|Want to get an Elvis costume for your next skydiving adventure? Just look online! You can find a great selection of Halloween costumes online, whether you want a cool rocker costume or a sassy Easter bunny costume.|
Watch Corey skydive with the Flying Elvi...
Watch Corey skydive with the Flying Elvi...
MPEG | WMV | AVI
♪Blue Suede Chutes ♫
Jumping with the Flying Elvi
BY COREY ELVI-TAN
PHOTOS BY BRUCE HAZELTON, MARI MIYATAKE AND SKYDIVE/SAN DIEGO
You know that dream where you're plummeting wildly toward your death, then your leg does a big kick and you wake up?
Well, both my legs were kicking, but I wasn't waking up. I had just stepped out of a perfectly working airplane.
In March 2001, I wrote that I'll save skydiving "for when I run out of more unique ideas." The fact is, it's too predictable for an adventure column.
OK, the fact is that I'm scared of heights. But I still wanted a twist. I know too many people who have skydived.
My twist had 20 legs, giant sunglasses and sings "Hound Dog." I skydived with the Flying Elvi, a team of 10 skydiving Elvis Presley impersonators. They invited the media to jump with them last month in the desert southeast of San Diego, as a publicity stunt to promote the San Diego State Fair, into which they'll parachute on July 7.
What better way to mark the upcoming 25th anniversary of the King's death in August than to possibly die myself?
"Do you weigh less than 225 lbs.?" asked the Fair's publicist, Steve Fiebing. The irony of a weight limit was inescapable. Elvis himself, at least in his later years, could not have jumped with the Flying Elvi.
Lelands Just For Fun costume shop in Hermosa Beach hooked me up with a white Elvis getup -- no doubt the first time this "jumpsuit" would be used literally. They also provided a jet-black pompadour wig. (Sadly, I already owned the giant sunglasses.)
The jumpsuit was vinyl, not the ideal desert fabric -- but at least it served a safety function. If my main and backup chutes failed to deploy, the huge bell bottoms would slow me down.
"If you fall and die, I still want my costume back," joked owner Leland Van Andler.
I practiced by singing "Suspicious Minds" while jumping the three stairs leading from the door to the living room of my apartment. Somehow, this did not seem sufficient.
The Flying Elvises were pretty much the only funny thing about the 1992 comedy "Honeymoon in Vegas." (Nicolas Cage, that great comic actor, jumped out of a plane with the Utah chapter.)
For once, fiction was stranger than truth. There were no Flying Elvises, Utah chapter or otherwise. But a Las Vegas stage producer soon changed this. Dick Feeney procured a mess of rhinestone jumpsuits and parachutes, dreamed up the "Elvi" pluralization, and the rest is history.
My morning dressed as Elvis Presley began as I'm sure many of Presley's had -- at an International House of Pancakes.
"You've returned!" the hostess said, bowing, confirming my suspicion that Elvis had been there before.
"Thanguverymuch," I said after she led me to my booth, making sure to squeeze my catchphrase into one long Southern-accented syllable. It was drowned out, however, by the noise of my vinyl-encased seat squeezing across IHOP's vinyl-encased seat.
The King seemed to frighten nearby children, causing one to actually abandon her Rooty Jr. breakfast and hit the floor. But he impressed the older folk.
"You're obviously a professional impersonator," said a man who said he was visiting from Florida. The fact that I was a 5-foot-6 Elvis in essentially a white Hefty bag, with a honkin' Jewish nose and a helium-inflected voice, didn't seem to faze him.
"Are you performing locally?" he continued, eyes agape. "My friend and I would love to come catch your act."
"Thanguverymuch," I said.
I don't like peanut butter and banana sandwiches. But in retrospect, I should have ordered one anyway and left it there.
Let's just pretend I did.
Skydive San Diego is a beautiful and desolate plateau surrounded by airplane hangars and desert mountains in Jamul. Five other journalists were already waiting there, along with Dick Feeney and his Elvi. I was the only reporter committed enough to arrive in Elvis drag. The San Diego Union-Tribune's Mark Sauer did not even plan on jumping.
"Chicken?" I goaded him.
"Of course," he said.
"You're not a real reporter, like me," I said.
"I can tell from the way you're dressed," Sauer responded.
He eventually caved in, and all six of us signed up. Since we were amateurs, our jumps had to be tandem. We would each have an Elvis strapped to our back. (But then, who doesn't know what that experience is like?)
I wondered, do we pick the particular Elvis strapped to our back? And if so, perhaps we should grab a drink and decide which of the 10 we have the most in common with first.
I found the skydiving gear and looked it over -- although with my expertise, the only thing I could have noticed wrong was if the chutes were made by ACME, the company from which Wile E. Coyote purchased his defective tricks.
There is one dead Elvis -- I mean, besides the original. In 1996, a member of the Flying Elvises died and three were injured after being blown off course by whipping winds into a yacht club in Quincy, Mass.
But that wasn't Feeney's group. The Flying Elvises were the Flying Elvi's competition.
"It was a guy who was not qualified," Feeney explained. "It was his first demonstration jump -- meaning it wasn't a licensed drop zone -- the wind was too big and he made some bad errors."
Not long after that incident, Feeney's became the only skydiving Elvises officially licensed by the Presley estate. (There are still others, but they can't use the King's real name. One group in Mason, Ohio calls itself "The E Team.")
My Elvis was missing. The other journalists all had their Elvi and were receiving important pre-flight instruction. But where was mine? Was he purposefully avoiding me? Was he passed out in some hotel room in a Percoset stupor?
"Sorry, I had my kids with me and I needed to pass them to my wife," my Elvis said, introducing himself in a thick accent that did not sound at all like it came from Tupelo, Miss.
"I'm from Brazil," said 32-year-old Andres Cislaghi of Santee. He did not even look like Elvis, although he did resemble Kevin Costner in "3,000 Miles to Graceland."
Cislaghi informed me that I couldn't skydive in the Lelands outfit I had been wearing in the 90-degree desert heat for the past two hours.
"It's gonna tear right off your body in flight," he said. "Nobody told you this?"
Hmm, a flying nude Elvis. That would be another article entirely.
He offered me an official Flying Elvi jumpsuit. The outfit had a belt, which was cool, but looked kind of pinkish. Somebody had obviously tossed it in the wash with Elvis' red scarf by mistake.
My cool Lelands hair wasn't cool for the jump, either. Cislaghi procured an Elvis wig with a chin strap. Even my shiny sunglasses had to be shelved.
"First they would crack in the wind," Cislaghi said. "Then they would blow off your face and hit something on the ground." He handed me goggles instead.
The only thing more ridiculous than showing up somewhere dressed as Elvis is doing so when there is absolutely no need.
"OK, we're good to go," Cislaghi finally said. We walked toward the 12-seater prop plane as the opening horns of "See See Rider" filled my head.
I had nothing to worry about, I kept telling myself. These guys are professional ... umm, Elvis impersonators. I asked Cislaghi to sing a little Elvis, just for reassurance.
"I don't really do Elvis," he said. "He was before my time."
"How about an Elvis move then?" I asked. He still had no clue.
I had to show him the hunka-hunka shoulder swing, which he had actually never seen before. He tried to imitate my imitation, but looked more like an Amish man churning butter.
As a parachutist, Cislaghi was a little more qualified, but not much. Under his gold Elvis belt were 800 jumps. The other Elvi averaged about 2,500 each. Mine was the least qualified Elvis of the fleet.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Elvi have left the ground ... Our plane took 18 nail-biting minutes to climb to 14,000 feet, at which point you could see all of San Diego and some of Mexico. The engine emitted a sinister hum as the ground shrank below us.
I broke out my well-rehearsed "Suspicious Minds" and tried to lead a sing-along to mask my terror. No one joined in. Perhaps I should have rehearsed "It's Now or Never," or "I Can't Help Falling..."
"Come here," Cislaghi said, pointing at his lap. I inched backward in my pink jumper.
"When I tell you to go, put your hip forward like someone is poking you in the rear," he said.
"Someone IS poking me in the rear," I responded.
I watched the first Elvis/journalist team plunge into the ether.
"AHHH-AHHHHHHHHHHHH!" (And that was the Flying Elvis screaming.)
I was caught in a trap. I couldn't walk out. And Lord Almighty, I felt my temperature rising.
About 25 of every 100,000 skydives a year result in death. I've obviously written this article, so I didn't help create next year's statistic. However, this information was not available to me in the moment. In fact, the preflight video that Skydive San Diego made us watch suggested a very good chance that we would get to meet the real Elvis not long after exiting our airplane.
"By watching this video, you acknowledge that you understand that there is no such thing as a perfect parachute, a perfect instructor or a perfect airplane," said a long-bearded attorney who looked like a member of the Flying ZZ Tops. "You understand that you are taking the risk of injury or death solely upon yourself, and that you or your family will not be able to sue for any reason."
Insanely, even after this video, my biggest fear was not dying in a bloody heap of Elvis parts. It was freezing in the doorway.
"Go!" an Elvis would yell. "What are you, chicken?"
The plane would return with only me and the pilot, and I would be the laughing stock of the entire Flying Elvi community.
The real Elvis wouldn't be chicken, I told myself. The real Elvis would eat chicken. Fried and with peanut butter smeared all around the outside.
"It's time to walk toward the doorway," Cislaghi said. I summoned my inner King and we plodded over.
Before I had the chance to lean back and ask what happens next, it did. As it turned out, exiting the plane wasn't my decision at all. I was strapped in four places to the person who made that decision. My legs had no say. There was nothing left for me to fear except...
"AHHH-AHHHHHHHHHHH!" (That was me this time, in case you couldn't tell.)
We began our plummet facing skyward, then groundward after a horrifying flip. As a freezing wind pummeled our bodies like bricks, the distant ground filled my field of vision.
It was like sticking your head outside a car window. Going 1000 miles an hour. Off a cliff.
At least I didn't feel the roller coaster stomach I expected. In fact, there was no sensation of gravity at all. After about 40 seconds, I dare say, I got sufficiently comfortable to lift my head up.
A cameraman who jumped right before us had maneuvered himself about five feet away and was yelling for me to look into his lens. I hadn't seen him because my eyes were glued to the ground, making sure it didn't get too big too fast.
About a minute in, just as I got used to the free-fall, the real terror came. When your parachute opens, you go from zero to 800 lbs. in half a second. Every ounce of your body resists the chute and you are forceably yanked to what feels like a dead stop in the air.
With no preflight training, I had no idea to expect this.
"AHHH-AHHHHHHHHHHH!" (Me again.)
"How was that?" Cislaghi asked as we now floated downward. The wind was calm enough for conversation, but I was not.
"Would you like me to spin?" he asked.
"No spinning!" I yelled, still shaking from the shock. Cislaghi laughed then told me to prepare myself for what was coming next.
"You are going to drop a couple of inches now," Cislaghi said.
What? This is not what you want to hear when you are hanging a mile in the sky, by a few nylon straps attached to half a balloon that looks ready to tear.
Cislaghi said he needed to detach the bottom two clasps connecting us so his feet would have room to land independently of mine. I would hang by our two upper clasps during the rest of the 10-minute glide.
"Put all your weight on my feet," Cislaghi said before detaching the clasps. He counted to three and I dropped -- nearly as far as my stomach.
We came in for a landing at about 40 miles per hour as I wondered who had my dental records. But a carefully ridden puff of wind gently slowed the chute to walking speed just as we approached ground level.
It was over. But not according to my body. My legs shook for hours afterward, and every sentence I attempted began with a stutter.
The photo below pretty much sums up how I felt. But Skydive San Diego also provided me with a video of the experience. Since there were no Elvis songs to dub in, I picked Van Halen's "Jump" and Tom Petty's "Free Falling." (Man, the employees were sick of those songs.)
I considered making copies of the video to send to friends -- only instead of the landing, I would splice in a segment from some video showing a parachutist crashing to his death. (It was laziness, not conscience, that killed that idea.)
"So, would you do it again?" was the question everyone seemed to ask.
My response: I ain't nothing but a ground dog. But there are plenty of stupid things left for me to try at sea level.
Click here to visit skydivesandiego.com
Click here to return to home page