Falzone: Skydiving onto Sunset

By Laurle Busby
Staff Writer

Parachuting has been the focus of Tom Falzone’s life for 30 years. “The sport grabbed me and never let me go,” said Falzone, 56, who first decided to try skydiving after seeing it on television. For the next two years, every weekend, he was parachuting downward. “I never missed a weekend.”

By 1988, he had completed 500 jumps and was invited to participate in the world’s largest free-fall formation, which at that time consisted of 144 people holding each other as they floated downward. He later participated in a record-breaking 356-person effort in 2004. The record has since climbed to 400 parachutists.

Falzone lands at the 2010 Army/Navy game.
Falzone lands at the 2010 Army/Navy game.

Falzone’s enchantment with the sport also led the 1979 PaliHi graduate to his current job as coach of West Point’s parachute team. The team recently won the collegiate national championship, an honor the U.S. Military Academy at West Point has held for four out of the six years Falzone has coached the team.

Again this year, “We beat Air Force, which was a big deal,” he said. “They’re usually dominant. We call them the Yankees of skydiving.”

Falzone will return home to join Carey Peck and Rich Piccirilli as the parachutists who launch the Pacific Palisades Fourth of July Parade this year—a job he requests from Peck whenever possible.

“It’s a great honor,” said Falzone, who noted that it’s also a challenge due to tra- versing winds that make landing tricky alongSunsetatSwarthmore.Butheenjoys the jump, and the visit home. “I see friends I haven’t seen in a long time. How corny is it to say I’m dropping in to say hello?”

For Falzone, leading the West Point team meant moving from Los Angeles to New York, but he welcomed the opportunity and treasures working with the cadets, most of whom have never parachuted before joining the team. He both trains and joins them on jumps, which include landings in the school’s Michie Stadium for football games and also formation jumps into places like Yankee Stadium and Belmont Park on the day of the famous horse race.

The team practices seven days a week, and weather permitting, every weekday, the cadets make three or four jumps plus 12 to 16 jumps each weekend day. The commit- ment requires that cadets also join the team for practices during summer, Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.

Tom Falzone about to land at the beginning of the 2014 parade. Photo: Shelby Pascoe
Tom Falzone about to land at the beginning of the 2014 parade. Photo: Shelby Pascoe

Despite the demands, the competition to join the team is fierce. About 250 of the school’s incoming freshmen try out for the sport. Once they learn how much time they must devote, about half of them drop out. Then, the remainder is whittled down via interviews to about 50 who try out for 10 freshmen spots, Falzone said. The sophomore, junior and senior cadets run the tryouts and choose their team- mates—generally a diverse group consist- ing of two or three female cadets plus a mix of ethnic and religious backgrounds among the 10 members.

The reasons that some cadets don’t make the team are varied. For some, “their fear factor is a little overwhelming,” Falzone said. Others “might not have the ability to work under that type of pressure, or they might not enjoy it . . . Skydiving is not for every- body . . . Everybody wants to be on the team, but not everybody has that temperament or personality for it.”

Even the chosen group of 10 doesn’t nec- essarily stay with the program all four years. Usually some leave because it’s difficult to maintain their participation on the team and also contend with the school’s academic demands. “They came here to be cadets, not skydivers,” Falzone noted.

On average, about 8 of the 10 from each class graduate as team members, although sometimes as few as five have stayed with the team through four years, he said. The whole team generally consists of 30 individuals.

The group practices using helicopters instead of airplanes, because runways weren’t part of the original campus, which is 50 miles north of New York City and was established in 1801 by Thomas Jefferson. By the time team members reach their senior year, cadets generally have accumulated more than 800 jumps and have earned a chance to do the premier skydives, including landing in Yankee Stadium. “You don’t get your turn. You have to earn your turn,” Falzone said.

The coach, who was born in Chicago but moved to Brentwood when he was 6, is right there with them on these big jumps and as they develop skills as leaders and in- dividuals through parachuting and attend- ing West Point.

“I always say to my cadets, ‘I’m living my dream,’”Falzonesaid.“I’msoveryluckyand honored at this stage in my life to work with this academy and work with incredible men and women. The kids who make it to this academy are pretty phenomenal . . . Their commitment to this country and their teammates and the academy is phe- nomenal. It’s really a joy.”

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