a Life: Remembering Eric “tonto” Stephenson,
3 March 1962 – 28 October 2007
Taya Weiss D27874
Soon after we first
met in 2002, Eric explained that he
had four personalities. I must have
really liked him, because it seemed
reasonable that he had named them all
as well: tonto was the skydiver. Shadrack
was friendly and social. Dominic was
the muscle, the one who used to carry
the gun but was now on permanent holiday
in the Himalayas finding himself. Eric
was the man I fell in love with and
the adoring father of his two daughters,
Caleigh and Shanna. When he asked me
to marry him, hanging off the top of
a multi-pitch climb in Harrismith at
Easter four years later, I said yes
to all of them.
Eric touched many people’s lives
on his journey, and skydiving was the
path that led him to those he felt
he was meant to teach and learn from.
I get messages from people all over
the world who learned from him, miss
him, and wonder how to cope with the
empty space where he used to be, in
the sport of skydiving and the broader
taught a fire safety course for crèche
teachers in Kliptown.
Not many people knew this side
In trying to answer
them, and to soothe the longing that
still tears at my heart, I go back
to the man who was, above all, my best
friend. On October 23rd, 2007, he wrote
to me about Jabu (a packer at JSC): “Hi
Love, You probably heard that Jabu's
wife was killed in a Taxi accident
on Saturday. I deposited R500 from
the 2 of us into the JSC funeral account.
I'll give him a little cash next time
I see him too. I'm always amazed at
how few people realise what a meaningful
contribution they make to our sport.
Death visits all of us. We're all equal
in the end. I love you. t”. He
gave of himself generously to those
he cared for and to those who needed
him the most, valuing relationships
over material things right up until
the very end.
Few, if any, skydivers at Eric’s
level of the sport keep a logbook as
diligently as he did. He logged love,
relationships, Formula 1 seasons, and
bottles of wine in the same place he
kept a record of his jumps. When he
made a small but fatal swooping mistake
five days after writing his eloquent
last lines on death, there were only
four jumps missing. It was a heavy
but loving task to fill them in, and
I did. He wouldn’t have it any
This is part of his
story, and the path we walked together.
2 February 1985
Aircraft: Cessna 206
Type Jump: Static Line
Target Dist: ZAP
Ground wind: 8
Main Chute: L9
Aux. Chute: 26 Lopo
Air work: Static Line
Parachutist or Pilot’s Signature:
A. Scalabrino D278
Remarks: “Look up more and count.
Welcome to the sky!”
Date: 14 February 1987
Location: Dorset, England
Type Jump: Hop & Pop
Delay: 20 seconds
Target Dist.: 15
Sur. Wind: 15
Main Chute Type: Unit One!
Aux. Chute: Lopo 26
Air Work: No one keen for RW, pissed
Parachutist or Pilot’s Signature:
Billy Goat Gruff
Remarks: “Exit ok, bad spot,
spiralled and had canopy collapse.
Date: 12 April 1992
Location: Perris Valley
Aircraft: Twin Otter
Type Jump: 10 way
Delay: 65 seconds
Target Dist: 16:10
Sur. Wind: 3-5
Main Chute Type: Peregrine
Aux. Chute: 150R
Remarks: “One Thousand Dives.
Date: 1 April 1995
Delay: 5 seconds
“Team dive with Ricky and Tony. Ricky in good Base-pin. Tony very slow
and not very aware on the catch. Cam got me a killer pic!!!”
Date: 11 March 2000
Delay: 51 seconds
“AFF LVI with Marius. Exciting stuff!!”
Date: 13 January 2002
Delay: 30 seconds
“Tandem with Caleigh. Very brave girl!! Skydiver Cay!”
Eric loved his daughters with everything
he had to give.
Sharing the sky with
his family – Caleigh twice;
Shanna when she turned 9;
and me – was
like getting to heaven early.
Date: 20 January 2002
Delay: 51 seconds
AFF L5R [repeat] with Anne. No release.
Less than a week after this jump,
I met Eric. I had just arrived in Johannesburg,
a refugee from my Harvard-graduate
life San Francisco, looking to use
my education to make the world a better
place. I had 138 skydives. He arrived
on a street corner in Yeoville at dawn
to give an American stranger a lift
to the dropzone after reading about
my move to South Africa on dropzone.com.
I was sitting outside in the gray morning
stillness with my gear bag when he
pulled up in his Mazda Sting and got
out. Caleigh and Shanna were asleep
in the back seat; I was reassured that
he wasn’t an axe murderer. Anyone
actually willing to drive into Yeoville
in January 2002, with its frequent
shootings, carjackings, and thriving
drug scene, might have been. I was
surviving there for the affordable
We drove on the M1 South passing the
city on the left as the sun rose. Mist
hung over the downtown skyline, the
kids slept quietly in the back, and
we started a conversation that lasted
for the five years and eight months
we shared. That morning, we talked
about apartheid, about war, social
justice, truth and reconciliation.
He was not your average white South
African male. Eric cared about these
things, and his place in his country’s
history, more than tonto or Shadrack
would ever let on.
My first jump in Africa was a two-way
with Clyde Holland out of the C-210
at JSC. It was the only jump I did
that weekend and I landed off. Clyde
came to pick me up after a bit of a
hike, and I got plenty of funny comments
about looking out for the lions in
the veldt. I was still quite American
then, with an obviousness that faded
as South Africa became home. Eric looked
on with amusement.
Date: 2 February 2002
Delay: 51 seconds
“Freefly with Taya. Nice head-down launch. Answer to [a question he asked
himself on jump] 3075: Not Long.”
On the way up to altitude on our first
two-way jump, Eric sat behind me. Around
5000 feet he reached over and ran his
finger lightly along the edge of my
right ear; it was an odd thing to do
but very tender, and we joked about
it for years afterwards. He said the
light was shining through my ear and
he wasn’t thinking straight.
We exited head-down and he grinned
at me the whole way.
At the end of that weekend I turned
25. We had dinner at Café Espresso
in Parkhurst (two plates of cubed fillet,
rare, candlelight). We didn’t
know each other that well, but for
some reason the conversation felt intimate.
We talked about writing letters to
dead people, something we discovered
we both did. He told me about being
at Perris when the Otter crashed in
1992. I told him about my childhood
friend who died of cancer when I was
12. More than anyone I had ever met,
he embraced the impermanence of time
instead of running from it. I saw someone
who had seen as much, if not more,
death than I had, and was still in
love with life.
Jumps 3360 and 3362
Date: 10 February 2002
Delay: 46 seconds each
“Fun sit with Taya. Really very nice, but I’m still sitting on
my back.” Then, “Sit headown with Taya. Hard! But went onto my
head at the end. Pretty girl.” And above both entries, “Taya Begins”.
He invited me over for dinner on Valentine’s
We fell in love.
Date: 8 June 2002
Delay: 57 seconds
“AFF Level I with Elna. Very slow start.”
Elna (Elle to her friends), despite
the slow start at AFF, quickly became
my best friend in Joburg. She had a
beautiful house in Melville, a deck
of Tarot cards, two dogs that she only
spoke to in Afrikaans, and a refrigerator
magnet that said, “Faith is the
daring of the soul to go further than
it can see.” She loved to cook
dinner, even if it was just Woolie’s
lasagne, and was looking for a deeper
purpose to her life. She also understood
why and how I loved Eric, a man 15
years older than me, at a time when
some were sceptical that we could build
something lasting. She crawled right
into my heart and stayed there.
Jumps 3885 and 3886
Date: 22 June 2003
Delay: 52 seconds each
Eric did two AFF dives that day with
someone else, then wrote: “ELLE
He was the Chief Instructor when the
fatality at JSC occurred. Elle had
66 jumps that Sunday afternoon and
no AAD or RSL; she cut away and then
struggled with her reserve handle,
pulling it eventually but too late.
He walked out to the site of impact
alone, and I saw him stand there from
a distance. He looked down, and then
he sank behind the high grass. I watched
him and then I couldn’t let him
be alone, so I started walking out
across the dirt road. Deon came too.
What I witnessed was the naked truth
of human fragility, and the truth of
that particular time and place belongs
only to the three of us who were there.
Late afternoon sun glowed through opaque
clouds on the horizon. The wind had
died and the air was still. The ground
was as solid as it has always been:
without remorse, uncaring, beyond moralizing.
Losing Elle forced us to consider
why we jumped, and how to love each
other in a sport where any day could
end this way. We talked about what
it meant. We held each other. He got
out Elle’s written A-license
test later that week – he saved
all of his students’ tests and
I still have this one. She had done
well. Still, he was tortured by his
inability to have changed the outcome.
Every day we took another step towards
acceptance, slowly, out of necessity,
and together. We loved each other.
We were still here. The course of someone’s
life is beyond any human understanding
Date: 13 September 2003
Delay: 48 seconds
“Sitfly with Taya! Very nice! My love can catch me!”
Within a few months we were smiling
again in the sky.
Date: 16 November 2003
Delay: 60 seconds
“Birdman Rodeo dive with Taya! Cool! Busy on the exit, then perfect heading
control. Good turn after she left.”
Date: 14 August 2004
Delay: 60 seconds
“Taya’s 1st Birdman dive!”
A year later in 2004, I did my first
wingsuit jump (he had 39 by then,
according to his logbook)
flocking adventures began.
Date: 30 December 2004
Location: Eloy, AZ
Aircraft: King Air
Equipment: Safire 119
Delay: 234 seconds
“High altitude dive with Taya – wings. 12k: 91 – 9k: 76 – 6k:64 – 3k:
53. Good speed – lost T on bottom half.”
We went to Eloy and Perris at the
end of 2004 to get our Birdman Instructor
He said this jump made him
feel like he was truly flying for the
I was hypoxic and didn’t
have his energy at the end, but I loved
the glow he had for the rest of the
Date: 31 October 2006
Location: Cross Keys, NJ
Aircraft: PAC 750XL
Delay: 97 seconds
“Very nice to share.”
Soon after I went back to the US for
the academic year to start my Master’s
degree at Princeton University, Eric
came to visit. It had only been a few
months, but it felt like an eternity.
Getting into the sky together was like
stumbling into a cold lake after a
Saharan marathon. It was getting cold
on the east coast towards winter time,
and it was a Tuesday so there weren’t
many people at the DZ, but we had a
perfect day. I wrote next to his logbook
entry: “5000 over New Jersey.
I’m so proud of you. I love your
smile in the sky. Thank you for sharing
this special jump with me, and a neighbouring
Boeing! LOVE. –T BMI SA003”.
That’s right- if you signed
his logbook, you had to put a license
or instructional rating of some kind.
Even after he had 5000 jumps.
Date: 9 December 2006
Delay: 29 seconds
“Very windy. Dragged on take-off: Fast climb to altitude, at 600fpm.
Felt heart beating after exit. Good flight. Landed at the Zenex 7km away, Johan
broke fib. Dian hooked in at the pond L”
We spent what seemed like endless
time after Dian’s accident following
his progress, hoping and praying that
he would be okay. And…
Date: 30 December 2006
Delay: 107 seconds
“Last dive at Citrusdal. Beautiful. 2 way wingsuit with Sam (980). Very
Saying goodbye to the place where
he did his first jump was bittersweet;
as usual, he was very practical about
impermanence, but it was important
to be there at the end.
Date: 16 June 2007
Equipment: Velo 84
Delay: 40 seconds
“Tandem with Shanna for her 9th birthday. Wonderful!”
I was in Belgium on Shanna’s
birthday, so we exchanged emails and
pictures on the 17th and 18th of June.
“I loved my CRW jump. I’ve
always loved it I think--but it's a
lot easier with 4kg of weight and a
126 than under the 143 with twenty
weight belts!! I was still too light
to do a proper dock so there was some
serious human/canopy thrashing about-type
interaction. Which of course I enjoyed.
You taught me so much about being brave.
I missed you this weekend, and I miss
you now. The pics of Shanna’s
dive are amazing. There is so much
love in all of them, and so much sharing
of joy--I had to fight back some tears.
We get these moments of extreme humanity,
and so often for us they happen in
the sky. Being able to truly share
that with your daughter is just beautiful.
She clearly got it, with her eyes and
her heart wide open. That look in the
door as she sees open door, blue sky
for the first time--powerful stuff.
I love you. -T”
He wrote back:
“Ah, my love, I never taught
you anything about being brave. I think
I was just there some of the time when
you discovered it within yourself.
Remember the 1st dive we did at Eloy
and how nervous I was? You helped me
through that. We can help each other
be brave. I called Shanna today and
sang her happy birthday and she cried.
I think she has an adrenaline hangover.
I know she’ll get over it though,
and the experience was an overwhelmingly
positive one. The vibe on the ground
after the landing was amazing… I
do wish you could have been there though,
but I have that feeling whenever I
experience anything really special.
Somehow, I feel if it were shared with
you, it would be even MORE special.
I love you. I’ll be home all
night, so if you get a chance to Skype
me, I'll be there. t”.
Date: 6 July 2007
Delay: 64 seconds
He was too busy for eloquence during
our trip to Germany, so he let me write
this one: “I love you. Thanks
for entangling with me on the ground,
in that wind, and in life! Yours always. –T
The winds were howling by the time
we got out after a half-hour climb
to 8000 feet for a wingsuit jump. We
both landed backwards. I was getting
dragged with my eye on my cutaway handle,
desperately trying to reel in my break
line. He came in right next to me,
both of us laughing. Our canopies entangled
on the ground and collapsed: no cutaways
necessary. It was our last two-way.
Jump 5312 and 5313
Date: Saturday, 27 October 2008
Delay: 88 seconds
Wingsuit jumps with Matteo, testing
student Firebirds. Matteo told me,
and I wrote in Eric’s logbook, “It
was one of my proudest days. I got
to jump with him as a mentor and teacher,
but I got to jump with him as a friend
and an equal. I will never forget the
happiness those jumps brought me.”
Date: Sunday, 28 October 2008
Delay: 48 seconds
AFF L5 with Agnieszka. Eric begins
the Long Flight.
Jump ASH DIVE
Date: 28 June 2008
Aircraft: PAC 750XL
Equipment: Safire 99
Delay: 96 seconds
“2 way Taya and tonto. You were my soulmate and best friend, life partner,
fiancé, my heart. This last time, soft landings for you. You said: ‘In
the end, the feeling I’m left with is only love. Love for you. Love for
us. Love for the world that streams below us as we fly together.’ (June
2007). Fly on, my love. I will always love you. Till next time. Your -T D27874”.
On the eight month anniversary of
his death, Eric’s mother Edith
and I went to JSC with a small portion
of his ashes. Familiar faces on a sunny
day: Charis, Stuart, Ma, the riggers,
DJ Ed, PJ, Pears, Pottie, Marius, Dian.
I saw more than one friend whose survival
after skydiving accidents we had prayed
for together, and who had made it back
to the dropzone in one piece. It was
so hard to know that all I had left
was what I had to let go.
Edith is one of the strongest women
in the history of the world. She gave
me a picture of Eric as a young boy
to carry with me in my wingsuit pocket.
She put her hands on my shoulders and
her forehead against mine (I was thinking:
just like he used to do) and she said, “He
was my son. He came from my womb. His
life started with me, and it ends with
you.” I missed Caleigh and Shanna.
My heart shattered from missing them,
as it often does now, and I did what
I have to: sweep up the pieces and
hope for a day when they come looking
I walked to the plane with a red pouch
strapped to my left wrist. I sat at
the back of the PAC with Raymond in
front of me, and I closed my eyes,
and breathed, and focused. I felt Eric’s
presence. I was in the Porter. He was
smiling, with a student. He was kissing
me in the door. I was in the AN2 and
our eyes were closed, curtains on the
plane windows. He laughed when I kissed
the pilot’s hand before exit.
I saw him behind my closed eyes. I
Tears streamed down my face, and Raymond
took my hand, and prayed. Millions
of years later, we got to altitude.
After everyone else was out, I flew.
The air felt dense, and everything
was slow. He was off my left wingtip,
he was underneath me, he was the air
and the sky and my beating heart and
the planet below me.
I pulled, open above 5000. I looked
up at the sky and down at JSC. Home.
I opened up the pouch, took out the
plastic bag, and said goodbye. He – pieces
of him – streamed out of the
bag to my left side. Going home, softly.
A last jump, a last chance to fly.
He went back to where we all come from.
Raymond flew on my right, an honour
guard. I landed softly in the place
where he had left us. I felt like I
was made out of lead: very, very heavy.
Edith and Ma held me as I sobbed. The
sun bright, the earth red, the breeze
soft, the sky brilliant blue, the birds
alive, the grass still growing. Everything
in vivid colour. Everything heavy and
bright, almost bleeding with the memory
The Red Hot Chili Peppers were on
the speakers as I walked in to the
clubhouse. His favourite band. I put
down my kit. Slowly, the world started
turning again, and I got lighter.
I ate a banana, got packed up, gave
packer Justice a hug, and then I did
what felt right.
I kitted up for the next jump.