Friday, January 11, 2013

Ski flying in Yugoslavia


Many years ago when everything was cheap by today’s standards, it still took ‘x’ hours of hard work to earn ‘x’ amount of money. In the early 1960s I could still buy a basic Volkswagen Bug for under $1,000 in Munich when I went over there to film. I’d get a 90-day note at the bank, pay cash for the car, drive it a month or so in Europe, then send it home and sell it for more than I paid for it six or seven weeks after I bought it—while having free transportation in Europe. Everything I bought in those days, just add a zero today and double the price. A $5 a day chairlift ticket in 1956 would cost $50 dollars. Multiply by two to get your lift ticket price today.

In the 1950s driving in Europe then was on narrow, winding, two-lane roads. I found my way across Austria, into Italy and finally to Yugoslavia to enter a Communist country for the first time. I was nervous because I spoke not a single word of their language and I was going to a ski-flying tournament.

Planicia already owned the world record at 416 feet. The scaffold was scary just to climb up and look down the in-run. Remember there were no ski lifts there in those days. As I stood up there a few days before the tournament started, I could not begin to imagine the courage it takes to go as fast as seventy miles per hour and launch into space!

Ski flying, as it became known, instead of ski jumping, was when a jumper started approaching a then-mythical mark of 400 feet. The ski flying technique began to change as the flyer started holding his hands at the sides instead of stretched out over his head. The skis, parallel beneath them, still had not evolved to the tips wide apart for more lift and thus longer flights. 

Yugoslavia is a beautiful country and it was easy to see why the people did not want to immigrate to anywhere else in spite of the Communist conditions they had to live under. I settled down to a fabulous day of scrambling hard and fast to get as much footage as possible of courageous men from all over world flying over 400 feet. There was an occasional dangerous wind gust but the tethered helium filled red balloons made the jumpers aware of clear air turbulence. 

The world’s record holder was hit by a gust of wind while in mid-flight and landed on his side and bounced twice. He was unconscious when the medics reached him after he slid most of the way down the landing hill, bouncing like a rag doll. He landed out beyond the three hundred foot mark when he hit the first time.

With new ski flying techniques, the hill record was broken a dozen times that day until it stood at 416 feet. That record stood for many years, until the wider apart ski tips began to be developed and the flyers were already holding their arms and hands at their sides, with their hands controlling their flight path like the ailerons of an airplane.

In the 1960s, I got many of my basic shots with a lot of unusual images to share the following winter. However, I was quite surprised this week to find out that last year on a ski-flying hill, the world’s ski-flying record is now at 239 meters. That is a lot longer than two football fields and a few end zones. That record is over 700 feet through the air. I think some of the freestylers of today should go to one of these ski-flying hills and see what a 700-foot flight feels like.

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