Up in the air, but down-to-earth

The strange thing about talking with Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld is that in a 90-minute conversation, we hardly discussed the plane crash that almost killed him and that forms the dramatic centerpiece of his new book, “Above All Else” (Skyhorse Publishing). We talked about the demands of competitive skydiving, his kids — who aren’t old enough to skydive — and what he hopes to teach people about life through the lessons he’s learned jumping out of planes more than 25,000 times.

In 1992, a plane crash in Perris killed 16 of its 22 passengers, most of them skydivers; one of the deceased was Brodsky-Chenfeld’s teammate and close friend. The crash left Brodsky-Chenfeld in a six-week coma with a broken neck, a fractured skull, a collapsed lung and other serious internal injuries. He has no memory of the crash. 

But, he says his remarkable recovery — he and his team placed third in the national skydiving championship just months after the crash — doesn’t define his success.

“I think having lived through the crash and having recovered and gone on despite that, has maybe made my story more credible than it would have been had it not happened,” he said. But he adds that his passion for life, what gave him the will to survive his injuries, predates that tragic day.

“That came from what my grandfather taught me, what my father taught me, and what my mother taught me. Had I not had the experiences I had prior to the crash, I don’t know that I would have come back the way I did.”

The first three-quarters of “Above All Else,” which is currently in development for a film, tells the story of a nice Jewish boy who at age 18 made his first jump out of an airplane and then somehow made a career out of it. Brodsky-Chenfeld, now 49 and living in Temecula, recalls in detail the chutzpah, tenacity and physical will it took to define and then stay focused on the goal of winning a world championship in four-way formation skydiving. He describes the sacrifices he made (living in a trailer in the desert), the teams he formed and re-formed, and his singular focus on being the best.

Brodsky-Chenfeld got involved in four-way formation skydiving when the sport was in its infancy. In competitions, four people (skydiving is a co-ed sport) jump from a plane at 10,500 feet, and in the next 35 seconds of free fall perform a sequence of formations, at the rate of about one a second. While the team practices all 40 formations, they are not given the actual sequence they will have to undertake in competition until the day of the event. Each team member must remember the order.

“It’s an amazing mental challenge. People think, ‘You’re a skydiver. How smart can you be?’ ” Brodsky-Chenfeld jokes. “They don’t realize.”

Brodsky-Chenfeld led his teams to 16 national and seven world titles, and has coached four world champion teams in the last decade. He continues to be an elder statesman of the sport as general manager of Perris Valley Skydiving, one of the largest skydiving facilities in the world.

But that first part of his book, which starts in his childhood, seems to somewhat embarrass Brodsky-Chenfeld, who has by now cut back his jumps to about 300 a year. For him, the book’s main purpose is not to talk about himself, but to help others.

“It became clear to me, working with people and with teams, that skydiving is one example of how people could use the same methods I used here toward achieving success in their own lives, their own families and their own goals,” Brodsky-Chenfeld said.

In the last quarter of the book, Brodsky-Chenfeld explicates his method for setting a winning goal, determining what you are willing to do to reach that goal, and then offers techniques for accomplishing it. He discusses building a successful team, overcoming fears of the known and unknown, and then visualizing and training for success.

One of the most important elements, he says, is letting your training, knowledge and instinct take over at the moment of performance.

“Very often people think too much, and they end up with analysis paralysis,” he said. “Whatever it is you’re trying to perform with excellence, if you have trained and established muscle memory, let go, relax, trust that you’ll do your best.”

He says his friend, an orthopedic surgeon, has used these techniques in the operating room. Brodsky-Chenfeld recently spoke at the TEDx conference in Belgium, and he serves as an inspirational speaker around the world.

While his message, in the end, might be similar to other self-help success books, the fact that it comes from a man who jumps out of planes for a living, and survived a plane crash, gives the advice an extra dose of credibility and buzz.

This is someone who understands determination and visualizing success. When Brodsky-Chenfeld woke up from a six-week coma, all he wanted to know was when he could jump again. The doctor said never, but Brodsky-Chenfeld pushed until he cornered the doctor into admitting that his newly steel-reinforced neck would be strong enough 10 weeks after surgery. While Brodsky-Chenfeld was still in the halo — a brace that screwed into his skull and fit around his torso to immobilize his neck — he would contract his neck muscles, to keep them strong.

A skydiver has to master visualizing formations while still on the ground — you can’t fit in enough practice jumps to perfect moves — and Brodsky-Chenfeld continued to practice in his head, even when he couldn’t move. The crash was in April, and in October, Brodsky-Chenfeld and the reconstituted Perris Airmoves placed third in the nationals.

He attributes that kind of tenacity to his parents and especially to Grampa Joe, the American-born son of Russian immigrants who got an eighth-grade education but fought to ensure success for his family, even through the Depression.

“What made me believe I could achieve all those things I dreamed about came from watching my family, watching them achieve their own dreams,” Brodsky-Chenfeld said. “That is what I see as the Jewish character. … Somehow Jews throughout history had to figure out how to make things work no matter what the situation. That was the character that I was surrounded with in my family.”

Brodsky-Chenfeld, along with is wife, Kristi, are passing that message down to their kids, Chloe, 17, and Landen, 12.

“I think everyone has dreams they want to pursue, goals they are passionate about, that they would like to apply themselves to and to focus their energy on. And often they don’t give themselves a chance. They think too much about how it’s not practical, or it doesn’t make sense, or where is it going to take them. Without being able to answer those questions, too often they steer toward more logical things — what they think they should do — as opposed to what they’re really passionate about and drawn to,” he said. “I hope my kids understand that what is really important is having something that you really love and giving yourself a chance to go after that.”

Come dive with me — Israeli skydivers training in SoCal

You do it … you can never go back,” Israeli Sharon Har-noy said recently of her passion for the sport of skydiving. She and teammate Adi Freid met with a reporter during a break from training at Perris Valley Skydiving, about 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

Har-noy and Freid make up the only all-female Israeli skydive team in the advanced category, which includes just six teams. They came to Perris to prepare for their nationals, set for April 2007, and hopefully the world competition in Australia to follow. Their U.S. training tour, sponsored by Israeli American Dr. Avraham Kadar and his company, BrainPOP.com, included stops at Skydive Cross Keys in New Jersey, Skydive Arizona Eloy, as well as Perris, before they returned to Israel Oct. 19.

The team’s home drop zone, Paradive, at Habonim Beach, between Haifa and Tel Aviv, is only open four days a week, and it lacks the opportunities available in the United States. At Perris, they trained seven days a week on faster planes that could carry more people, and they utilized a wind tunnel that simulated skydiving. The teammates said that during one week of training at Perris, they got in 70 jumps and made progress that would have taken them at least three months in Israel.

In Israel, the pair train on the weekends. During the week, Freid is a senior psychology major at Tel Aviv University and Har-noy produces animated films for BrainPOP.com, an education service.

The pair, both now 24, met about 3 1/2 years ago at Paradive and became quick friends. They had both done diving before — Har-noy took her first jump at the drop zone after high school and continued on weekend breaks from the army, while Freid’s first skydiving experience was in New Zealand, during her post-military travels in 2002.

“Two girls in the drop zone, we had to get together and start jumping,” Freid said.

About a year ago, while on a trip to Perris, they met manager Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld, a world champion diver who is also Jewish, suggested they team up and start competing.

“To be a good skydiver you have to jump with someone good, and if there is no good people in the drop zone, then nobody can get ahead,” Har-noy said.

Among those helping them prepare is coach David Gershfeld.

“They have that finesse that … drive and energy … to get better and actively progress,” Gershfeld said.

Freid and Har-noy say the sport is safe, more so, they argue, than driving a car.And while Paradive closed for a month during the recent war, both women say they didn’t feel threatened.

“Maybe it’s easier to skydive in Israel because you are used to being afraid, or used to being in dangerous situations. Skydiving really isn’t that dangerous,” Freid said.

— Sara Bakhshian, Contributing Writer

Defy Gravity

Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld and I shook hands 20 minutes before we were to jump out of an airplane together at 12,500 feet. It would be my first solo jump. Dan has made some 23,000 — he’s stopped counting except by the thousands.

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Brodsky-Chenfeld smiling as the author falls to earth.


I came to the Perris Skydiving Center, at the eastern end of Riverside County, for two reasons. A publicist for the center had contacted me to promote the National Skydiving Championships, to be held there over Labor Day.

“What,” I asked, “does that have to do with The Jewish Journal?”

“Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld,” the publicist said.

The other reason I came to the skydiving center was to do something I’d always wanted to do: jump.

The chance to make my first jump under the guidance of Brodsky-Chenfeld, who happens to be Jewish, was worth challenging my wife’s strict no-skydiving-while-still-a-father rule. Brodsky-Chenfeld has won 16 national and eight international championships. In a sport that demands athleticism and death-defying cool, Brodsky-Chenfeld is world-renowned. In the skydiving world, he’s known as Dan B.C.

“He draws the best competitors from all over the world,” said Larry Bagley, who oversees competition for the United States Parachutist Association. “You think: Dan B.C. is the person I want to be when I grow up, if I ever grow up.”

That Dan B.C. is Jewish has to be counterintuitive. Take away the short, illustrious history of Israeli combat paratroopers, and you won’t find many Jews jumping out of airplanes. History has taught us that danger will find us soon enough without our having to chase it.

“My parents,” he told me as we walked toward the small, waiting airplane, “yeah, they probably prefer I did something else.”

Family lore has it that Brodsky-Chenfeld, who is 43, was jumping off his bunk bed as a 5-year-old growing up in Columbus, Ohio, using his pillowcase as a parachute. He got his first real opportunity at 18, at Ohio State University, and he was hooked. Soon he was running a nearby drop zone, working his way up the ranks of divers in the nascent sport of skydiving.

Competitive skydiving looks like daredevilry, but Brodsky-Chenfeld and others are out to prove it is a demanding competition, as deserving of Olympic status as skiing or gymnastics.

“All people usually see are the stunts,” Brodsky-Chenfeld said. “They never see the sport.”

Divers exit the plane going 90-100 m.p.h. at 12,000 feet. As their bodies reach terminal velocity, 120 m.p.h., they begin a series of timed maneuvers, building human formations of four to 16 divers in a required sequence. Plummeting toward the ground at 200 feet per second, they guide their bodies into place with tremendous delicacy and discipline. They must do all this in 35-50 seconds — then separate, pull their ripcords and land.

A photographer, who is part of the jump team, records the formation for the judges, who determine winners on a point system. At the Labor Day weekend competition at Perris Valley Skydiving, visitors can watch 750 skydivers compete in 26 events — the largest national event in history.

“You can fly up there,” Brodsky-Chenfeld said. “You can go forward, backward, spin around. You surf the air like you surf water.”

The sport involves rigorous physical conditioning combined with meditation. Since divers get very little actual airtime to practice, they rehearse on the ground and push themselves to visualize linking sequences in their minds. Brodsky-Chenfeld, who is general manager of the skydiving center, also trains teams from around the world, including Israel.

He’s proud of that, and of the Star of David configuration he organized at the Los Angeles Jewish Festival in 1996 — 48 skydivers jumping from three planes. Until last year, he also held the record for organizing the world’s largest link-up: 300 divers from 14 planes.

But the challenge of the sport itself is his primary passion, and Brodsky-Chenfeld combines an athlete’s well-muscled frame with a calm, confident Zen-master demeanor.

As he walks me toward the waiting airplane, I look down and notice he is wearing sandals.

My skydiving instruction — which the skydiving center paid for — began in front of a video monitor in a small room. On screen, a lawyer with no discernable personality –“I represent the skydiving school. I am not your lawyer” — informed me that skydiving can lead to serious injury or death. By signing the eight-page waiver, he said, I cannot sue, and if I do sue, I most likely will not recover damages, and that, if I am able to win damages, I must understand the school is not insured.

“Now that I’ve covered all the grim legal aspects,” the lawyer concludes, “why don’t you go and have some fun and be safe.”

You can do a tandem dive harnessed to an instructor, or you can take a four-hour course, then jump accompanied by, but not attached to, two jumpmasters. I chose the latter, and paid very, very careful attention.

“The ground can come up on you very fast,” instructor Josh Hall said. “Skydivers think a lot about the ground.”

Landings, though, are soft, thanks to a new generation of glider-like parachutes. Those old mushroom shaped ones, Hall explained, created nothing but “human lawn darts.”

Brodsky-Chenfeld and my other jumpmaster, Kai Wolf, told me the key is to breathe and relax. They smiled a lot and took deep, exaggerated breaths. Other than the fact that I was wearing a jumpsuit and a parachute pack in an airplane whose side door slid wide open at 8,000 feet, it was just like a Pilates class.

I’d done my research and knew, rationally, that skydiving was somewhat safer than general aviation, but certainly less safe than not skydiving.

“Think about it,” Larry Bagley said later. “There’s a slim chance that it’s his turn and your turn to go at the same time.”

On April 22, 1992, Brodsky-Chenfeld and 22 other skydivers climbed into a de Havilland Twin Otter at Perris Valley, ready for another round of practice. At 700 feet, water in the fuel supply stalled the engine and the plane plummeted nose first into the ground. The pilot and 15 skydivers died — one of the worst aircraft accidents in skydiving history.

Brodsky-Chenfeld was pulled from the wreckage. He suffered a broken neck, a collapsed lung, numerous broken bones and internal injuries. His close friend James Layne, sitting across from him in the airplane, died instantly.

Brodsky-Chenfeld spent six weeks in a coma, and has no recollection of the crash.

In the hospital he’d lost 40 pounds, and wore a halo screwed into his skull to limit his movements while his broken back tried to heal. A wrong move or a fall could have paralyzed him for life, let alone jumping again out of an airplane.

“There was never any doubt in my mind that if I could physically do it, I would,” he said. “It’s the job I love.”

Just months later, Brodsky-Chenfeld, still in a neck brace, began competing. His team, Arizona Airspeed, took the bronze in the November 1992 Nationals. In 1995, Airspeed beat its trans-Atlantic archrivals, the French Excaliburs, to win an international gold medal.

If it sounds like the movie “Rocky,” it reads like it, too — a screenplay of Brodsky-Chenfeld’s ordeal has begun circulating through town.

Brodsky-Chenfeld said the accident didn’t change his view of skydiving, but of living.

“I understood how fragile it all is,” he said. “I woke up in a different world than the one I passed out in. There were people gone whom I was close to. So you learn to make sure you get the most out of each moment, and make sure the people who mean the most to you know they do.”

Brodsky-Chenfeld met his wife, Kristi, when she came to him for skydiving lessons She went on to make more than 300 jumps, but left the sport when she became pregnant with their first child. He carts around his two children, ages 10 and 6, in a white Volvo station wagon.

“It’s a safe car,” he explained.

I have two children, too, and they’re the last images in my mind before I leap out between Brodsky-Chenfeld and Wolf, into the air.

The feeling is indescribable — a sensation of flying, not falling. My mind frizzes between sensory overload, sheer terror, and wonder.

A videographer, Mike Kindsvater, is circling me with a camera. When I watch later, I’ll see my lips frozen in fear, and Brodsky-Chenfeld, smiling broadly.

At 5,000 feet I wave the instructors away, pull my cord and swing upward, suspended by my thankfully perfect chute. I spend the five-minute float down uttering prayers of thanksgiving, curses and exultations.

When I land, I want to take the next plane up and do it again.

I told this to Dan B.C.

“Yeah,” he said. “You have to get up there to understand.”

The USPA National Skydiving Championships will be held Aug. 23-Sept. 11. For more information, visit www.skydiveperris.com or call (800) 759-3483.