Flying Blind Productions Goes to Skydive Perris and Beyond!

In October, Darian, Derk, and Jenny traveled to Blind John’s old stompin’ grounds in Southern California. It was a whirlwind five days of interviews for the documentary — read on to share in our adventure of getting this movie made!

Meet Our Tour Guide, Matt Fleming

Matt Fleming behind the wheel of the car having a good laugh.
John’s brother Matt was one of the true highlights of the trip!

John’s brother, Matt Fleming, showed us John’s homes and favorite hangouts. We got to see John’s homes; Liam’s, John’s favorite bar; the area where John and his mom watched for airplanes and notified flight towers; and the railroad tracks where John and his buddies tempted fate. Along the way, Matt shared some great stories about his big brother.

We Collected Some More Stories about B.J.

Derrick and Darian interviewing one of John's old buddies outside Liam's
Interviewing some of John’s old friends outside Liam’s just felt right.

At Liam’s, we met a couple of guys named John who used to hang out with John Fleming. They told us about helping John Fleming flag down cabs and how the drivers would sometimes pretend they couldn’t find John after seeing him waiting with his guide dogs. Some nights, the owner of Liam’s had an employee take John home.

We Found a Great Resource in the Colton Area Museum

Colton Area Museum

Mike and Marian Murphy, board members of the Colton Area Museum, came in on their day off to give us a private tour and share their knowledge of Colton, California history. The museum, which relies on donations from Colton residents, contains many historical articles, period clothing, and photos. We plan to use some of this material in the documentary to give viewers a sense of what John’s hometown was like when he was growing up there in the 50s and 60s.

We Filmed Some Excellent Interviews at Skydive Perris

Skydive Perris sign at the entrance to their jump zone
The folks at Skydive Perris generously gave us space for interviews and a screening of the short film.

At Skydive Perris, skydiver Mike Muscat let us interview him about his experiences talking John down by radio. Mike also told us about his own experience jumping blindfolded. It’s a great story we were glad to be able to capture for the documentary.

Scott Smith, a training instructor at Skydive Perris, also had experience talking “Blind John” down by radio. He told us about one particularly bad landing he helped John have. Darian said John’s injuries after that jump were severe. His legs were cut nearly to the bone and had be washed and treated with iodine. But, as John’s skydiving buddies know, John could accept a bad landing once in a while much better than he could accept giving up skydiving.

Whew! We Accomplished a Lot with Help from Our Friends!

Derrick, Darian, and Jenny sitting at an outdoor table.
We had a great time too!

By the time it was all over we had interviewed 11 people for possible inclusion in the documentary, showed the short film to a new group of supporters, raised some money, and had a great time with some of John’s family and friends.

Huge thanks to Matt for driving us all over Colton, Riverside, and other parts of San Bernadino. Thanks to Larry, aka “Weasel,” and Judy and their five engaging Chihuahuas for sharing your stories about John and a great sing-a-long. Thanks to Carol for sharing her memories of getting to know John in Eugene, Oregon. Thanks to John’s cousin, Lee Hanson, and his wife Kris for telling us great stories about John’s guide dogs, Kiowa and Tia. Special thanks to Lee, Kris, Charlie, Cathy, Larry, and Lisa for all your help at the fundraiser at Skydive Perris. Big thanks to Skydive Perris for all your graciousness and your generous donation of space and equipment and for helping us spread the word about the screening/fundraiser event.

World’s Largest Freefall Formation of Totally Blind Skydivers

by Dan Rossi

September 13, 2003: Garrettsville OH

The world record for the largest freefall formation of blind skydivers was shattered today in the skies over rural Ohio. The two-way smashed the existing record by a factor of … two.

The participants, John “BJ” Fleming of California/Oregon 1900+ jumps, and Dan Rossi of Pennsylvania 300+ jumps, stepped off the tailgate of a Casa at 14,000 feet and into the skydiving history books, becoming the first two blind skydivers to ever be in freefall together.

Watch Here

The jumpers exited in a side-by-side and were stable right out the door. They closed for the two-way, screamed their congratulations to each other and then opened back to a side-by-side. At 6,500 feet Rossi gave Fleming the pull sign, a hard shake of his upper arm. Fleming deployed in position and then Rossi, assisted by a safety diver who was lurking near by, tracked to 4,000 feet and deployed.

There was quite a bit of radio traffic as Larry Wereb ably talked down the two skydivers, bringing them both in for great landings.

“We really pulled it off. I can’t believe it.” Said Fleming after landing back on the drop zone.

“It was beautiful.” Said Rossi. “I can’t believe that BJ let another blind guy give him the pull sign. He’s crazier than me.” He added after making his way back to the packing area.

Group photo with John Fleming, Dan Rossi, their guide dogs and friends
John Fleming (in red jumpsuit) and Dan Rossi (in black jacket , using white cane) with friends after World’s Largest Freefall Formation of Totally Blind Skydivers.

When asked about the complexities in a dive such as this, Rossi responded: “Well, large freefall formations like this take months of planning and practice. A lot of people have to be in the right place at the right time. We think it might be theoretically possible to add another blind jumper, but we’d really have to investigate the aerodynamics of a formation that large.”

When asked about the experience and talent of a jumper to be part of this momentous skydive, Fleming explained: “Well, for a jump of this magnitude we had to take the best, and only the best skydivers qualified to make this jump. We had to look for the best, most experienced, and most active blind skydivers in the country. Of the two possible candidates, I think we chose well.”

To prove it was no fluke, Fleming and Rossi made a second jump together on Sunday. This time they invited their two safety divers to join them in a four-way. Rossi and Fleming repeated their flawless exit from the previous day and were joined in freefall by Don Schwab of Ohio and Howard Hutchetson of Oregon. The four-way built quickly and the divers got bored of geeking at each other while waiting for 6,500 feet. Rossi again gave the pull signal and then tracked with Schwab to a 4,000 foot deployment. Mary O’Reilly of Ohio successfully talked down the two jumpers for great landings.

The record attempt was nearly ended before it began when Rossi was “lost” on a jump Thursday evening. Due to a much greater than expected push from the uppers, and deteriorating lighting conditions, Rossi’s radio man was unable to see him from the ground. Rossi landed uneventfully in a field more than a mile from the landing area.

Are you allowed to have a sense of humor about going blind? BJ did.

John Fleming, known as “Blind John” or “BJ” among skydivers, was the first skydiver to figure out how to safely jump solo without eyesight. In today’s clip, John talks about going blind, retinitis pigmentosa, and some of the funny predicaments his adventurous spirit got him into as his sight waned.

One of the things people most admired about John was his irrepressible spirit. It’s not that losing his sight didn’t affect him and create hardships, it did and he was honest about that — but he was also determined to live life on his own terms and, for him, that meant seeing the humorous side of living the life of a thrill-seeker who was going blind. So, don’t be afraid to chuckle while you watch this vid:

Blue skies!

P.S. If you love John’s stories and want more, consider a donation of $100 or more  at our GoFundMe page. Your gift will help support production costs for the full-length documentary and you will receive a copy of John Fleming’s ebook, No Shit, There I Was, I Thought I Was Going to Die. It is full of John’s stories of living a thrill-seeking life while losing his sight, and eventually, becoming totally blind.

What’s Charles Bonnet Syndrome Got to Do With It?

Toward the end of his life, John began to experience Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS). Common among people who have lost a significant amount of sight, CBS causes visual hallucinations. Researchers believe it is the result of the brain trying to “fill in” information the eyes are no longer sending to it.

Side by side images with street scene, one without CBS hallucination and one with CBS hallucinations transparent animals and people superimposed over the real street scene.
What is Charles Bonnet Syndrome like? Here’s one possibility.

CBS Can Be Frightening

Many people who develop CBS are afraid they are developing mental illness or Alzheimer’s disease, which can be anxiety producing. If you know someone who is losing their sight and they are starting to see geometric shapes and/or people, animals, or places that are not really there, it might be CBS.

John described CBS as being quite disturbing when it first started for him. Fortunately, he was open about the situation and had understanding people around him to help him cope. Many people don’t speak up when they start to have CBS hallucinations, because of concerns they will be considered “crazy.”

In this video, a woman named Bee describes her experiences with CBS:

Don’t Keep CBS a Secret

Vision Aware logo

If you think you or someone you love might have CBS, don’t let fear stop you. Speak up, talk to your doctor, learn all you can, and get support from others dealing with CBS.

VisionAware.org has some very good information, plus an online message board, links to support groups, and other useful resources for people managing CBS.

For a longer look at CBS, check out this TED talk by the Macular Degeneration Foundation.

Blue skies!

P.S. One of the great things about the full-length documentary we are making about John Fleming is that it’s not just entertaining. It will raise awareness about the conditions that blinded him and the ways he managed after losing his sight. If you think that sounds like an important goal, give what you can to support production costs at our GoFundMe page.

Why Would a Skydiver Need a Guide Dog?

To help him walk independently to the plane, of course!

John and Kiowa in the door of an airplane.
John and his guide dog, Kiowa.

Meet “Blind John’s” Guide Dogs

John had two guide dogs during the time he was skydiving. It’s probably important to note at this point that he did not have the dogs jump out of planes with him, so there is no need for folks to write us angry letters. 🙂

Kiowa

John behind the wheel of a van with Kiowa by his side
John and Kiowa

John and Kiowa were well known among skydivers. They loved playing practical jokes at the drop zones. One of their favorite pranks was having a sighted person in the passenger seat of the van steering while John sat behind the wheel with Kiowa by his side. Imagine the newbies’ faces when they saw John pull up and get out of the van with his guide dog and cane.

Based on Kiowa’s big smile in this picture, it looks like she enjoyed playing these games as much as John  and his skydiving buddies did. She is fondly remembered at the drop zones.

Tia

John in his flight suit holding his parachute with guide dog, Tia, by his side
John and Tia

John was also known to get strangers’ attention by having  his guide dog walk him and his cane up to the door of the plane. For those who didn’t know what a skilled skydiver John was, this caused some alarm!

Here’s Tia, John’s last guide dog, helping John navigate Skydive Perris. Tia was a sweetheart who made friends wherever she went.

Kiowa and Tia Weren’t Just Guide Dogs, They Were Family

Family portrait
John Fleming, stepson Tim Slayton, wife Darian Slayton Fleming, and guide dog, Tia

Want to Hear More Hilarious Stories about Blind John?

We have lots more, which we will include in the full-length documentary about John’s adventures skydiving while blind. But we can’t do that without your help. Please, give what you can to support our production costs at GoFundMe/BlindJohnMovie.

What Does Retinitis Pigmentosa and Macular Degeneration Look Like?

As a young man, John Fleming learned he had a hereditary eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) that likely would cause him to become totally blind. Eventually, he developed macular degeneration as well. When he first began to skydive, his sight was impaired, but he was not totally blind. Over the years, “Blind John,” as he was known among skydivers, lost his sight entirely.

Screen capture of John in the short film Free Falling. It is a moment right after he skydives and he is saying, "I can't see my hand in front of my face."
John Fleming, right after a jump, confirms he “can’t see his hand in front of his face.”

Imagining What Blind John Could See While Skydiving

But what does that look like? Many people assume blindness looks like complete darkness, but that’s actually extremely rare. Most blind people can at least perceive light. How that looks depends on the conditions causing the blindness and the individual person.

Here is a series of videos that do a great job of explaining RP and macular degeneration, along with one man’s description of what he sees. John Fleming’s experience with RP and macular degeneration may not have looked exactly like this, but it will give you an idea of the challenges John faced as a skydiver who was losing his sight.

My RP Retinitis Pigmentosa v2 by Steve Fialkoff & Family

My RP Visual Flashes by Steve Fialkoff & Family

Blue Soccer Ball Phenomena (Silent Film) by Steve Fialkoff & Family

Note: since this is a silent film, I am including the explanatory text from the YouTube post for our readers who can’t see this video.

Explanatory text from Steve Fialkoff:

I am in late stage RP, which is very limited but still have some usable sight. When I close my eyes to sleep, I see a tiny blue ball with webbing like a soccer ball. The ball slowly rotates one way, then stops and goes the other way. It is in the center and very small. It is a 3-dimensional image, that can be mistaken by most who see it as just lines swirling. If it is an “after image,” then it’s a new one on me, because it doesn’t fade for many minutes. the background around the ball is black. This animation is pretty close .

Huge thanks to Steve Fialkoff & Family (My RP Vision on YouTube) for making these excellent, informative videos.

Wondering How John Kept Skydiving Solo Even After He Lost His Sight?

It’s an incredible story and we are on a mission to create a full-length documentary that explains how John jumped safely and why he was determined to keep skydiving after he could no longer rely on his vision to guide him down. Want to see this film made? Please give what you can to support our production costs at our Blind John Movie GoFundMe page. We are a small production team of family and friends, so truly, every little bit helps.

It’s Blindness Awareness Month, Let’s Honor John’s Advocacy Work Together

October is Blindness Awareness month. In honor of John Fleming and his efforts to advocate for people with visual impairment, let’s do our part to spread some information, awareness, and inspiration on social media.

Here are 3 ways you can help:

WordPress logoShare our blog posts. Subscribe to our newsletter. When you receive a post in your inbox, click through to the blog post using the “Continue Reading” link. Then share the post on your social media, using the sharing buttons at the bottom of the post.

Facebook logoPush our Facebook posts. Like the @BlindJohnMovie Facebook page. When you see our posts, like them, post a quick comment, and share the post to your timeline.

TwitterRetweet us. Follow the @BlindJohnMovie Twitter feed. Retweet our posts with a quick comment. Extra credit if you add hashtags to your comments.

Today, we shared this trailer for the film “Do You Dream in Color.” It’s about four teenagers who are blind, but they don’t seem too interested in letting that slow them down.

Do You Dream in Color movie screen
Click to see movie in a different tab.

There is a list of screenings for the full-length film at http://www.doyoudreamincolor.com/screenings. If you get a chance to go, be sure to tell us what you thought of the film.

Meanwhile, share this post using the buttons below!

Blue skies!

John on the Time He Went Train Hopping as a Kid

Long before he started jumping out of airplanes, John Fleming had a reputation for being an adventurer. In this clip, taken at the Blue Skies Boogie celebration of his life, John shares the story of the time he and some buddies went train hopping as kids — and what happened after they ran into a police officer!

We have more stories about John coming up. Subscribe to our blog to make sure you don’t miss any!

Blue skies!

P.S. Would you like to see us make a full-length documentary about John’s life and how he continued to skydive after he lost his sight? Please consider a donation to our GoFundMe and help us get this movie made!

October Events in Perris, California

Skydive Perris logo

October 7 – 8, 2017: Interviews at Moreno Valley, CA

Did you jump with Blind John? Grow up with him? Know him from one of his many other activities or his advocacy work? Please write us at producers { at } blindjohnmovie.com or call Darian at 503-522-3272. We may want to interview you for the full-length documentary.

We will be doing interviews during our visit to Skydive Perris. Please contact us right away if you have stories to share and can be in the area October 7th or 8th. Thanks!

Also, if you have skydiving buddies in the Perris area who knew John, please let them know about this and ask them to get in touch with us.

October 8, 2017: Short Film Screening and Fundraiser at Skydive Perris

Skydive Perris logo11 AM to 1 PM

Skydive Perris
2091 Goetz Rd
Perris, CA 92570-9315

We will be screening two short films we have made so far about Blind John and answering questions about this project. Come see us at the drop zone!

P.S. If you have family and/or friends in the Perris area, please let them know about this event and encourage them to come get a sneak peek of the film snippets we have done so far.

Grants Pass Daily Courier: Sightless Sky Diver Not Blind to the Thrill

Eye disease can’t steal excitement Williams man feels when he jumps

by Barbara Hahn of the Daily Courier

CAVE JUNCTION — Failing through the air at 120 miles per hour, sky diver John Fleming feels as free as a bird.

Old newspaper clipping of article: Sightless Sky Diver Not Blind to the ThrillUnlike a bird, though, Fleming can’t see the ground below. And he can’t see his colorful parachute billowing overhead.

Fleming, like his grandfather and a brother, has retinitis pigmentosa, and eye disease that is slowly robbing him of vision. By 1980, his vision had deteriorated to the point he had to give up driving a car. Now he estimates his field of view is at about 15 percent “and getting worse by the day.”

For Fleming, his vision loss doesn’t mean he’s giving up skydiving. Rather, with 1,443 jumps to his name now, his goal is 2,000 jumps.

The 47-year-old Williams resident, afectionately nicknamed “BJ” — short for “Blind John” — by his fellow divers, joined dozens of other divers this weekend at the Illinois Valley Airport for a “boogie.” That’s sky diving lingo for an informal gathering to hone diving skills, practice aerial group configurations and to just plain have a little fun.

It’s not hard to understand his love of the sport.

Photo from old newspaper: John packing his parachute
Sky diver John “BJ” Fleming packs up his chute after jump.

“You’re completely away from all your worries and troubles,” Fleming says. “I do it because it’s beautiful up there.”

Fleming, formerly a pilot, has been jumping for nearly 30 years. It was back in 1963 when he and some buddies decided on a whim to make their first jump.

“We were watching ‘Wide World of Sports,’ and I said — “I’ve always wanted to do that,” Fleming recalls. “I liked it from the very first jump.”

His experience — and his addiction to the sport — has kept him airborne.

“I’ve jumped so many times that you build a clock in your head to let you know when to open your chute,” Fleming says.

It’s when Fleming gets closer to the ground, though, that he needs some help from friends.

“I’ve got three radios — one on me, one on the ground and one on another sky diver on the jump,” he explains.

Once out of the plane, the sky diver carrying a radio lets him know his relationship to other divers. And as he approaches earth, the land-based radio operator directs him to the landing area and tells him when to pull back on his steering toggles for a controlled landing.

Though there are many blind people who do one or two jumps, Fleming acknowledges there aren’t many who have made sky diving their avocation.

“It’s the free fall, not the parachute ride, for why I sky dive,” he explains.

“To a non-sky diving person, it’s hard to explain why we sky dive,” he said. “I just can’t explain to people about the free fall. It’s just the ride of a lifetime.”

When Fleming and his fellow divers leap from the plane, there’s only a few moments to maneuver into free-fall formation. “That’s really a fun part of it for me, he says. “It’s very technical, and you only have just a little bit of time to make the formation.”

Also, there’s almost an ethereal sense about diving, a time-bending warp that focuses all the senses into the moment.

“Your sense of time is altered,” Fleming says. “You put yourself into slow motion in free fall. A 70-second free fall to me seems like minutes. You’re seeing every minute detail of the fall. You use every second to the fullest.”

Old newspaper photo: Zimmo and John walking together.
Richard Zimmerman, left, with ground radio. John Fleming, right, wearing jumpsuit and parachute.

Once the chute is open, it’s just a few more minutes before the divers return safely to earth, Fleming said. “The rest is just being together (with other sky divers) and sharing the same interests.”

It’s this camaraderie that makes the sport particularly addicting, he adds.

“There’s people from all walks of life,” he says. They meet up for boogies throughout the Pacific Northwest, practice and perform precision aerial maneuvers, and entertain one another with diving stories way into the night.

“You can’t be goofing around up there,” Fleming says. “One of the reason [sic] we play so hard on the ground is because once we’re in the plane, it’s all business.”


Originally published in Grants Pass Daily Courier, date unknown. Photo credit: Andy Cripe, Daily Courier