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Jun 2017

Defining an Era

Defining an Era

B.J. Worth did not just influence the sport of skydiving, he defined an era. His thumbprint appears on most of the significant developments from the 1970s through the last decade, the heyday of skydiving Baby Boomers. It began with cutting-edge skydiving, which led him to undertake breathtaking stunts for major media productions and later organize exhibition jumps viewed live by millions. All this while thoughtfully and considerately governing skydiving as a board member for USPA and the International Parachuting Commission of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Worth’s contributions earned him the USPA Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2017 FAI Gold Parachuting Medal, skydiving’s highest honors.

Worth accepted both honors during a gala ceremony sponsored by Sun Path Products as part of February’s Parachute Industry Association Symposium in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Bobbie Worth, his wife and frequent partner-in-enterprise, stood close by. B.J. and Bobbie’s siblings traveled thousands of miles to be seated at the table. Their daughter, Sara, and five-year-old granddaughter, Teya, both clearly descendants of the bloodline, also attended.

Worth came of age in the sport in his early 20s as a lynchpin of what’s today known officially as “formation skydiving” (FS) or by the awkward term “belly flying.” Then known by an equally awkward name, “relative work” (RW), the discipline began to horn in on the dominant early-‘70s skydiving pastimes, style (individual freefall aerobatics) and accuracy (precision landing).

Contrasting against the clean-cut style-and-accuracy crowd, Worth led an innovative group of scraggly, bearded, cut-off-wearing hippies trying to design and build creative geometrical formations and sequence between them in freefall. Premiering Worth’s masterful ability to pull a rangy crowd into achieving the unthinkable, the 1975 U.S. Freefall Exhibition Team set RW on fire in the imaginations of jumpers worldwide with this notion of “sequential maneuvers.”

Also a master of promoting his efforts, Worth reached out to the top freefall photographers of the day—Carl Boenish, Ray Cottingham and Rande DeLuca—to create the 15-minute visually stimulating 16 mm live-action film “Wings,” one of very few productions available for distribution in the mid-1970s (hard to imagine from today’s YouTube perspective). He would later draw on this team and others along the way to pursue his successful filmmaking career.

Sequential RW dominated the sport through the next three decades, with Worth helping it through hurdle after hurdle. It progressed gloriously through bigger formations and longer sequences in national and world championships, all without the benefit of vertical wind tunnels. Even today, FS remains the most popular skydiving competition discipline. The rules and details of 4-way, 8-way and 16-way owe much of their development—and even the name “formation skydiving”—to B.J. Worth.

In the meantime, Worth stayed true to the roots of RW, participating in many of the largest freefall formation records. He was on the world’s first 100-way (over Muskogee, Oklahoma, in 1989) and was a sector captain for the first 200-way (in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in 1992). Two years later, Worth first organized a big-way record attempt—a 222-way in Bratislava, Slovakia. He incorporated the use of “weed-whackers” into his formation design, a radical—and dubious in the minds of other organizers—departure from previous designs. Although the formation built to only 215, the weed-whacker design proved to be so successful that it remains the most effective big-way design for belly flyers, as well as freeflyers.

What started out as a one-off record attempt expanded into a 20-year campaign to build the largest possible formations in freefall. B.J. and Bobbie collaborated to lead World Team, an international compilation of disciplined big-way skydivers, team leaders, videographers, FAI Judges, aircraft pilots and support network. A partnership with the Royal Thai Air Force, which provided five C-130s flying in tight formation at 26,500 feet in the name of His Majesty King Bhumibol, made possible the team’s crowning achievement: the current FAI World Record 400-way freefall formation, which flew over Udon Thani, Thailand, on February 8, 2006. This record was a feat of logistics as much as skydiving athleticism and has stood for more than a decade. It may never fall.

In 1976, after “Wings”debuted, Worth made the first of many trips to Paris, then the home of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and its International Parachuting Commission. At the IPC plenary session, Worth proposed a new set of rules he had developed for 4-way and 8-way sequential relative work competition events. All previous IPC RW events were timed, with the objective being to achieve the lowest score possible. For the new RW events, Worth proposed open-ended scoring where teams would score more points for better performances. This concept, and the creativity of these events, endeared him to Eilif Ness, captain of the Norwegian RW team, chairman of the IPC’s RW Committee, soon-to-be IPC President and eventual FAI President.

At the 2017 PIA Symposium in February, Ness flew to Chattanooga from Norway to present the FAI Gold Parachuting Medal to Worth. He shared with the crowd that at first he wasn’t sure what to make of this mustachioed and sunglasses-wearing hippie. But it didn’t take him long. With the support of Ness, Worth convinced the IPC of the value of moving forward into 4-way, 8-way and, later, 16-way. Meanwhile, Worth and his team, Mirror Image, dominated 8-way in the USA and the international arena.

 

The “Off” Years

FAI World Championships take place in each discipline only every other year. Worth trained with Mirror Image for the “on” years. In the “off” years, he pursued his alter-ego identity in the movies as James Bond. While the headliner 007 actors—Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan—cycled through, Worth remained the constant double for Bond or Bond’s nemesis for the skydiving stunts in “Moonraker,” “Octopussy,” “A View to a Kill,” “The Living Daylights,” “GoldenEye,” “License to Kill” and “Tomorrow Never Dies.” Worth claims that his greatest stretch as a stunt performer was doubling for Grace Jones (a tall black woman) when he made history’s only legal jump from the Eiffel Tower. 

At the time, USPA’s board mandated a blackout on BASE jumping in Parachutist. Worth commiserated with the publisher, Bill Ottley, but did not try to skirt board policy. Ottley, however, declared the jump was a legal and professional stunt and insisted that it grace the cover of Parachutist.

As for service to USPA, Worth seldom missed a meeting during his 30-plus years on the board, serving on or chairing many committees, including Nationals, Competition and Governance. He also served as the organization’s president. He retired from USPA’s board as chairman in 2013.

Meanwhile, as the U.S. delegate to the IPC, Worth served equally faithfully with the FAI and reached the rank of IPC President, FAI Vice President and FAI Executive Board member. There, Worth expanded his vision for skydiving beyond just skydivers. Starting with the wildly successful Olympic Rings demonstration jump at the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, he, Uwe Beckmann and Ness worked tirelessly for more than 20 years to have skydiving included as an Olympic sport. Unfortunately, the International Olympic Committee demands more than cool live-streamed images from freefall. To be included in the Olympic program, sports need to generate a tremendous amount of revenue for the IOC. However, the skydiving industry does not have multiple members who are prepared to spend millions of dollars in Olympic advertisements. As a consolation prize, the FAI has been successful in securing a berth with the Olympic farm team, the World Games. Non-powered air sports, including skydiving, have taken part in the World Games for almost two decades now—good for bragging rights, but it offers little hope of skydiving ever making it to the big show. 

Frustrated by the powerful econo-politics of the International Olympic Committee and always on the cutting edge, Worth turned his focus onto a brand-new event. This time, he brought the competition to the ground where people could see it. Teaming up with artist-skydiver Reg Eastaugh of South Australia, they set a slalom course of wind blades on a downhill ski slope and challenged canopy pilots to fly it. Although it proved too impractical to become a mainstream event, “bladerunning” became the godfather of canopy piloting, which Worth introduced as a competition discipline to the IPC based on the tremendous effort by Eastaugh to develop it. Although the IPC delegates were skeptical due to safety concerns, he successfully convinced them to include it as an official FAI competition event. 

 

But one of Bobbie and B.J.’s most proud accomplishments grew from the close partnership they formed with the Kingdom of Thailand. On the day after Christmas in 2004, not long after the successful 357-way freefall world record in Nakorn Ratchasima (Korat), Thailand, the tsunami that followed an earthquake in the Indian Ocean killed thousands of people and devastated the Thai coastline along the Andaman Sea. Bobbie and B.J. again organized the World Team, this time to do more than just inspire but to help. They collected $100,000 in relief donations from team members. Then, B.J. and World Team captain and Thai liaison Larry Henderson traveled to rural Thailand north of Phuket to help provide relief support.  Within a few weeks, World Team funds had been committed to build 19 houses and two fish farms in collaboration with a Christian church in Phuket. To ensure that every dollar went directly to the relief project, Worth, Henderson and an ex-pat minister (and skydiving friend of Henderson’s) went to the Thai version of Home Depot and cut a construction deal directly with the builder.

Forty years after his famous 4- and 8-way pitch to the IPC, Worth concluded his formal skydiving career with a mirror image proposal to his former colleagues. With support and encouragement from his friend, Russian delegate Andrey Barabash, Worth wrote the rules for and presented a new big-way FAI performance record category. Large-formation sequential skydiving has since blossomed to become the most favored discipline among big-way enthusiasts.

Any one or two of Worth’s accomplishments in skydiving—and in life—would be enough to satisfy most people and earn them awards. As he moves toward retirement, Worth now stays close to his home on a modest woodland property in the mountain resort town of Whitefish, Montana, where he awakens every morning to breathtaking vistas with his wife and family. Never one to sit still, Worth’s current projects are directed at writing a book titled “Worth Risking,” leading a non-profit in support of his lifelong passion for birding (imagine) and teaching granddaughter Teya the finer art of making the most of life and having a great time while doing it. He claims he has completed the goals he has set for himself as a skydiver, and perhaps so. But the mark he’s left reflects an energy and momentum that lead one to doubt that the sport has seen the last of B.J. Worth.

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Jen Sharp

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