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Skydiving pros hope to land spot on national team

Ryan Brownlow, of Oakland, CA skips across a pond during a practice run Thursday for the Canopy Piloting Speed event at the 2015 U.S. Parachute Association (USPA) National Parachuting Championships in Raeford.
Ryan Brownlow, of Oakland, CA skips across a pond during a practice run Thursday for the Canopy Piloting Speed event at the 2015 U.S. Parachute Association (USPA) National Parachuting Championships in Raeford. cliddy@newsobserver.com

The sizzling hot air was full of the whistling sound of skydivers hurtling toward their targets at 90 miles per hour this week at Skydive Paraclete in Raeford. There, 120 skydivers have gathered to compete for coveted spots on the U.S. Parachute Team at this year’s parachuting championships.

The Raeford event, which ends Sunday, is open to the public sunrise to sunset.

Thomas Dellibac is hoping to qualify for his tenth year in a row. Dellibac has logged thousands of dives in 16 years. On Thursday, he was practicing to compete in canopy piloting or “swooping” – the fastest-paced and riskiest of the three categories of overall competition. For him, the high speeds he can hit while swooping are addictive.

“Everything else seems slow,” Dellibac said.

There are 12 swooping spots available on the national team. About 30 swoopers are competing at the same level as Dellibac, and the group of skydivers is tight-knit. All share a deep love of the kind of adrenaline rush that can only be found by jumping out of a plane at 5,000 feet.

120 skydivers vie for positions on U.S. Parachute Team

Skydiving brings with it a steep learning curve, risk of injury and high initial costs. The U.S. Parachute Association estimates there were 3.2 million skydives in the United States last year; 24 of those dives resulted in a fatality.

But skydivers say their sport is no more dangerous than most others. It’s all about managing your speed, Dellibac said.

In addition to swooping, the two other categories of competition are canopy formation, where multiple people attach to each other in formation mid-air, and “style and accuracy,” where competitors have to land on a point the size of a dime.

Swoopers, in particular, have chosen the least forgiving route a skydiver can take in competitions. And there’s an extra danger factor because the divers’ chutes are smaller than the rest – about 70 square feet.

Jeannie Bartholomew might love being airborne too much. She nearly died in a swooping-related accident about two years ago when her arm became cinched in the canopy’s cords close to the ground.

“We’re throwing out nylon into the air,” Bartholomew said. “Sometimes stuff happens.”

But not long after a four-day stay in the hospital, the professional swooper was back at it. She said she has been obsessed with the idea of flying since she was a kid. Now she and her husband, Curt, a four-time world champion, travel internationally and compete together.

Dellibac and the Bartholomews are part of a select group that can skydive for a living. Those at nationals have committed most of their lives, time and resources to skydiving. Far fewer will actually be paid to jump.

Robert Harris said once you get past training and buying the equipment, skydiving gets cheaper. He pays $25 for every dive.

After most jumps, Harris plugs a sensor he straps to himself during dives into his laptop and analyzes the data. His speed, positioning and angling all make a difference in how well the landing goes. All good swoopers will follow the same basic pattern as they approach the ground, Harris said.

Recently, Harris bought a sewing machine and designed his own wingsuit, a full-body suit that resembles a flying squirrel. He said jumping in the suit was the most terrifying and exciting thing he had ever done.

Harris said as technology improves, skydiving gets safer. There are reserve chutes, as well as backups for the reserve. Deaths or serious injuries in the sport are almost always going to be because of human error, he said.

“Pay attention to where you’re going, look where you’re going and you won’t have to worry about it,” he said.

Next year, Harris will start competing on the same level as Dellibac and the Bartholomews. He began his sports career in motocross, but there was a problem – he wasn’t getting enough time airborne. Swooping was the solution.

“Skydiving is pure flying, all the time,” Harris said.

Wildeman: 919-829-4845

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