Catching up with… Bruno Brokken

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Bruno Brokken needs no introduction. The skydiving community was blessed when he put a parachute on his back, and even more so when he took a camera in freefall.

Bruno – always ready to smile

For years his work as a camera flyer enchanted and inspired us while his journey took him to all corners of the world. His calm, competent, comical and always full of good vibes presence was a plus in every activity he carried out.

In 2020 Bruno received one of the highest distinctions in the sport, being inducted in the Skydiving Hall of Fame.

Hey Bruno, how many jumps do you have and what made you start skydiving?

Over 27,000 jumps now. I was always interested in aviation. My father was a military pilot, but he never jumped. He had a few crashes but never ejected. 🙂

Back in 1980, there was a dropzone in my home town in Belgium, a little one, with a Cessna 172. I discovered it in a strange way. I had a friend and one day I saw her with a bandage around her knee. I asked her what happened and she said “I was parachuting and had a bad landing” “Where?!?” “Here, at the local airport”. The next weekend I was there with a friend and checked it out and that’s how it all started. My buddy did only a few jumps and I never stopped really. These were different times, there were no coaches for different disciplines, but at the end of the first year we were already doing some relative work and CRW. We all had about 100 jumps, it was great fun! 

The beginning – early freefalls, Moorsele, 1981
Photo from Bruno’s collection

You flew camera for many records, which was the most difficult?

Normally on most record jumps there are several camera people, so the pressure is more on the participants. But of course every camera people tries to take the shots so the judges can validate the record. Nice pictures are a bonus. Technically most records are not more complicated than doing a normal camera jump, but for record jumps we usually go really high and there can be problems with the oxygen or the cold. I remember in 1996 for example, the World Team did 300-way attempts in Russia, jumping from big Mi-26 helicopters (4 of them) and the problem was that these helicopters had no door at the back, it was open all the time. We were going at 20,000ft so on the way up, the people in the back were really, really cold. 🙂

Also for the 400-way jumps we went to an exit altitude of around 25000ft. All the participants had full face helmets with oxygen tubes directly connected to them. Most camerapeople had open face helmets. This and the fact that some tubes were not long enough to make it to the ramp of the C-130 made it a bit more complicated for us. These are the usual camera  problems at these kind of events, not necessarily the jump itself.

Exit from four Hercules during World Team 357-way World Record, 2004
Photo by Bruno Brokken

Of all the non-traditional skydiving places that you jumped, which ones did you love the most?

I  love to travel. The North Pole was really special because it is an amazing place and you always have to land facing South. 🙂  We were thousands of kilometers away from dry land, it’s only ice there. It was really special, but tricky with the gear though. I don’t remember the exact exit altitude, I believe around 10,000ft, but it was COLD. There could do only one jump there. Immediately after landing you need to put the camera gear in a bag and close it, to prevent having it destroyed by the humidity combined with the freezing temperatures (this was 1994, long before digital photo cameras).

But I really prefer warmer places like where the exotic boogies happen. I’ve been doing that since 1993 almost every year. These boogies are or were organized by groups like Exotic Sky Adventures, Thai Sky Festival and more recently Tsunami Skydivers. I’ve been fortunate to jump all over the world, more recently in the Maldives. That was nice. 🙂 

What are your Top Ten favourite non-standard skydiving places?

  • North Pole (filming skysurfer Patrick de Gayardon)
  • Equator Monument (Quito Equador with Edgar Narvaez and  Exotic Sky Adventures)
  • Blue hole (Tsunami Skydivers)
  • Grand Canyon (with Jetman Yves Rossy)
  • Maldives (Tsunami Skydivers)
  • Big city jumps like at the Tower of London (with the Red Devils team), Bangkok (World Team) or Kuala Lumpur (ESA)
  • Swiss Alps (with Yves Rossy or PDFT)
  • Cayo Largo Cuba (Exotic Sky Adventures)
  • Giza Pyramids (2018 with the Jump like a Pharaoh event)
  • Bazaruto, Mozambique

Bruno’s Top 10 favourite non-standard skydiving places

Tell us more about the beginning of the Jetman project. 

It’s funny how it started. Yves Rossy showed up one day in the early 90s in Empuriabrava and he wanted to skysurf. It was THE cool thing to do back then. But even then there were some rules. You needed to have a minimum of 200 jumps and the skills to do a stand up in freefall. He had less than 150 jumps but he was really good, I mean the guy is heads-up, he is a military jet pilot and a great skydiver. We jumped with him and he could do a stand up in freefall without any problems so he got permission to skysurf. Soon he was jumping with different shapes of skysurfs, and for fun he even made one in the shape of the aircraft he was flying in the military at that time. Then he started experimenting with different wings – still standing up like with the skysurf board but with various aerofoils. Some of them were big, I think up to about 1.8 meters wide. He saw that he had too much resistance standing on the wings so he put them on his back and that worked much better. Then once the wings worked well, he added 2 engines so he could fly level with them. Then he put 4 engines on the wing, so he could also gain altitude… And this was the evolution over many, many years. 🙂

“Jetman” project, early days of the powered wings, 2004
Photo from Bruno’s collection

He tried the first wings (the ones he was standing on) around 1995 and the first jet wings around 2003. In 2008 things got really interesting when he crossed the English Channel from France to England. This was broadcasted live by National Geographic in many countries.  Yves exited the Pilatus Porter at 5,000ft in Calais and arrived over Dover 8 minutes later, still at 5,000ft – that was the crucial moment when he showed that his wings worked.

Another amazing moment, much later, in 2015, was when Yves and Vince Reffet flew their little jetwings in formation with the world’s biggest passenger jet, the A380. That was incredible! I had the pleasure to witness it from the A380 business class upper deck.

The Jetman project was not an easy project. Yves had a lot of problems over the years. Sometimes he had to cut the wings away and they would get destroyed. All kinds of problems, you wouldn’t believe it. He would go home with the broken parts and fix them. Helicopter jumps were too expensive (he had no sponsor back then) so he had to use the Pilatus Porter. He had to make wings that would fit in this relatively small plane but they were still quite big (some of his wings had 3 meter span), so he used a folding system. He tried different systems. Sometimes one side was unfolding correctly but the other one out of sequence, so he went out of control and he had to cut away the wing. He had many emergencies followed by off landings (he was exiting away from populated areas to avoid problems in case of emergency). It was funny, before each flight he would just say “my car keys are there, just in case”. I had to use them many times! 🙂 

Most people would have given up many times over the years. Yves just went on and on and on until his project worked. He never gave up! It was a pleasure and an honor to work with him over the years! 

Yves ‘Jetman’ Rossy cruising alongside the Christ the Redeemer statue, Rio de Janeiro
Photo by Bruno Brokken

Bruno was a central pillar of development from the beginning of the Jetman adventure – as a cameraman of course, but also as a super-experienced advisor on safety and technical aspects. Most of all he marked the whole project with his always positive, joyful, comical spirit and his good ideas, mixed with outstanding professional skills, which often helped me to keep going while I was at the bottom. He has been my guardian angel and reporter all these years. I am privileged to have lived exceptional moments of beauty in his company. He is one of those people that makes you better by his touch and I am proud he is my friend.”

Yves ‘Jetman’ Rossy 
Patrick de Gayardon and Bruno – photoshoot for Sector watches at the North Pole, 1994
Photo from Bruno’s collection

Which was the most challenging commercial you filmed?

Probably the North Pole project, because of the extreme conditions. That  was for a photoshoot for Sector watches with Patrick de Gayardon skysurfing. We took off from Siberia with a big Russian IL76 jet. After a flight of 3 hours we jumped over the North Pole. Just before exit Patrick had problems with closing his visor, and my goggles were completely fogged up. Not sure how cold it was on exit, but it was -33C on the ground that day. But we managed to get the pictures Sector wanted. 😎

We heard you saved a friend’s life when he blacked out in a freefall collision, what happened? 

That was in 1990, the year before the CYPRES was invented. Except students, almost nobody had AADs, they were not so reliable back then. It was at the Hercules Boogie in Belgium, towards the end of the event. A friend of mine, Sjarel, was going to do his 500th jump and asked me to film. He told me it was going to be a 10-way, 5 girls, 5 boys, and they would all jump naked. I liked the plan. 😎  Luckily for me jumping naked was not an option. My video system was VHS with the recorder on the chest, cables everywhere, so that was a good excuse. There were 2 camera flyers, John Drew and myself. They wanted to exit linked and for the camera flyers to dive after. But they funneled the exit and a pilot chute came out of one of the girl’s rig. She shot out of the formation, hitting some people on the way. John and myself were not directly over the formation yet so we were ok. The next 6, maybe 7, seconds were just a big confusion, but then I saw one of the guys really, really low and he seemed to be spinning out of control. I went in a dive to him. It was George Pilkington. By the time I reached him I could see he was not “there”. He was on his belly, slowly spinning, with his legs completely in and his arms kind of floppy. I wanted to take a grip on him, but without jumpsuits it was not easy. I finally got a grip on his arm and I tried to pull his pull-out (a different opening system that was popular back then) but I lost the grip and now the pull-out was out, flapping. I got the grip back, pulled for him and that was it. George doesn’t remember the jump, he remembers when he was back on the ground, much later.

I’m curious, did you have AFF training before this episode?

Yes, that was 1990 and I’d been an AFF jumpmaster since 1987 and in Empuriabrava for 3 years. So, he was basically like an unstable student. 🙂 

I’ve always been impressed by Bruno’s creativity to come out with new ideas for photos and videos, his talent and longevity in the sport and his mastering of fisheye lenses… definitely a great inspiration for all camera flyers!”

Gustavo Cabana

Did you know that Bruno loves his dogs and he loves to play music?
Photo courtesy of Gaby Meis

What’s the biggest problem we have in the sport? 

Probably canopy collisions and landing accident often because of people downsizing too fast. In the 80s the gear was not as safe as it is now. Now it’s really safe, you rarely have an incident that it is gear-related. But there are still a lot of accidents that involve landings or collisions , and that should not happen. And some of these accidents are with people that have been jumping forever. I cannot stress enough the importance of looking around you ALL the time! 

I think now we have a problem with canopies that are not compatible landing in the same landing area. You can have a conservative canopy and a high performance canopy landing in the same area at the same time, with the high performance canopy starting the turn much higher so the pilot of the conservative canopy sometimes has no chance to see it. 

What can we do about it? 

For landing problems, talk with experienced canopy pilots or canopy coaches. For the collision problems, have different landing zones for different type of landings. But at certain dropzones there is not enough space to have separate landing zones. It must be clear that people should not do high performance turns if there is  lots of traffic and different kind of canopies around – and that’s it. I love it when organizers put firm rules in place for certain events. Rich Grimm for instance, organizer of the Tsunami Boogies, doesn’t allow more than a 90-degree turns at his events. And it doesn’t matter who you are, if you break the rules you’re grounded. High performance landings are fun, but in these circumstances I totally agree, it makes for less traffic problems. And that’s vital, especially since these boogies are organized in places far away from big cities and hospitals and where  the medical emergency services are not what we’re used to in Europe or the the US. So especially in those places, it is really important to try to avoid accidents.

There is no better camera flyer in the history of our sport than Bruno Brokken. He combines his great flying skills with professional quality cameras. The results are EPIC!”

Tom Sanders
The French CF sequential team over Dubai with the Burj al Arab in the background
Photo by Bruno Brokken

Whom do you admire, who are your mentors?

Probably like most skydivers I keep as a mentor my first instructor Michel Van Beirs. He’s 83 now, and still jumping – in Thailand. 🙂 Also in Belgium, when I started jumping, there was a guy who lived in the same town, Michel De Kerpel. He was on the Belgium 4-way team. He had over 1,000 jumps when I started. That was a lot of jumps back then. Later, when I came to Empuriabrava there was Mitch Decoteau and Roland Hilfiker. They were running the place and in charge of the AFF school. I learned a lot from them. From the camera work point of view my mentors were Carl Boenish, Ray Cottingham, Norman Kent, Tom Sanders in the US and then Max Dereta and Patrick Passe in Europe. I admired their work long before I finally met some of  them.

How did you feel when you learned that you’ll be inducted in the Hall of Fame Class of 2020? 

It was a big surprise, because there are a lot of people that I felt should be there before me. Really! It was a BIG surprise. If you look at the names of inductees it’s amazing to be in that group. I am humbled and happy about the honor. 

Was it difficult not to be in Perris for the 2021 Hall of Fame celebration?

Difficult no, off course I would have loved to be there. A few of us couldn’t go to the US this year because of the Covid travel restrictions. I am looking forward to the celebration next year in Deland, in October ’21, where also the World Team will get an award [the Path of Excellence], so lots of friends will be there.

Does Bruno Brokken has a motto, or favourite quotation?

“Who?” 🙂

With Gaby Meis
Photo from Bruno’s collection

Anything you would like to add?

I would like to thank my sponsors for keeping me in the air, some for many years: Performance Designs, Sun Path Products, CYPRES, L&B Altimeters, Vertigen, Ramair Sports.

And to Gaby Meis, my love and best friend (relax, Wingo and Alita, you are also my best friends 🙂). Gaby has been by my side for a long time, and most young skydivers don’t know she was a great skydiver too. She was one of the two female camera flyers, together with Wendy Smith, of the 400-way world record. 🙂

Through Bruno’s lenses – photo gallery

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Meet: Andreea Pistea

Andreea started skydiving at 16 years old and the step between hobby and passion was almost immediately made. Nothing changed in the years that passed.

She is a USPA coach, AFF Instructor, Multiple World Record holder in big-ways, former captain of TNT 4-way team and a Romanian Airclub athlete.

Andreea enjoys FS, wingsuiting and freefly. She flyes Sun Path, Aerodyne, Squirrel, Cookie Helmets and Cypres.

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