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To Fly . . . : Sky Diver’s Worries, Work-a-Day Stress Vanish in Thin Air

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a hard week at work, Kelly Musante begins to unwind Saturday morning at 12,500 feet, a few miles from the drop zone.

“I can hardly wait,” she said, tightening the harness of her parachute and adjusting her goggles.

As soon as the load master gives her the OK, Musante is out the door of the old DC-3 and hurtling toward the dun-colored ground at 120 m.p.h. At 2,500 feet, her chute opens in the first of about 10 to 12 sky dives she does almost every weekend at a bare-bones airstrip here, near Lake Elsinore.

“You jump and you forget about everything else,” she said. “They say sky divers are addicted to adrenaline. It’s true. It just takes one jump.”

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Musante, 27, of Anaheim, who works for her family’s waterproofing supply company, has been sky-diving since her 26th birthday. With a predilection for roller coasters, she thought she would try a jump on her 25th birthday to mark a quarter-century on Earth, but after looking into lessons, it took her another year to get up the courage.

She finally made her first jump July 1, 1990, with two friends who went along for comfort. Musante was nervous until one companion led the way by leaping out of the aircraft in front of her.

“As soon as I saw a friend leave, I could not wait to get into the air,” she said. “I thought I would be so scared, but by the time I got to the door I was ready. The first thing that shocked me was that it did not seem like I was falling. It’s more like you are flying. It’s more like you are free.”

As soon as the parachute opened, Musante wanted to do it again. She came back the next weekend for another jump with a sky-diving instructor. Then she enrolled in the advanced free-fall program.

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Musante’s life has not been the same since. Much of her free time and extra cash--the gear alone can cost $2,500--is spent on the sport. Her boyfriend is a parachute instructor, and most of her friends are sky divers.

For vacation this year, she traveled up the West Coast, parachuting in Oregon, Washington and Canada. She persuaded her mother to do a tandem jump with an instructor, and the younger Musante has sky-dived in everything imaginable--high heels, lingerie, bikinis and pajamas.

Now she is thinking about getting an instructor’s rating so she can make money at it.

She is waiting for her father and two brothers to give it a try.

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“After the first time, you never look up at the sky the same way,” Musante said. “I just took it for granted, like something that was there. Now when I see a plane overhead I want to jump out of it.”

Almost every weekend Musante can be found at Perris Valley Airport, “the Airsports Capital of the World.” It is a Spartan operation devoid of landscaping except for a green strip of lawn off the runway. Here, the pungent smell of kerosene-based aviation fuel mixes with the aroma of hamburgers and french fries sizzling on the grill of the “Bomb Shelter.”

The green infield is filled with scores of sky divers repacking their colorful parachutes for the next jump. Gear is everywhere, and a mix of hard rock and country music plays on the public address system.

“Bad Spot Bill,” who runs a taxi service for sky divers, patrols the airfield in his yellow Chevrolet pickup. A rebel flag is painted on each door and the Stars and Stripes flies from a pole stuck in the tailgate.

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About every 20 minutes, nylon canopies of red, blue, yellow and pink bloom a few thousand feet over the airfield. Some float slowly to Earth. Others corkscrew down, spinning wildly in their harnesses, until they pull out at the last minute and gently land on their feet.

“It’s a great place,” Musante said. “I’ve made a lot of friends here and there are all kinds of people, lowlifes, blue-collar types, lawyers, doctors. You get a little bit of everybody. Sky diving brings you closer together.”

Although parachuting has never been safer, she says, part of the attraction and camaraderie come from the risk and exclusivity of the sport.

“Not a lot of people jump out of planes at 12,500 feet,” she said. “I guess there is a little different outlook. You die every time you go out of that plane unless you do something about it. Death or injury is always in the back of your mind. It makes you really live your life.”

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Rather than worrying about the possibility of parachute failure, Musante mostly thinks about what she can do once outside the aircraft. By moving an arm or leg, a sky diver can turn, somersault, slip across the sky or dive headfirst toward the ground. More complicated maneuvering and formations are possible by jumping in teams of up to 10 people.

Over the Labor Day weekend, Musante and five other jumpers took first place in the “six-way” event of the California Challenge Cup held at Perris Valley Airport. Teams of six people competed to see who could form the best formations during a series of videotaped jumps made over three days.

It was Musante’s first time in competition.

“I don’t think it takes all that much courage,” Musante said. “It fulfills something I guess I was missing in my life, like the hobby I needed. Even talking about it gets the adrenaline going. I am all hyped up right now.”

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