Fifteen minutes of fame. Everybody will have it once. I had mine in 1987 because I saved a life while skydiving.
Andy Warhol, the iconic 1960s American artist, is credited with the creation of the concept. This was long before the internet and YouTube. Back then, a person’s 15 minutes of fame depended on newspapers, a few broadcast TV channels and magazines. But even with the lack of today’s instantaneously streaming video, some events caught the attention of publishers and found their way to the public in a firestorm of media attention.
I was caught in one such firestorm. My 15 minutes were the result of an air-to-air rescue of an unconscious skydiver on April 18, 1987. The reaction of the media would be described as “going viral” in today’s terms. Back then, it was called “breaking world news.” And actually, my 15 minutes lasted longer than 15 minutes; it continued with worldwide coverage for a month and intermittent coverage for 18 months.
The rescue happened during the Easter Boogie at Coolidge, Arizona. I had a little more than 1,500 jumps at the time and was a Safety and Training Advisor. I was also working as the loadmaster for the DC-4 that weekend. The DC-4 was the annual highlight of the Easter Boogie and drew jumpers from around the world.
While waiting for everyone to pack after one DC-4 load, I noticed a visiting jumper who needed help packing her parachute. Talking to her, I found she had only 50 jumps and had come with her boyfriend. He was out jumping with a more experienced group, so I decided to keep an eye on her. On the next DC-4 load, I put her 6-way group out last on the second pass and followed it out. At first, her skills in the air looked OK, but she was definitely at a novice level. She had good body position but kept orbiting the group. Then another jumper entered the formation a little too fast, and it funneled.
To try to get down to the recovering formation, the novice jumper went into a dive. The trouble was, she didn’t watch where she was going. She slammed into the legs of another jumper and knocked herself unconscious. As she passed 30 feet under me, falling away, her body was limp and her mouth covered in blood.
I immediately went into a dive and after an unknown amount of time caught up to her as she flopped around unstable, spinning on her back. I realized that I had broken the golden rule of skydiving and had no idea how high above the ground we were, but something in the back of my mind started telling me to pull. I drove in and pulled her reserve. She opened up over the center of the airport facing away from the drop zone.
Though she was still unconscious, her parachute made a lucky turn and drifted back toward the drop zone. She landed near the hangar with severe injuries from the collision. In a short amount of time, a helicopter airlifted her to the hospital where she underwent emergency surgery. The jumper she hit in the air suffered a broken leg from the collision.
Two days later, one of the local Phoenix newspapers ran a story on the rescue. The next day, the coverage became a firestorm as the world media picked it up. Newspaper and radio interviews, TV appearances, trips to L.A. and New York, and several award ceremonies filled my time for the following month.
Why this rescue created this much media attention, I don’t know. Similar rescues since then have not attracted very much media coverage at all, usually just a 15-second spot on the evening news. Maybe it was because it was the first of this type of rescue in the United States. Maybe it was the damsel-in-distress syndrome. I never really understood it.
If you want to read more about the events surrounding the rescue and the media coverage or view video recreations of the jump that played on various TV shows, go to the website: http://gregoryprobertson.com/15minutesoffame , which also includes the “Ten Rules for 15 Minutes of Fame.”
Gregory Robertson | D-7112 | Tucson, Arizona