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For This Irrepressible Skydiver, It’s Always Night

Times Staff Writer

With just a sliver of sight in his left eye and even less in his right, John Fleming loves hurling himself out of, as he calls them, perfectly good airplanes.

On a recent Sunday morning, he and seven comrades clustered at the back of a DeHavilland Twin Otter slicing through the clouds above Perris at 14,000 feet. In a jumble of red, black and yellow flight suits, they tumbled out and disappeared.

Cold air whipped Fleming’s face, still grinning, as he plummeted, eyes closed, belly down, arms and legs spread, lounging and gliding on a cushion of air in the horizonless sky.

“When you’re skydiving, all your other worries, anything that’s going on in your life, it just all goes away,” Fleming, 62, yelled from the front of the plane moments before he jumped.

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Fleming, one of what are believed to be two active blind skydivers in the U.S., has loved aviation since his days in the Air Force, back when he could see. Hooked from his first jump made on a dare in 1963, Fleming kept skydiving right through the retinitis pigmentosa that gradually claimed his vision over the last four decades.

Now, 1,937 jumps later, the former Air Force supply clerk and his guide dog, Tia, are fixtures at the drop zone of the busy Perris Valley Skydiving center.

His eyesight began deteriorating dramatically in his mid-20s from the degenerative disease of the retina that also afflicted his grandfather and brother. Once a fledgling pilot, Fleming had to quit flying in 1969 when he came within 40 feet of a midair collision over Chino with a plane he almost didn’t see.

“I realized this wasn’t gonna work. I landed the plane and handed them the keys and said, ‘This has been fun,’ ” said Fleming, who lives in Colton.

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Instead, he turned to skydiving as a way to stay airborne. Fleming, a free-fall junkie, was drawn to the sport’s uniqueness, adrenaline rush and constant danger.

“It’s just something that not everybody does,” Fleming said.

By 1985, Fleming was beyond legally blind, forced to incorporate a battery of safety precautions into his dives. Like all skydivers, he wears an automatic backup parachute. Two altimeters beep at certain altitudes to remind Fleming when to yank his ripcord.

But most important, Fleming leaps with earphones and a pair of two-way radios strapped to his chest. As he plunges to Earth, a helper on the ground talks him through his landing, guiding him where to turn and what obstacles lie in his path.

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“The amazing part is that trust that goes on between him and the person on the ground,” said friend and fellow jumper Marie Winther of San Diego.

Fleming said he relishes the risk and precision of a skydive.

“From the time you leave the airplane until your feet are back on the ground, you have to take care of your own business,” Fleming said. “If you don’t do things right, ultimately you can get killed.”

And he’s come close. Once, his two-way radio didn’t work.

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As he drifted under his parachute, Fleming focused intently on the silence around him, desperate for any clues of his distance from terra firma. He guided himself into a gentle 360-degree turn to soften his imminent landing, and frantically tried to compute his altitude by gauging how long he’d been in the air.

Then he smacked into a tree. The force of the crash, at a drop zone near Medford, Ore., a decade ago, broke four of his ribs and left him rattled and bruised.

At Crazy Creek outside Santa Rosa in 1997, he strayed five miles from his landing area, nearly grazing power lines and ending up lost in the dark. His friends finally discovered him after two hours of honking their horn into the night.

Black eyes and broken bones aside, skydiving is “still just too much fun for me to stop,” Fleming said.

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Dan Rossi of Pittsburgh can relate. The other active blind skydiver, Rossi, 38, stumbled across Fleming on the Internet. They corresponded for years and jumped together in 2003.

“I was just screaming my head off,” said Rossi, who was born with retinoblastoma cancer and lost both his eyes by age 7. His friend Fleming, Rossi says, “is tough as nails.”

“He’s just one of those people that everybody likes.”

So it was easy for Fleming to round up friends to help with the fundraising jump he organized in January to benefit the American Council of the Blind, an advocacy organization of which he’s an active member. Fleming and 20 skydiving volunteers jumped in an eye-shaped formation in the sky above Perris and raised more than $9,000 for the 25,000-member group.

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“To jump out of an airplane when you’re blind is just an incredibly amazing thing to be doing,” said Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld, general manager of Perris Valley Skydiving, who helped organize the charity jump.

Fleming’s own friends and family have tried to keep him grounded. Instead, he’s cajoled two brothers and his father -- 75 at the time -- to try skydiving. For them, once was enough. He hasn’t persuaded his girlfriend, Darian Hartman -- yet.

Fleming, who in recent years has also developed macular degeneration -- a deterioration of the retina common among older adults -- laughs often and easily at himself. He’s heard the one about the blind skydiver:

Q: Why don’t blind people skydive?

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A: Because it scares the dog.

His drop zone friends affectionately call him “Blind John,” or “BJ” for short. He cares for his 87-year-old father full time, shopping, cooking and cleaning for him. He uses a talking computer for the Internet and e-mail and a bar-code scanner to pick out groceries. But often he will pick out his clothes at random.

“I’ve worn some pretty wild outfits, I’ve been told,” he said, cracking up.

While Fleming is flattered and grateful for opportunities to jump with skydiving greats because of his disability, he’d rather be just one of the guys at the drop zone.

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Ralph Sanders, public relations chairman for the American Council of the Blind, calls him a “folk hero” of the visually impaired, but Fleming shrugs off such labels.

As his body grows more vulnerable to crash landings, fear begins to factor in his jumps. He makes about 30 a year, compared with 100 in the past.

But Fleming’s not finished yet. Flying is just too much fun.

“It takes 15 to 20 minutes after the jump for my heart to slow down. It’s like one of the best drugs you can do,” Fleming said.

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“It’s all about just -- yahoo!”

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Are we there yet?

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* Born in Los Angeles, April 27, 1943

* In the days when he could see, Fleming performed demonstration jumps into Little League games and other events. On a jump into a birthday party outside Murphy, Ore., he landed at the wrong gathering several miles away. They fed him anyway.

* On behalf of the American Council of the Blind, Fleming has lobbied in Congress to make Braille, large-print and audio textbooks readily available to visually impaired schoolchildren.

* One of Fleming’s skydiving buddies, Mike Muscat, covered his goggles with tape to simulate jumping blind during a charity event. Muscat sweated so much that his goggles kept slipping off. “The blindfolded jump was very, very nerve-racking,” Muscat said. “I was shocked at how scared I really was.”

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* Fleming, who likes to fish and camp in Oregon, has also ridden a tandem bike with his cousin in the Los Angeles Marathon twice.

* Fleming ends almost all of his e-mails and phone conversations with the skydiver’s trademark salutation: “Blue skies.”


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