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History Channel documentary 'Sky Jumpers' dives into tragedies of the sport

Jay Moledzki (left) and Jim Mitchell jump from Gridset in Innfjorden, Norway in a handout photo released on Thursday July 17, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Muse Ent., Atle Dahl

TORONTO – When record-breaking Canadian skydiver Jay Moledzki took his first jump at age 21, he hadn’t predicted it would result in a drastic career change — from elevator technician to professional athlete.

“I was pretty angry and depressed, I was pretty poor, I had a lot of bad cards dealt to me,” said 41-year-old Moledzki in a phone interview from Sogne, Norway while on a month-long jumping expedition and recreational trip. “I thought it might be an easy way out — I was kind of hoping the parachute wouldn’t open.”

Instead, it gave Moledzki a reason to live.

“That very first time when the parachute opened and my feet were on the ground again, I knew I was coming back to do it again as soon as possible,” said Moledzki, who grew up in Toronto.

Twenty years after that jump at Skydive Toronto, a popular school for those new to the sport in Cookstown, Ont., Moledzki has done it 13,000 more times. He has become one of the most accomplished athletes in his field and is part of the Florida-based PD Factory Team profiled by a History Channel documentary airing July 21.

“‘Sky Jumpers’ is a documentary about world class athletes chasing the dream of human flight,” said co-writer and director Hedy Korbee, a filmmaker and journalism professor based in Toronto.

Korbee followed the team over six years on their expeditions, shooting in spectacular locales ­— from the Grand Canyon to Norwegian fiords.

Footage shot by Korbee’s crew combined with shots from 20 GoPro and Sony cameras strapped to team members simulates the experience of the jumpers. Scenes from the skydivers’ perspectives in particular convey the extreme emotions felt during a jump — from stomach-churning moments where the team isn’t able to see through clouds to the euphoria of swooping through mountain ranges.

“We were trying to tell a story that combined the excitement and the thrilling aspects of what the PD Team did with the very real human drama that unfolded,” said Korbee.

Despite careful planning and a cautious approach, a string of accidents captured during filming in the Swiss Alps provides an inside look at the inevitable tragedy lurking behind the exhilaration in high risk sport.

“Some of these accidents were devastating,” said Korbee. “I must say we were very impressed with the team’s willingness to carry on filming.”

The final moment of a jump is particularly crucial — it can be followed by joy, high fives and hugs or sheer panic if a team member is missing or hurt.

Ian Bobo felt this panic when his team member and friend of 20 years Shannon Pilcher wasn’t responding to radio calls after a jump in the Swiss Alps.

The pair were two of the founders of the PD Factory Team after meeting through their university skydiving club in Georgia.

Moledzki saw Pilcher go down as a cable clipped his canopy, shredding it and sending him into free fall a few hundred feet down the rocky face of a mountain.

The anguish is apparent on Bobo’s face even as he recalls phoning Pilcher’s mother in the documentary, unable to give her details of where Pilcher was and if he had survived.

Moments like those prompt him to consider his own mortality, said Bobo.

“Human error is a very big reality to things and you always wonder if you’re going to be the one making the mistake next,” said Bobo from a phone interview in DeLand, Fla., where the PD Factory Team is based.

Although he experiences angst thinking about the pain his family and friends would endure if his life was cut short by such an error, Bobo is guided by his passion.

“To be honest, the accidents I’ve been exposed to and witnessed never made me challenge whether I would continue to jump or not,” said Bobo.

Moledzki shares that sentiment. Although he has lost two mentors to accidents in the sport, he doesn’t see these deaths as a deterrent to continuing on.

“It’s not a sad when somebody dies and their life is amazing,” said Moledzki. “It’s sad when somebody whose life is miserable dies.”

Experience has led him to make decisions “like a wiser man” — especially when thinking about his wife.

“I want to get old and die together,” said Moledzki. “So I really don’t want to make one of these silly mistakes and not come home one night — that would mess up my plan.”