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The Life and Death of Skysurfing

Troy Hartman surfs the skies as his cameraman flies by his side. (Photo: Troy Hartman)

The sport of skysurfing lived a short life.

Watching a skysurf video today, you’d likely guess that it’s a digitally animated stunt. But that person surfing right through the sky? That’s real—that happened. In fact, you could once get a gold medal for it.

When skysurfing debuted as one of the flagship events at ESPN’s first-ever Extreme Games (now X Games) in 1995, it had already been around for around a decade. A few daring folks strapped boards to their feet, jumped out of planes, and gave “surfing the airwaves” a whole new meaning. There were skysurfing stars, skysurfing endorsements. It was a small but global community. But within five years, the sport dropped completely out of sight. How did this insane sport climb so far and fall so fast?

Skysurfing was dreamt up in 1986 by French skydivers Dominique Jacquet and Jean-Pascal Oron. Of all the skydiving disciplines, it was the hardest, says Troy Hartman, a former skysurf gold medalist who competed full-time during the sport’s heyday. In comparison, he says, things like wingsuiting and BASE jumping are “pretty darn easy.”

 Jumping out of an airplane with a board strapped to your feet is a feat that Hartman compares to wrestling an alligator. A skysurfer, having already mastered skydiving, must make around 200 jumps just to gain control of the board before attempting any spins or flips, since the board can change things up in a matter of moments.

henhouse surprise

Hartman pulls off his signature move, the “Henhouse Surprise.” (Photo: Troy Hartman)

Watching someone glide along air currents as a surfer rides a wave is an optical illusion only enabled by clever camerawork, which is why skysurfing is a two-man team sport. A steady camera can keep the surfer completely still in the frame, even as he’s plummeting downwards at a rate of 90 to 160 miles per hour. Unlike with a sport like formation skydiving, where competitors’ consistent fall rates allow the cameraman to just “stay put,” the skysurf cameraman needs to synchronize with every flip, roll, and shift in fall rate. Since camerawork was critical to capturing the artistic merits that determined a judge’s score, a skysurfer would spend more time training alongside his camera-mate than he would alone. 

Troy Hartman saw his first video of skysurfing the very same day he took his first skydive, back as a college student in 1991. (Little did he know that a few years later, he’d invent one of the sport’s most well-known moves, the “Henhouse Surprise.”) Scared to death at the mere idea of skydiving that morning, he ended the day not only determined to keep skydiving, but also to learn to skysurf. That very afternoon, he saw one of the sport’s French pioneers in a Planet Reebok commercial, and it blew him away. “I thought, well God, if this is possible, then why not do it?” he recalls. “I’ve always been the kind of person, I just don’t see any reason not to do something. Hey—if it exists and it’s possible, then why not?”

However, most people still saw distinct reasons why not. Even among skydiving communities, the skyboard was considered a death wish, and no one would let Hartman take one with him on a plane. So he built his own board out of wood, snuck it into a cabin of 30 skydivers, and was the last to jump out. “Of course, I was scared—I was scared to death, having this thing on my feet,” he remembers. “But you know, in the end, I got it basically under control, enough to get my parachute open, and I survived it, and it was the coolest thing ever.”

Hartman rode out the skysurf wave, and at one point was featured in three commercials airing at once, for AT&T, Mountain Dew, and Dr. Pepper. After his Superbowl Pepsi commercial, in which he skysurfs (and drinks Pepsi) alongside a Canadian goose, some folks at MTV approached him, asking, “Are you willing to do a bunch of other crazy stuff?” (His answer? Yes—which led to 42 absurd stunts for Senseless Acts of Video, a precursor to Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass.)

Is skysurfing, perchance, dangerous? Oh yes—very. If a skysurfer loses control, which Hartman says was quite common, they may risk hitting the cameraman with the board or be unable to release it. If the person is spinning or flipping around and the chute opens, it will just wrap up and tangle into a massive knot; a spin can also become so violent that it knocks the person out cold. Hartman has found himself in spins that accelerated so fast that the capillaries in both his eyes burst, turning them completely red. Skysurfers actually taped their arms to prevent blood pooling in the extremities during spins that could lead to them blacking out.

Riding those airwaves. (Photo: Troy Hartman)

The sport had so few teams of two—no more than 12 or 15—and survived for so short a time that one wonders whether it qualifies as a sport or simply a stunt. During its peak years, skysurfing lost several members of its already small crew, though only one of the deaths was from a skysurfing accident—that was Jerry Loftis in 1998, who was the founder of Surflite, the first and only skyboard manufacturing company. A small community shrunk even smaller.

But why did skysurfing disappear? It’s a risky sport, but so are wingsuit proximity flying and BASE jumping, and those are both thriving more wildly than ever. While there are still a few individuals here and there who give skysurfing a spin, the practice has become rare, if not nonexistent.

Hartman sees the demise of the sport linked to a lack of money. X Games events survive on big company sponsorships like Red Bull and GoPro, and these companies were turning their money and attention to the more marketable—that is, relatable—sports like BMX and snowboarding. But also, stacked up against easier, less time intensive and less dangerous options, skysurfing already faced a losing battle. As quickly as it appeared, skysurfing faded away into the ranks of street luge, bungee jumping, snow shovel racing, and other ghosts of extreme sports past.