Rick Harrison: The Train Jump

The Train jump in the summer of 1983 wasn’t as scary as Half Dome; it however was a more unique adventure. Phil Smith’s was in love with the idea of jumping from a train since he loved trains as a kid. Smitty and I were best friends and close jump mates. Carl Boenish joined us to film the jump and hired a helicopter for the first weekend. Smitty and Kevin Venell were set to jump from the first train since they had done much of the scouting work in West Texas, such as riding the freight to test its speed, etc. Andy Smith and I would follow their jump.

Randy came down from Iowa and we had several non jumper ground crew to help with equipment, etc. I promised the 4 whuffos I’d put each one off on a static line as payback for helping us. The bridge was 300 feet over good still deep water and we had a decent boat in the water.

The helicopter pilot became tired of waiting on trains as they did not stay on a schedule, so he left before Phil and Kevin’s train arrived at the bridge/exit point. Carl filmed it, but no aerial shots.

The following day, I gave up my slot to Randy since I decided to get the 4 guys ready for their first B.A.S.E jumps as promised. I knew that Phil and I were coming back in a few weeks to do it for a National TV Show called PM Magazine and I would get my train jump then.

Joy used an old Pentax camera of Carl’s to film Randy and Andy going off the top of the train over her head. She sat on a water pipe outside of the bridge about where I had calculated they would exit. She was also excited and even refused tying herself off much to my concern.

I was on the bridge between the rail and the train, about 18 inches from the train with a helmet mounted 16mm camera of Carl’s. The trains 6 engines were loud and throwing slag. I kept watch of the top of the train through the view finder to get the exits on film, but at the same time I was keeping watch in order to make sure there was no object protruding from the train that would take me out being as close as I stood.

In the end we managed great footage of both guys leaping off the top of the train and using most of the 300 feet to get those round 24′ diameter canopies open.

A few weeks later, Phil and I returned to perform the train jumps for the TV show. We cautioned the PM Magazine people who were arriving on Friday to not discuss filming jumps from the train. By the time Smitty and I, Randy and Joy checked into the little motel we discovered the PM television folks had been shooting their mouths.

The National Park Service Rangers came to our motel parking lot and told us they were instructed that if we jumped into the river with parachutes that they would charge us with the same thing they were using at Yosemite in 1983, a Powerless Flight citation. About a year later, they started using the Aerial Delivery regulation rather than powerless flight which they use still today. We showed the Rangers that the word Parachutes was not in the Powerless Flight regulation. They said they had no choice in the matter.

Fortunately for us at the time, the rangers had no idea we were going to jump from the moving train, they had thought we were jumping from the bridge which was the rendition they had heard about us earlier that year. We go to the train station and wait for a train with grain cars comes through. We need these cars since they have good metal grating on top that goes flat out to the edge of the car providing stable footing. Seven cars behind the engine was the first grain car so Phil and a guy named Jeff Shook, a non jumper who was Phil’s cameraman climbed onto the first car.

Seven cars later another grain car came by but Kevin Venell, my cameraman and I passed it up as we wanted to have more spacing to give the PM Magazine helicopter time to get in position to film my exit after filming Phil’s. As luck would have it, approximately 70 more cars went by and none of them were grain cars. The train came to a stop, Kevin and I started jogging with the parachute gear and the camera gear. Prior to us catching up to the grain car we had earlier passed up, the train started slowly rolling out of the station. We had to hustle and barely made it to hop on board the train, tossing our gear up top before it began moving too fast.

We rode about 30 miles in a cubby hole between the cars until we saw a mile marker at 10 miles out from the bridge and our exit point. We climbed on top and I tied Kevin off with a static line so he wouldn’t fall off while filming. Before long, the train comes to a stop in the desert as we exited a big curve to the right. Come to find out the engineer saw Smitty in his bright yellow jumpsuit along with his cameraman in his rear view mirror while the train was going through the curve. Kevin and I climbed down and were ready to hit the desert when we saw the engineer talking to Smitty; he got back in the engine car and started the motor back up. PM Magazine had told the railroad they would be flying around the train in a helicopter doing a story on cabooses. The engineer had asked Phil, all dressed up in a bright yellow jump suit and helmet, what he was doing up there. Smitty informed him that they were filming from atop the car. The engineer bought his story, assuming they were PM photographers that the RR officials forgot to notify him about. Kevin and I climbed back up, get in position and noticed the train really started to pick up speed, going at least 50 mph when it rounded the corner with the bridge in sight.

As soon as we were over the water, we exited and with 2 second freefalls before throwing big old 52 inch pilot chutes. In order to open higher than the 24′ rounds, we used 16 foot diameter round canopies with the centers inverted by a pull down center line. This made the parachutes open very fast but these are way too small to land on the ground, you really need to hit the water.

The jump went great, but the National Park Service had a boat in the water waiting on us. Our pick up boat driven by Kevin’s dad, Terry, picked us up. The NPS snagged Phil’s pilot chute and deployment free bag that releases after opening. They met us at the boat ramp and returned the pilot chute, issuing us citations for Powerless Flight. They were very nice and did not arrest us but the charge could carry a year in jail or $2500 fine at the time. The NPS had been busting jumpers in Yosemite using Powerless Flight for several years up to then. One ranger told me that if he’d known we were coming off the moving train and not the bridge, he would have brought his camera into their boat. The River there is under the NPS jurisdiction.

Long story short, I wrote a Motion to Dismiss based on some technical legal grounds of how criminal statutes must be narrowly interpreted and not be vague or over broadly applied. The NPS was just then trying to get the word “Parachutes” added to the powerless flight regulation, so the Federal Court agreed with me and said parachutes was not covered by the statute and dismissed our cases.

Smitty had left for the Bridge Day festival at New River Gorge in West Virginia in October when I received the Order’s of Dismissal in the mail. When Joy and I arrived at New River the following day, I went up to Smitty who was sitting at a table registering B.A.S.E jumpers and handed him the Dismissal Order. Looking at him, I said, “Meet the first lawyer to beat powerless flight”. He couldn’t believe I had pulled it off. Overall, this was the most fun I had from start to finish regarding a B.A.S.E jump.

Rick Harrison Interview

All rights reserved. No republication of this material, in any form or medium, is permitted without express permission of the author. Copyright 2009

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