Driving in Europe in the 1950s 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. Marshal Tito ruled it. 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's record at 416 feet. The scaffold was scary just to climb up and look down the in-run. As I stood up there a few days before the tournament started, I could not begin to imagine the courage it took to go as fast as 70 miles per hour and launch into space.
Ski flying, as it became known, instead of ski jumping, was when a jumper started approaching the then mythical 400-foot mark. The ski-flying technique began to change as the flier started holding their hands at their sides instead of stretched out over their heads. The skis, parallel beneath them, still had not evolved to the tips wide apart for more lift and thus longer flights.
In the pressroom at the hotel I was told that Tito would attend the tournament, and I was always eager to get unusual shots to share with my audiences all over North America. I found out the path that Tito would take to get to the judge's stand. No ski lifts, of course, were there in those days.
I scoped out a dozen good spots to film the tournament and then found some trees I could hide behind and get up close and personal photos of Tito and his bodyguards as they walked by, headed to the judges' stand. Sounded OK with me.
I had my paths during the tournament memorized and rehearsed so that I could make the audience believe that there were at least a dozen cameramen on the job.
Once I did that, I settled down with my tripod, camera and about 20 rolls of 16 mm Kodachrome that I would later apply images to during the event. I was standing there, munching on a Yugoslavian version of bratwurst and great fresh bread when I heard a lot of commotion and noise moving up the path toward my hiding place.
I had a mouth full of bratwurst when a sharp jab in my back, which was accompanied by the definite click of metal against metal. An automatic rifle got my immediate attention.
"Hands above your head" sounds the same in any language. I didn't even have time to make sure my bratwurst landed on my rucksack. Fortunately, I had a big press badge in plain sight as I reached as high as I could with arms over my head. Fortunately, one of Tito's advance bodyguards could speak a little bit of English. My photo of Tito had to be one of him in the ' stand waving at the not-so-adoring crowds, after all.
After they examined each roll of film carefully and did a complete body pat down for hidden weapons, I still had to move out into plain sight on the flat spot at the top of the landing hill.
Yugoslavia is a beautiful country and it was easy to see why the people did not want to emmigrate 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 record holder was hit by a gust of wind while in midflight, and he 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 300-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 fliers 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 a lot of my basic shots with a lot of unusual images to share the following winter.
However, I was quite surprised this past week to find out that last year on a ski-flying hill, the world's ski-flying record is now 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 how a 700-foot flight feels.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller's stories and stuff log onto Warren Miller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to www.warrenmiller.org.