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Rob Harris
Three Years

Live while you live. We met by chance on a dz I’d visit perhaps once a month. Freestyle was new and camera flyers talked about how challenging it was to follow. I took up camera flying to support my skydiving habit. A thousand camera jumps later, it barely woke me up. I can’t recall exactly how I bumped into Rob Harris, but I remember standing in front of manifest talking. He was in his mid twenties, black hair combed straight up like a wave, too damn good looking, like some surf punk who could be the biggest ass in town and still be flocked by cool people.   But something was disarming about Rob. He was friendly, easy going, didn’t seem to be aware of being cool. That was cool.

So we go up in a King Air. I expected an almost impossible chase, super fast and changing fall rates. I’d heard it all from other camera flyers and didn’t know what to expect from my own flying skills. A feeling started to creep up on me, something I knew eight hundred jumps ago, that rush I used to feel chasing an AFF out the door hoping I wouldn’t take out the student and the instructors again. I was going to bust my ass on this one. On exit, my body was charged. Rob did barrels out the door and swung into a Daffy. Then he started a series of back and twisting layouts. I flew after him contorting my body, arching hard, flaring out, hugging the beach ball to slow fall rate and swooping into a dive to catch up. He was all over the sky and I felt like a human jet on a mission to stay with him, to keep the target in my sites. At deployment, I heard myself panting. I was hooked.

Rob took up skysurfing and when he had around 40 or so jumps, he called me about a competition in Eloy Arizona. It was the first world meet ever in skysurfing. I accepted, and off we went. Board jumpers from around the world were there including the great Patrick De Gayardon, with cameraman, Mike McGowan. We were awestruck. The biggest drop zone in the US with skydivers we recognized from Parachutist and Skydiving. Eric Fradet, Werner Normberg, Scott Smith, Roland Barksdale.

The competition in the intermediate division went like this. Tape five dives, turn in your favorite, and the judges would get back with the results. Bob Griner was there and around four others in our division. Rob had just over fifty jumps, but his presentation to the camera was smooth. He looked cool. We won! I think I enjoyed that medal as much as any I’d ever taken home. And we were sure our names would turn up in Parachutist. They did in some small article. We felt famous. It was March ‘93.

It marked the beginning of our team. Rob decided to train - learn more about skysurfing. I liked to film skysurfing, I liked him. We trained in Taft, supported by the Jones family, for our first Advanced level competition at the ‘93 world meet in Empuria Brava, Spain. Around a month or so before the meet, Bill Jones gave us a bunch of free jumps from his Cessna. I guess he saw something in our work. And he’d take us for joy rides around whatever puffy clouds we could find and would show us different areas of the San Andreas Fault line (some day beach property) from the air. We did a bunch of jumps before taking off for Spain from Bill’s Cessna.

We flew business class (full flight, got lucky) to Spain via British Airways. From Barcelona we traveled to Empuriabrava via train. The competition was huge. Multilingual skysurfers, freestylists, and camera flyers from around the world. The equipment was slick, boards long, cameras tricked out. Rob reminded me that we were there just to do our best. That was our excuse.

One training day left. The otters at Empuriabrava had CD players jamming cool tunes all the way to altitude. We dialed in our best stuff and settled into the environment. Empuriabrava is one of the more beautiful places in the world to jump. The next day we landed from competition jump #1 in 3rd place just behind Eric Fradet and Werner Normberg with Patrick De Gayardon and Gus Wing in first. It was amazing! Rob was right up there with the big boys, and Norm Kent (the man) was judging my work! It just felt like we’d landed on some cloud at sunset. I caught the flu - a bad case of it, but we’d come too far. Rob was shining - I competed on adrenaline and flu medicine. Rob hurt his knee and had to sit on my leg to put his board on. We held onto third and made our way to the podium to be receive our medals with Patrick, Gus, Eric, and Werner.

We took the winter off, aside from an occasional pizza commercial. Pizza companies would send me their shirts, hats and boxes, and we’d take them up for an "Air Delivery". We did a bunch of them. In the summer of ‘94 we trained on weekends for the ‘94 world meet in Eloy AZ. Something clicked. Call it chemistry. We started to fly really well. The rules of the competition were announced. Moves were rated A - D in order of difficulty - there were lists of advanced skysurf and camera flying moves. We set our sites and trained. Rob practiced D moves, I practiced D camera moves. We choreographed routines and wrote a wish list. Our style was beginning to show.

We had good routines. I was jumping an old Vector with a Raven 210 and Jeff Jones, Bill’s son, couldn’t bare to have me represent Taft wearing that, so he loaned me his own rig. And we were off to Eloy Arizona for the ‘94 World Meet. We walked onto the drop zone relatively unknown and without a clue as to how well we’d do. We hoped to medal again, but wanted mostly to make the top ten to qualify for the Extreme Games. Skysurf teams from around the world were there. The sky was full of canopies, freestyle and skysurf teams training the last couple days before the meet. You could cut the energy in the air with a knife. We made our way to manifest to register.

We had a couple days in Eloy to warm up for the competition. Twice, I almost knocked our team out of the meet before the competition started. On one jump, I was flying on my back and found myself tracking toward Rob. The track was very efficient and my closing speed was enough to knock us both unconscious. Rob was hanging upside down, saw me coming and ducked up to avoid the hit. On another jump, I hooked Jeff’s Stiletto 135 in for a nice swoop entirely misjudging the canopy. Headed straight for the ground, I stuck the breaks as hard as I could and then bounced hard on my left thigh. Somehow the hit was evenly distributed, nothing broken. The gods were looking out for me.
Round 1 Compulsory: We headed up to altitude. Bob Griner, Cliff Birch, Troy Hartman, and Vic Papadato were seated with us. Barely a word was spoken. I think we all wanted to get the first jump over with, to just get a round in without a board breaking, camera mal, mid air collision, brain lock, loss of grip on exit, passing out. We exited, smooth, in sync, Rob was on his game as usual, I was flying nice. It felt good. We ended the routine with a Grab and Stab where Rob covers the lens to end the routine. A huge weight was lifted, we knew we’d made it in time, my camera light was still on. I figured, if the light had turned off, I’d just hang out till I went in.

We were shocked, the judges were surprised, other competitors were checking the monitors. Who is that guy in first place? Rob Harris had made his mark. I was more concerned with my shots being clean. Rob’s training had paid off. My training with him had paid off. The last thing I wanted was to blow our performance on a camera mal or brain lock.

Round two was another good one. Everyone was more talkative on the ride up, relieved, I guess. Round three and four were good too. By now, the folks at ESPN were on us with the cameras, and we had a second camera flyer on every round. It was a lot of fun, all that attention all of the sudden. I was chomping at the bit to do free rounds. I wanted to show barrel rolls, the up, over, and under shot, and so on. My stuff. Weather kept us waiting, though. We sat through three days of Arizona’s unusually bad skies. It felt like pulling teeth standing around in the cold, checking outside again and again as if it would help to be watching. Kind of like looking down the street to make the bus come faster. The possibility of a canceled meet was growing. Finally, the sky cleared.

ESPN was on us like flies on shiugar. I was almost tripping on the ride to altitude, feeling cold, not current, wanting to get the round over with. I wasn’t alone, the buzz of the turbines were just about the only sound. Rob seemed calm. My mind was humming. What if I blow a barrel?, or over flip on the Tydy Bowl?, or forget to turn on the camera?, or brain lock the routine and just sit there?. I have no idea how skysurfers do it, move after move in a routine, so much to remember, so much to do. Easy enough during practice, but in competition, your brain goes into overdrive, your heart is pumping like a jackhammer. You wonder if you’re going to let go of the plane and just drift off somewhere. Months of training, and you just drift off filming the ground.

But most of us find ourselves performing. The fear, adrenaline... I didn’t feel a brain lock, in fact, I was way ahead of my game. When I’m familiar with a routine, I think a step ahead. In competition, I’m thinking two steps ahead, waiting for the next move, the next cue. I found myself looking out for Rob, analyzing his moves, routing for him, cause I knew my game was covered. Those moments were gems for me. I’d watch Rob nailing move after move, cool as ice, sticking it. And a smile would begin to turn my lips. Through his dark glasses and game face, I could see, Rob grinning back, and my cameras were there capturing this athlete for the judges. What a lucky camera flyer I was.

We felt the energy of the crowd on the ground. I’d make my way to the dubbing room grinning, taking credit for both our performances. The guys copying our tapes would group around the TV to catch a first look at the routine. Being noticed all of the sudden was strange. Rob seemed to handle it comfortably. I’d look around and see people looking back. That was totally new. I liked it, but didn’t quite know how to handle it. And I didn’t quite know how to handle the conversations, people congratulating me, telling me my stuff was great, wondering why they hadn’t heard of me before, and so on and so on. I found myself stumbling over words. But my family was there in force. My dad, my wife, brother, sister, their friends, my in-laws, Rob’s mom and friends, added up to fifteen or so people, and I was able to bury myself a bit. I wouldn’t trade the experience for a million dollars. It was a feeling of being ecstatic, overwhelmed, and off balance, not easy, but good.
As the weather cleared, we finished the competition in first place. The judging wasn’t wrapped, but our lead was solid and the last round was good. Still, Rob would ask again and again, "Do you think we could win this thing?" "You think we won?". He knew, but couldn’t quite grasp it. We talked about his ambitions as a skysurfer. He wanted to be the best, to win competitions sometimes, trading first and second in competitions with people like Patrick and Eric, to have a title. And we were standing in a hanger at Skydive Arizona soon to be awarded with gold at a world meet, and he couldn’t quite get his hands on it.

MORE TO COME       Rob Harris Part 2

I plan to change this some and ad to it in the near future.

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