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Skydiving can be a pretty easy sport to find a hero in. Well, perhaps hero isn’t exactly the right way to put it … It’s a very easy sport to find people to look up to (no pun intended). Most people who find their way to skydiving manage to find someone they respect and want to emulate quite quickly. The younger you are in the sport, the more amazing the daily feats of those around you seem—and let’s face it, skydivers with any time in the sport are usually more than happy to explain what makes them so cool.
The AFF instructor who signed me off in the sport was my first real role model. He wasn’t an over-the-top skydiver, crazy freeflyer or world champion, just an all-around great guy who helped teach me how to fly.
Bruce Henderson was, for lack of a better way to put it, the Sam Malone of Las Vegas skydiving (If you’ve never seen “Cheers,” you’re just too fucking young). He was in his late 30s when he was my instructor, great looking, easy and relaxed with everyone, and a total ladies’ man. He also happened to be a great instructor whose ease with people made learning in the stressful environment of AFF a pretty chill experience. It was really easy to take advice from someone like Bruce, and looking back, pretty much all the advice he gave was damn good. That, and the fact that he seemed to have women dripping off him …
But, like with most heroes, eventually you learn they are just people after all. Bruce, being a “man’s man,” so to speak, was also the type to do things just the way he wanted. He’d managed to get himself in a bit of a snag with his other job when he’d told his boss he needed time off to attend his grandmother’s funeral, only to be seen two days later on Good Morning America swooping the camera in a Flying Elvi suit for an Elvis birthday jump in Memphis.
A couple of years later, I found myself shooting video for Bruce on a tandem jump, and I remember vividly thinking how cool it was that he had gone from mentor to colleague and how lucky I was to have guys like him bring me up in the sport. In a way, discovering that Bruce was just another guy doing what he did best, instead of some superman, made him even more cool to me, and drove me to emulate him wherever possible.
The flip side of this coin can be found just as easily, and unfortunately seems a bit more common. Perris Valley was Mecca on the West Coast at the time and man, could you find some amazing fliers! This is where the Flyboyz were and where Rob Harris, Joe Jennings, Vic Pappadato and Troy Hartman trained. This was where some of the coolest jumps, and most radical jumpers, could be found. And unfortunately, it’s also where a bunch of radical looking, yet dangerous and sketchy jumpers called home.
It was a time in skydiving where the dirtier the rig, the more ragged the jumpsuit and the more unkempt the jumper appeared, the more badass it was assumed he was. “Safety meetings” were the norm, and “hooking” your Stiletto (a pretty new phenomenon in skydiving then) was a great way to look like a badass, and a great way to fuck yourself up. A lot of the people who intentionally or unwittingly took on the moniker of “mentor” had no real business leading anyone anywhere.
More than a few injuries could be attributed to relatively inexperienced jumpers who’d gained some skill pushing even less experienced jumpers into situations and habits that got them hurt. It seemed to be more of an issue on the bigger DZs, where the hero factor was on a much grander scale, and it was there that I started to see the trend of injuries and close calls that could be attributed to shit advice and poor decision making.
At the same time though, I could easily spot those working hard to keep people out of trouble, out of harm’s way, and out of the hands of the douchebags pushing low-time jumpers into the corner with statements like, “Hook it like it’s stolen,” perpetuating the notion that the smaller the rig, the cooler the jumper was, and throwing caution to the wind by pushing people into manifesting for jumps WAY above their skill levels. It was the first type of jumpers—these good women and men usually going about their day quietly passing on advice when they could, banging out badass jumps and helping guide the low-time kids in the right direction—whom I came to really appreciate and want to follow.
From everything I still see, I think this holds pretty true. Chances are, the dude with the blusterous personality and over-the-top demeanor who’s going big right in front of the cafe every time, making sure everyone knows how “off the hook” his jump just was, and waiting for the largest crowd around the TV to gather before he plays his video is probably the guy I’m gonna walk away from. It’s the guy, or more than likely girl, who’s just as happy to land in the student landing area as they are burning tracks on the grass in the swoop lane, or as thrilled doing a 2-way coach jump for someone trying to get their A license as they would be on a 30-way head-down or sick tracking jump whom I want around me. They are the ones I want mentoring my friends or family, and they are the ones I honestly wanna be like—if or when I decide to grow up!
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