and swing upward, suspended by my thankfully perfect chute. I spend the five-minute float down uttering prayers of thanksgiving, curses and exultations.
When I land, I want to take the next plane up and do it again.
I told this to Dan B.C.
"Yeah," he said. "You have to get up there to understand."
The USPA National Skydiving Championships will be held Aug. 23-Sept. 11. For more information, visit www.skydiveperris.com or call (800) 759-3483.