The World In Free Fall
09/05/2014 12:09PM ● Published by Robert Frey
By Rachel Gulotta | Photo by Ori Kuper
Picture a hula-hoop in your mind’s eye. Now imagine flying through this hula-hoop at upwards of 120 mph, with only fractions of seconds to urge your aero-dynamically optimized body through the thin circle of a target. We’re not talking about the circus — we’re talking about competitive skydiving.
Now for something completely different, what are your greatest fears? Acrophobia is the extreme or irrational fear of heights. Dentophobia refers to the fear of dentistry and receiving dental care. These two phobias are not generally associated, but in this case our subject is fearlessly connected to both.
Dr. Vernon Melancon is an oral surgeon, New Iberia resident and former high-flying, world-record holding skydiver. How does someone become entangled in the world of parachutes and planes while remaining grounded in reality, focused on pearly whites? Let’s start with Dr. Melancon’s first glimpse of skydiving’s possibilities.
Love At First Jump
The young doctor’s career as an Army oral surgeon took him to an Army base near Atlanta in 1971. Across from his temporary quarters, paratroopers practiced parachuting with gumption from a tower. Dr. Melancon grew tired of watching their parachutes unfold from the ground; he decided to jump in — and jump off.
Fast-forward a year and the good doctor is in New Iberia practicing his trade by day and jumping as often as possible by weekend. He quickly advanced from jumping off of the Army tower to diving from a small plane and pulling his own chute from the pack located on his chest. Today’s new skydivers have a vastly different training experience that involves tandem jumps and backpacked chutes.
Jeanerette And Acadiana’s Skydivers
In the early 70s, the nearest airports equipped to handle divers were in Covington, Cleveland and Beaumont. Dr. Melancon approached Acadiana Regional Airport and broached the subject of allowing skydivers airspace and time amid the cane in New Iberia. The Airport obliged with a caveat, reserving Jeanerette’s LeMaire Memorial Airport for skydivers instead. A Jeanerette skydiving club formed and practiced formation jumping, which is only one of numerous ways to seek a skydiving record.
Smaller airports and drop zones like Jeanerette could handle four-way team jumps, whereas Beaumont was equipped for six-way dives and Cleveland began to specialize in 20-way dives in the 70s when star formations had began forming on larger scales. Dr. Melancon and his fellow four-way teammates competed in formation diving competitions that challenged their accuracy. For example, moving through hula-hoops, style-flips, right and left turns done efficiently and in the least amount of time, freestyle gymnastics-type diving and timely completion of three to five different four-way formations. Group diving lends an athletic, team-sport flair to skydiving, allowing thrill seekers to develop into seasoned competitors.
Dr. Melancon participated in the configuration of six world-record formation dives. In order to get a record on the books at the international level there had to be more than 200 people, each person in their designated space during the dive, with photo proof. Occasionally the photos reveal slight blemishes in the final formation in terms of the participants’ positions, resulting in a formation of record proportions being left off the books. In Russia, for example, Dr. Melancon and 296 other divers collected in mid-air to build a multi-colored, multi-cultural formation. The group fell short of the record that day because one section of divers was missing a person.
The thought of organizing hundreds of people into a precise formation on the ground is daunting enough. Try doing it with less than 30 seconds on the clock and the risk of imminent death should anything go terribly awry. Only once did Dr. Melancon see his life flash before his eyes as the earth rushed toward him, although he made use of his emergency parachute on 12 of the more than 5,500 dives completed throughout his 30-year career.
The skydiving community is close-knit, not only on a national scale, but across the globe. Dr. Melancon’s six world-record formation dives were both at home and abroad. According to the United States Parachute Association’s website, Dr. Melancon jumped in a 72-way formation in Florida in 1983 and a 144-way in Illinois in 1988, breaking records all the way down. After competing in four-way competitions nationally, diving internationally with record-seeking groups and serving various terms on the Board of the United States Parachute Association ranging from Board Member, Vice President and Chairman, you could say he dove ‘head first’ into the world of parachuting.
Dr. Melancon’s last world-record jump was in Thailand. Two hundred eighty three parachutists practiced what is known as “dirt diving,” or building the desired formation many times on the ground and in color-coordinated groups before attempting the jump. With so many divers jumping in such a narrow time frame, more planes are needed and divers stagger their jump times and altitudes. A four-way competition dive will usually begin around 10,000 feet, whereas 15,000 feet is common for a 20-way dive. 2,000 feet is the cut-off for pulling your chute and landing safely, which leaves divers free falling for upwards of 8,000, or about 70 seconds tops, to maneuver through the racing rapids of air. In dives of world-record size, multiple planes holding 20 people may unload around 15,000 feet just before smaller planes expel divers around 10,000 feet. The idea is to time the mass exodus from the planes so that the hundreds of divers have time to find divers wearing their group’s color, form their piece of the puzzle, correctly linkup with the other groups before the picture is taken and the chutes are pulled. Talk about a head rush.
Family And Travel
Dr. Melancon describes his travels to far-off lands as he would a trip across town, with familiarity and ease. His love for skydiving took him to Slovakia, England, France, Russia, Brazil, Venezuela, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Jamaica and Thailand, not to mention the more than 40 U.S. states he observed from the sky. These days Dr. Melancon is still no landlubber; he sticks to the seas instead of the sky, already having sailed on over 40 cruises and not planning to stop anytime soon.
Mrs. Melancon was once a skydiver as well. In France and Jamaica Dr. Melancon asked his wife to at least ride up in the plane for a bird’s eye view of the Alps and the Caribbean. One of his favorite parts of diving were the breath-taking views afforded by long jumps. The Melancon children spent plenty of time around airports, travelling with their father and watching him glide gently to the ground–minus those dozen or so emergency situations. Dr. Melancon’s son dives in his father’s wake, but his daughter likes to keep her feet grounded.
Do You Have
What It Takes?
“You’ll know after the first jump whether you love it or hate it,” Dr. Melancon says. Wonderful views, adventure, adrenaline and bonding with fellow risk takers. Unless, of course, you are acrophobic, what’s not to like about skydiving? If you are willing to take the plunge, skydiving does not have to be a bucket-list item that you do only once for the pictures, the story and the glory. Skydiving can bring out your passions for travel, the thrill, the wind in your face and the enlightenment that men can fly after all.