(Editor’s note: The following article has been reprinted with permission from the Palisades Americanism Parade Association. The skydivers will jump at 2 p.m. to start the parade.)
By LAUREL BUSBY
Skydiving caught Anne Helliwell’s imagination when she was 10 years old.
At an air show, “I saw big green parachutes exit a plane,” the New Zealand native said. “For some reason, that snapshot stuck with me, and I wanted to do that when I grew up.”
At 20 years old, the legal skydiving age in New Zealand at the time, she leapt out of her first airplane.
“It was scary,” Helliwell, 61, said. “I remember sitting in the airplane being anxious, but as soon as I was out the door, it was exhilarating. I got down with a real happy buzz. Not adrenaline. I’m not an adrenaline junkie. It just felt right. It was a magnetic pull.”
From then on, zipping through the air became a central part of her life. At 22, she moved to Southern California, because of the increased opportunities for skydiving here.
With Carey Peck in 1991, Helliwell became part of the first skydiving team to lead off a Pacific Palisades Fourth of July parade, and she remained a consistent part of the team for about 20 years, she estimated. After a few years away from the parade in recent years, she’s back again along with new group leader Tom Falzone, who coaches the West Point parachute team, and Mary Tortomasi.
All three have been part of world-record large-formation skydives in which hundreds of skydivers link together and fall as one. Rich Piccirilli, who has also been a frequent parade skydiver, will be flying the plane this year.
The Fourth of July jump, which aims to land at 2 p.m. on Sunset near Swarthmore, is a fun, but challenging leap, for the team.
“The winds coming off the buildings are squirrely,” Helliwell said. “Your avenue of landing has trees as well as power lines and buildings and traffic lights. Every year, the trees grow and make your avenue a little smaller.”
But as an expert BASE jumper, Helliwell delights in tricky jumps. BASE jumping, which means leaping, not from an airplane, but from fixed objects, such as buildings, antennas, spans (bridges) or the earth, is even more difficult than skydiving. As they fall, participants have the extra challenge of avoiding the object that served as their jump-off point, such as a cliffside. In addition, their landing spot may be uneven or otherwise problematic.
“An airplane is basically a door to the sky, and then the sky is wide open,” she said. “You usually have a groomed landing area…. BASE jumping is a high-risk sport on top of a high-risk sport. I’ve hurt myself BASE jumping. I’ve never hurt myself skydiving.”
Helliwell, who is also an emergency room nurse at Loma Linda University Medical Center, has on occasion had to use her medical expertise to treat fellow BASE jumpers.
And a couple of times, she’s needed medical attention for her own injuries. She broke her foot twice when landing BASE jumps in the ‘90s. The first time was at an event called Bridge Day, during which people leap from a West Virginia bridge traversing a river.
“I was going for accuracy,” she said. “I stomped the shoreline too hard and broke my foot.”
The injury didn’t deter Helliwell. She has now made more than 11,000 skydives and 1,700 BASE jumps. She may be the first woman to have passed 1,000 BASE jumps, although she said it’s difficult to verify because BASE jumps aren’t always documented like traditional skydives.
Some of the most inviting places to BASE jump are in Europe, she said. Residents are more welcoming of the sport and the scenery can be stunning.
“America has too many attorneys,” she said. “Europe is more land of the people, so you can do whatever sport you enjoy.”
Helliwell designed and built her own parachute to cater to the special needs of BASE jumpers, and with a friend, she founded a successful company, Basic Research (now Apex BASE), to market the chute. In addition, she is a pilot trained to combat forest fires, and she does acrobatics in her small plane, an endeavor that is taking up an increasing amount of her time.
Over the years, she has won various honors at BASE jumping competitions and has been part of two world-record group skydives. Her proud parents supported her efforts, posting medals and photos from her exploits on a wall in their home.
Fellow parachutist Falzone, who has known Helliwell for more than 35 years, said he was awed by her skills. “She is one of the most renowned BASE jumpers, not just female, one of the most renowned BASE jumpers in the world.”
But plaudits are not the point for Helliwell. The real joy for her in both skydiving and BASE jumping comes from a combination of the exhilaration experienced during the activity and the connections she has forged with fellow jumpers.
“It ends up being a lifestyle,” she said. “The other skydivers are your favorite friends. You have that camaraderie. It’s a really close-knit family, and everybody cares for each other.” And of course, it’s a blast. “After my first BASE jump [at Auburn Bridge northwest of Sacramento], I was buzzing for months.”