Vail Daily columnist Warren Miller: An ultimate flier
September 27, 2012
The noise increased rapidly from the south until I could make out a fire engine-red Hughes 500 helicopter that flared out and settled on the tarmac at our small local airport.
Jeff Jobe’s 21-year-old helicopter still looked as brand new as it was 5,000 flight hours ago. Jeff is a highly skilled pilot with those 5,000 hours (along with roughly another 15,000 in other aircraft) and obviously knew what he was doing at the controls.
He is the only person I know who has his own private helicopter hangar alongside his garage at his home, on a lake near Seattle.
I first met Jeff after a show in Seattle in the fall of 1969. I had gotten excited about a picture of a water skier in Sydney, Australia, who was in a hang-glider being towed by a boat. I had immediately sent a letter to the hang-glider wanting to buy one and take it to Sun Valley to get some friends to learn how to fly so I could film them. I thought they could be towed by a car and fly up and down the road from Dollar Mountain to Proctor. I was always looking for the unusual for my ski movies. Jeff Jobe came up on the stage after the show and told me, “I have been flying my hang-glider all summer on Lake Washington, and if I water the lawn before I go flying I can come in for a barefoot landing on the wet lawn. I think I can fly off of a mountain on skis and it would be good in your next movie.”
I told him, “I will be in Sun Valley over Christmas. Can you get over there?”
“No problem. My dad’s a pilot, and I can fly free,” he replied.
Free is always good.
Jeff showed up the day after Christmas with all of his stuff, and he had a lot of stuff to fly with. The following morning we went over to Dollar Mountain for the first test flight. The snow in the Dollar Bowl was icy and we got everything set up for his first flight.
I ran the camera while Jeff came down Dollar Bowl about a gazillion miles an hour with the trailing edge of his hang-glider flapping louder than the noise his skis were making on the icy snow. By the time he got to the bottom, he was at least three feet off of the snow, but no farther.
I folded up my gear and skied down to him and said, “We have to talk about this a little more. I think we should try it on Baldy instead. Maybe there will be an up draft and you will get going fast enough to fly higher.”
Jeff was 19 at the time and it was long before contingency attorneys were making millions off of stunts such as this. It was 1969, and I knew I was onto something if I could get just one good shot. Jeff was young and much more resilient than I, and he was the one who wanted to do it, but I did worry about him.
Early the next morning, after a lot of arguing with the lift operators, they let Jeff on with all of his gear and we started up the lifts on Baldy. At the top, it took Jeff about 20 minutes to get his hang-glider bolted and duct-taped together. Then we went over his flight plan several times.
He would start down the Christmas Bowl Ridge on the Seattle Ridge side and fly toward the trees. When he got enough altitude, he would turn left towards the chairlift, where I would be filming with my zoom lens. He’d then make a right turn back toward the trees, fly over them and then land on the catwalk back to the lift at the Round House.
Jeff did just exactly as I had asked him to, but he found it a bit difficult to land on the narrow catwalk. I knew I had a great shot of the flight and did not need to do it over again for good measure.
Jeff rode down on the lower lifts with his hang-glider, and my journey to next year’s film started. His flight was the highlight of my next year’s movie, and about 150,000 skiers saw his world record distance for a guy to fly through the air on skis.
Within a year, a lot of skiers were cobbling together hang-gliders out of PVC pipe and Visqueen held together with duct tape. Unfortunately, a lot of skiers had accidents because of their poor equipment, lack of previous flying experience, and plain old-fashioned macho-enthusiasm.
One of the men who died was Roger Staub, the ski school director of Vail. He crashed in front of a lot of people while he was demonstrating hang-gliding in Switzerland.
The next thing I heard from Jeff was that his phone was ringing off the hook from advertising agencies that wanted to have him in a commercial. He flew off of Mt. Cook over the Tasman glacier in New Zealand.
In Jeff’s enthusiasm to do what he was being paid to do, he almost paid the ultimate price in Jackson Hole, Wyo., one spring afternoon. Unable to get up enough speed to fly off of a cliff, he found a go-cart and took the engine off of it. They built a ramp for him, and he figured he would get going fast enough and just let the go-cart crash as he took off.
It did not work quite like that. As the go-cart went over the cliff, Jeff went with it and dropped like a safe with the door open. He spent 47 days in the hospital, in traction, so his hips would heal. Jeff and I retold this story to the three friends he had flown up from Seattle for a lunch in my favorite restaurant in Eastsound. Later that afternoon, I watched the brand-new-looking Bell 500 take off, with Jeff flying it, heading back to Seattle.
Every time I look at a helicopter sitting on the ground, I try to convince myself that anything that looks like a helicopter cannot possibly fly. And I’m sure glad I never learned to fly. I’m much too careless.
I was concerned about Jeff making his hang-glider fly in 1969, but he has proven how amazing he is, time and again.
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 http://www.warrenmiller.org.