"No kidding, there I was!" Those are the first words of every parachute story. Next comes the Pucker Factor, a scale from 1 to 10. A PF-10 can be a near-mythical achievement, but more often it is merely terminal. According to sky divers, you earn it when both chutes fail, you are gyrating wildly at 120 mph, heading straight down, and fear puckers your sphincter with such force that your eyeballs pop out of your head before you "bounce." First-time jumpers often believe that they have experienced a PF-10 on that initial step out of an airplane. But unless something goes monstrously wrong, the objective PF rating for a first jump is closer to 1½. To get close to double digits you have to do something outrageous or stupid, or both.
There is, however, one exception to the first rule of telling a parachute story, and it comes from a "bandit" jump that earns a PF of at least nine. Like the one-mile free-fall through the night sky over New York City that culminated in a landing in Shea Stadium, smack in the middle of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The perpetrator of that jump, Mike Sergio, is Central Casting's idea of a New Yorker—a rock musician-actor-screenwriter. Sergio starts his parachute tale like this: "No kidding, there I was, PF-9... but I can't talk about it."
To parachute into Shea Stadium, Sergio and his pilot played dodge 'em with jetliners taking off from nearby LaGuardia Airport. As a result, lawyers representing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sought "maximum sanctions" against the pair to set an example for the rest of the parachuting community. Most of all, the FAA wanted the pilot: If it could catch him, it could strip him of his license—and probably his livelihood—thus threatening the code of silence between jumpers and their pilots that makes bandit stunts possible. Sergio and most of his buddies were subpoenaed and examined under oath. When no one would break the code, the FAA played hardball. Sergio was jailed for contempt of court with a fine of $100 for each day he refused to talk. Meanwhile, his brother, David, a New York policeman, was dying of cancer. After three weeks, it became obvious that Sergio would never talk, and the FAA figured they had made their point, so Sergio was let go. David died six weeks later.
When I met Sergio for the first time in February 1988, he still wasn't talking. But he gave me the name of his nemesis, a Yankee fan in the FAA named Loretta Alkalay, a lawyer who allowed me to read the transcripts of the hearings. Alkalay believes the FAA was very close to solving the mystery. It knew the identity of the plane, a 1964 Cessna 182, and where it had flown from, the Ranch Skydiving Club in Gardiner, N.Y. But Alkalay missed one big clue to finding the pilot: a PF-10 stunt in 1975 that helped launch the madman sport of BASE (buildings, antenna towers, spans and earth) jumping.
The Ranch is about 80 miles north of New York City. It doesn't look like much. The runway is a narrow asphalt strip through a field of weeds and mud where jumpers set up tents each weekend. The "summer clubhouse" is a corrugated steel building left over from World War II. Apparently no work has been done on it since.
There's a bulletin board on a wall of the clubhouse. On it is a snapshot of the torso of a man wearing a T-shirt that reads I FLEW SERGIO: THE WORLD SERIES 1986, but no photo of Sergio himself. I asked one of the members about Sergio's jump. At first he only shrugged, but when I continued to press him, he turned surprisingly hostile. Finally he pointed to a larger photo on the wall: a jumper poised on the edge of a tall building. "Find out who took this picture," he said and walked away.
I wandered over to the "winter clubhouse," a dilapidated yellow school bus furnished with ancient couches and a kerosene heater. A tugboat crewman named Stryker said he planned to do some target practice while waiting for the wind to die down. Stryker was friendly enough, but since it didn't seem to be the time to risk provoking him with questions about Sergio, I asked about the club. "The cowboy days are over," he said. "Skydiving has become a yuppie sport." He pointed to the graffiti that someone had spray-painted onto the ceiling. It read: REMEMBER WHEN SEX WAS FUN AND SKYDIVING WAS DANGEROUS?
Stryker muttered wistfully about his "hero," a man named Owen Quinn: "The first guy to parachute off the World Trade Center—or any building, for that matter. Pucker Factor 10. There's a picture of Quinn on top of the World Trade Center over there on the bulletin board," said Stryker, pointing to the shed.
"Oh, really? Who took it?"
"Mike Sergio. Quinn was sort of his guru. If you want to write about parachuting, you ought to talk to Quinn."