Falling out of the sky is their idea of fun

Most any weekend hundreds of thrill-seeking Canadians jump out of airplanes a couple of miles up, gambol around the sky for nearly a full minute, then—almost always— open their parachutes in time to land safely. It sounds mad, but it's the fastest-growing new sport in North America

Jack Batten December 2 1964

Falling out of the sky is their idea of fun

Most any weekend hundreds of thrill-seeking Canadians jump out of airplanes a couple of miles up, gambol around the sky for nearly a full minute, then—almost always— open their parachutes in time to land safely. It sounds mad, but it's the fastest-growing new sport in North America

Jack Batten December 2 1964

Falling out of the sky is their idea of fun

Most any weekend hundreds of thrill-seeking Canadians jump out of airplanes a couple of miles up, gambol around the sky for nearly a full minute, then—almost always— open their parachutes in time to land safely. It sounds mad, but it's the fastest-growing new sport in North America

Jack Batten

AL-BORAK, according to some devotees of Islam, is the winged beast, “smaller than a mule, larger than an ass," that transported the Prophet Mohammed from Jerusalem to his final resting place in Seventh Heaven. Al-Borak is also the name adopted by a club of thirty-one men who spend every Saturday afternoon, and as many holidays in between as they can manage, jumping out of an airplane at heights of 7,500 to 12,500 feet into a farmer's pasture near Uxbridge, Ont., a town thirty-five miles northeast of Toronto. The club members — all of whom claim they experience a bit of Seventh Heaven every time they jump — are part of the most improbable and the most rapidly growing sport for he-men in North America. The sport is sky diving — literally, diving for the sheer joy of it through thousands of feet of open sky until, with the ground a few' seconds away, there's only enough time to open a parachute and float safely earth.

Besides the men of Al-Borak. there are upward of seven hundred active sky divers in Canada, members of forty-one clubs. In the United States almost seven hundred clubs have ten thousand divers. Sky-diving literature, which has become in the last few years as voluminous and single-minded as stamp-collecting literature or jazz literature, variously describes sky diving as a sport, an art and a science. For the scores of Canadians who find the nerve each year to try diving the crucial first time, it also rapidly becomes an obsession.

The sport, art and science are wrapped up in about fifty seconds of action. That's the duration of the average “free fall,” the time it takes to drop from the open door of a plane cruising at twelve thousand feet, down to the two-thousand-foot level where divers are supposed to release their chutes. The basic diving position, the one experienced divers assume automatically when they leave the plane, is a full spread eagle, belly down, head tilted in to the chest. In that posture, divers can reach speeds of around a hundred and tw'enty-five miles per hour without blacking out and without continuing to accelerate, and from it they can perform, in the free air, manoeuvres of startling artistry and accuracy.

By using their legs and arms as ailerons and rudders, sky divers can turn, roll, glide, loop, swoop around one another, pass batons back and forth, and etch long graceful patterns against the clouds and sky. In full flight, they may resemble the diving human birds that Icarus had in mind the day he flew too close to the sun. (One member of Al-Borak, Bill Cole, has a private bag of tricks. Cole is a photographer in his nonjumping hours, and on a few Saturday

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afternoons last month he combined his profession with his hobby. C ole took the remarkable photographs of the divers in flight that appear on the cover and on these pages; he took them, with an elaborate camera rig mounted on his helmet, as he dropped through the sky over Uxbridge at a hundred and seventy-four feet per second.)

l or every fifty seconds ol action. Cole and the other Al-Borak divers put in a couple of hours on the ground getting out of their gear, refolding their chutes, describing the glories of their latest jumps, waiting their turn for another jump, or just minding their kids. A grove of elms at the west end of the farmer's pasture encloses a pleasant grassy picnic ground in the summer and a sheltered retreat in the winter, and most ol the divers take along their wives, children and girl friends — all nonjumpers — for the day in the country.

I he pasture is leased from its owner by a bluff ex-fighter pilot of the Polish Air Force named Jan Falkowski; he in turn lets it to AlBorak for twenty dollars a month. Falkowski, who twice had to parachute out of planes shot from under him in World War II and who seems to regard parachuting for a reason other than saving one’s life as. at best, an eccentricity, also flies a neat little four-seater Cessna, and it provides the elub members with transportation up to their jump points. For the service, Falkowski charges by altitude: $7.50 for a 12,500-foot jump. $3.50 if the diver gets out at 7,500 feet.

While the divers are performing in the air, no one on the ground pays much attention, except the next load of divers and a few stray citizens from Uxbridge. The wives knit and chat and sun themselves,

What the well-dressed sky diver wears

and the kids play cowboys and Indians in the grove; after a couple of Saturdays their fathers’ hobby begins to strike them as pretty tame.

But life-insurance companies think sky diving is downright suicidal. They class sky divers with auto racers at Le Mans and scuba fanatics, and most refuse to place policies on their lives. Divers, like boxing managers, arc in the habit of answering their critics by pointing out how much more dangerous other sports are: five innocent people, one sky-diving text book solemly records, are struck down on golf courses by lightning every year. Two Canadian divers have been killed this year — they waited to pull their ripcords until they were almost on the ground. Some divers, explaining these accidents, claim that the sky holds an eerie attraction, a nearly irresistible temptation to float dreamily into some distant remote depth. “Sky diving is a drug,” Jacques Istel, the American who introduced the sport to North America in the mid-1950s, once wrote. “The sky diver would love not to bring a chute with him.”

Istel himself has done most to eliminate the sport's daredevil, flying-circus image — he's operated a Jump Centre, a variation of a golf driving range for parachutists, at Orange, Massachusetts, for over five years without a single fatality. When Istel imported sky diving from Europe, he imported Europe’s new safety equipment and safety measures with it. Modern chutes open gently — without the old whiplash snap that could dislocate a jumper’s shoulder — and they have slit canopies that permit the parachutist to steer by tugging on the suspension lines. And at clubs such as Al-Borak, following Istel’s innovations, a novice diver first goes

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Safety is stressed, but every diver signs forms absolving the club from blame — just in case

through a rigid training program — on the ground — in diving fundamentals; then he must perform ten static-line jumps — jumps in which

his chute is opened by a line attached inside the plane — before he's allowed to try his first free fall.

The chutes arc respected like sacred objects; no diver would dare to fold, straighten, handle or otherwise molest another diver's equipment. This regulation may have as much to do with economics as it does with safety: government-surplus chutes run about one hundred and fifty dollars and a custom-made number can cost two hundred and fifty dollars or more. Be-

sides his chute, every diver wears strapped to his chest in plain sight an altimeter to let him know how close the ground is. and a stopwatch to let him know how long he's been falling. If all this care still fails, AlBorak is covered anyway: every member signs a form absolving from blame for an accident, the club, the other members, Jan Falkowski, Jan Falkowski’s Cessna, and everybody in the factory that made the parachute.

Sky diving is scrubbing up its image

as a competitive sport, too. Late in August, one hundred and seventy-five divers from thirty-one countries gathered at Lcutkirch. West Germany, for the seventh biennial w'orld parachuting championships. Points were awarded for style jumps, in which divers displayed their form in a prescribed series of twists and rolls, and for accuracy competitions, in which they dived in on a ground target from a thousand metres and fifteen hundred metres up. The championships, like all international games, traditionally resolve themselves into a life-and-death struggle between the U. S. and the Communist countries, who play their traditional bad-guy role (one year, a foxy Russian diver wore webbed gloves for better steering manoeuvrability). This year the U. S. used a radical new' chute that lets divers down about fifty percent more slowly than the old model, and managed to edge out Czechoslovakia for first place.

Canada’s team — nine divers, a nondiving team captain, a coach, a manager and a suitcase full of pennants to trade with the other countries — placed a very respectable fifth, and the team’s star, a twenty-eight-yearold jumper from Toronto named Daryl Henry, finished ninth in the individual competitions. Henry is a handsome, dashing character w'ho makes his living as a model and spends his spare time writing learned articles (An Approach To Precision) and gothic fiction for Sky Diver magazine. Henry won the 1963 North American parachuting championship at Las Vegas with two spectacular bull’s-eye jumps. In another age, he might be hailed as a national sports hero, like Rocket Richard. If sky diving keeps growing the way it has in the last couple of years, he still might. ★