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Love in mid-air

Hamilton's lean, Kleen flying machines

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On a recent Sunday morning, parachute flyer Deb Kleen, cup of coffee in hand, arrives with her flyer husband Lynn at the Hamilton airport, where the pair will perform an acrobatic jump 5,000 feet over the Bitterroot Valley. Sheer physical strength and Velcro strips on their jumpsuits will hold them together as they spin, roll and loop their way down. During their acrobatic float back to earth, they’ll grip their legs tightly together to keep from flying off in different directions once the “pull force” of their respective parachutes reaches 500 pounds of pressure. It all makes one wonder why she needs caffeine to get going.

She laughs at the question. “You know, it’s funny, flying has never bothered me. Now, when I fly commercially, I feel stuck in the back of the plane. I’m not in control, I don’t know who’s flying, and I don’t have a parachute.”

The Kleens, married for 11 years, have both been jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, as the saying goes, for years. But unlike run-of-the-mill parachutists—if there is such a thing—the Kleens turn parachuting on its head. Literally.

Both Kleens are experienced parachutists; he has more than 2,000 jumps to his name, she has about 850. But sometime around the late 1980s, Lynn and his younger brother Todd, also a jumper, decided to take the sport to the next level of thrill. After hashing out some new jumping concepts in the bars, the Kleen brothers came up with the idea of combining parachuting with mid-air acrobatics. Call it parachute flying. Call it mid-air acrobatics. Or call it—as Lynn, in a moment of ground-based clarity, eventually did—Parabatics, a name the Kleens have trademarked for their unique air show act, the Blue Sky Parabatics.

Parabatics is exactly what it sounds like: parachute acrobatics, involving some tricky mid-air “docking,” or linking one parachutist to another, both jumpers floating to earth together in a number of looping, spinning, rolling acrobatic maneuvers. The two bodies, linked together by a leg grip, form the center of gravity as the two chutes swing back and forth, over and under, putting first one parachutist upside down, then the other, in a series of graceful maneuvers that bring to mind the lazy glide of birds of prey.

Before he actually put the idea into practice, Lynn remembers insisting to his brother that yes, in fact, you can fly a parachute upside-down and live to tell about it. Sure, it made for good talk, but sitting there on that bar stool, did Lynn ever stop to consider the physics of upside-down parachuting?

“I never studied physics,” Lynn says, smiling. Plummeting straight down in an out-of-control mishap never occurred to him as he figured out the aerodynamics of the thing. “We knew that wasn’t going to happen,” he says, because parachute design is such that the chute always wants to stay over the body hanging under it. But, he admits, “There was some gut feeling involved.”

The thing about Parabatics is that it went straight from the bar to several thousand feet up, with no opportunity to test the theory anywhere in between. Making it work the first time meant jumping out of the plane at high enough an altitude that there would be plenty of fall time in which to correct any mistake. And then there was the natural escape clause: If anything did go wrong while the two brothers were 5,000 feet up, legs entwined in a death grip, they could always just let go and allow the chutes to do the natural thing, floating away from each other and righting themselves. “It was a super built-in safety factor,” Lynn says. “Everything about this says there’s nothing dangerous here.”

Ideas sketched out in bars worked in practice, and soon Lynn and Todd Kleen began billing their act as the Kleen Brothers Flying Circus. Eventually, though, Todd landed back on earth and got a regular day job, leaving Lynn without a partner.

Enter Deb. “When I first met him, he was so excited about this,” she says. “He and his brother had just done the first upside-down maneuver not quite a year earlier. He could talk about it for hours.”

Deb had been introduced to parachuting while covering the Missoula Silvertip Skydivers as a freelance writer. “They made the mistake of telling the editor that if they sent a reporter out, he or she could jump,” says Deb. “It always looked like fun to me. I remember standing on a cliff in Big Sur, Calif. and looking out over that canyon and over the water and thinking, ‘I wish I could jump and fly.’”

Then she met Lynn, who introduced her to parachute aerobatics on her 30th jump when they docked in a relatively simple formation. “And then there was the 31st jump,” she says. They docked, positioned themselves side-by-side, “and I grabbed my front risers and I went upside down.”

She’s been hooked on Parabatics, and its developer, ever since. These days the Kleens travel the country performing some 25 different mid-air, choreographed acrobatic maneuvers before crowds that can sometimes number in the hundreds of thousands. You can catch them this Saturday when they perform at the Missoula International Airport’s Missoula Airfest 2003.

Do they see themselves as aviators, or entertainers? Both, they say. “That’s one thing when you’re doing air shows,” says Deb. “You have to learn to be an entertainer.”

To which Lynn adds, “You’ve got to make it look good.”

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