USPA Pays Tribute to Outstanding Representatives of the Sport
Industry News | Jan 18, 2023
USPA Pays Tribute to Outstanding Representatives of the Sport

USPA Staff

A USPA Staff Report | Photos by Lauren Hadley

Southeast Regional Director Brandon Radcliffe (left) presents Patrick Fortune with a Regional Achievement Award for organizing Flags in the Air, an event that commemorated the brave response to the September 11 attacks, which took place at Skydive City Zephyrhills and other drop zones around the world.

On Saturday, November 26, with the memories of Thursday’s feasts still fresh in Americans’ minds, jumpers gathered at Skydive City Zephyrhills in Florida to give their own special thanks to those who made valuable contributions to the sport of skydiving. Following a dinner catered by Hillz Kitchen, USPA hosted an awards ceremony in the Birdhouse, the drop zone’s onsite bar (named for formation skydiving pioneer Jerry Bird).

USPA Southeast Regional Director Brandon Radcliffe kicked off the awards ceremony by presenting Patrick Fortune, D-23918, with the 2022 Regional Achievement Award for the Southeast Region. Fortune, a U.S. Air Force veteran and former first responder, received the award “in grateful appreciation of his dedication to planning Flags in The Air, A Skydivers Tribute to 9/11.” The event, which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks with flag jumps and tandem skydives for first responders, took place at 40 drop zones on three continents. 

USPA Executive Director Albert Berchtold then took the stage to present the 2021 Gold Medal for Meritorious Service to Bram Clement, Joannie Murphy and representatives of the late Morris “Moe” Viletto. The Gold Medal, which goes to a maximum of three recipients per year, honors “outstanding USPA members who, by their efforts over a period of years, have made significant contributions to the skydiving community.”

With travel and gatherings hampered by lingering pandemic concerns in 2021, USPA arranged to bestow the Gold Medals in 2022 at Skydive City, a location that played a large part in all three of the recipients’ lives. The Birdhouse, with its mini-museum of skydiving memorabilia available for all to admire, was a perfect venue. Following the presentations, attendees enjoyed a party and a D.J., with celebrations going well into the night.

A Passion for Teaching 

Bram Clement, D-14597, Receives the 2021 USPA Gold Medal for Meritorious Service

Every stellar skydiving career begins with a first jump. Bram Clement, D-14597, made his—a static-line jump under a round canopy—in his native country, the Netherlands, in 1986. In the following years, that onetime student skydiver went on earn every USPA instructional rating possible and opened SkydiveRatings, a full-time instructor-qualification school, providing thousands of people with their own safe, professional and lifechanging first-jump experiences. In 2021, the USPA Board of Directors acknowledged his contributions to the sport and the association by awarding him the USPA Gold Medal for Meritorious Service. Prior to passing away in mid-2022, Kirk Knight, himself a recipient of the award in 2019, nominated Clement for the honor.

Clement intended his first jump to be a one-time experience but got hooked (as so many do!) and was soon licensed and traveling all over Europe to fun jump and compete. By the late ‘80s, he had earned a Belgian AFF instructor rating and had begun traveling to the U.S. He earned his first tandem instructor rating in Florida (with United Parachute Technologies, then called the Relative Workshop) and his USPA AFF instructor rating in California in the early 1990s. These were just the first in a long series of ratings: Clement is now a USPA Coach, AFF, Static-Line, IAD and Tandem Examiner; A United Parachute Technologies, Strong Enterprises, Plexus and Jumpshack Tandem Examiner; USPA Examiner Rating Course Director; Plexus Tandem Examiner Course Director; Federal Aviation Administration Master Rigger; and Skydive University Coach. Phew!

USPA Southeastern Regional Director Brandon Radcliffe (left) and Executive Director Albert Berchtold (right) present SkydiveRatings owner Bram Clement with the USPA Gold Medal for Meritorious Service.

For 10 years, Clement traveled to drop zones all over the country teaching courses. In 2003, he decided to settle in one place—or at least establish a home base—and opened SkydiveRatings at Skydive City Zephyrhills in Florida. SkydiveRatings is the largest school of its kind, offering students ratings in all instructional disciplines and for all tandem systems. Clement conducts organized, structured and consistent rating courses using the best training tools and equipment available in a friendly atmosphere and by using a personal approach. Prospective instructors from around the world travel to the school to benefit from his knowledge.

Clement also provides input to USPA for anything having to do with ratings and has devised course curriculums to produce the best instructors. As a skilled examiner, he mentors and develops prospective examiners. Under his leadership and with skill attained in more than 16,000 jumps and 228 hours (nearly 10 full days!) of freefall, Clement has established a worldwide reputation for professionalism, attention to detail and expert knowledge. With a true passion for teaching, he’s made more than 4,800 tandem jumps, 4,000 AFF jumps and 2,000 AFF evaluation jumps, and his school has issued more than 3,500 ratings. 

After recounting as many of Clement’s accomplishments as he could fit into one speech, USPA Executive Director Albert Berchtold, along with Southeastern Regional Director Brandon Radcliffe, presented Clement with his award. In the crowd were many accomplished skydivers, not a few of whom had earned their credentials with SkydiveRatings over the years. Clement, in his quiet and straightforward way, graciously accepted the award, the citation on which reads, “For establishing and operating SkydiveRatings, a full-time instructional rating school that offers friendly, structured, professional courses for all USPA ratings and has qualified thousands of highly proficient instructors.”

Trailblazing with Style

Joannie Murphy, C-9720, Receives the 2021 USPA Gold Medal for Meritorious Service

In 1972, a group of students at a fraternity party at East Carolina University in North Carolina were discussing going skydiving and asked art major Joannie Murphy if she’d like to come along. A few days later, she not only made that first jump but enrolled in the full static-line student program. She was hooked. By the following year, she was competing with the college’s skydiving team. A decade later, she moved to Zepyhrhills, Florida, and made skydiving her life’s work.

Murphy, C-9720, has now dedicated a half century to skydiving. In that time, she’s made more than 3,000 jumps. She was one of the early proponents of what was then called “relative work” (now called “formation skydiving”) and was one of the discipline’s leading women. She was on the 60-way hexa-wedge formation organized by Ron Mills, Roger Ponce de Leon and Roger Nelson at the 1981 Z-hills Easter Boogie (which, organized at the spur of the moment, did not have judges on hand to qualify it as an official Fédération Aéronautique Internationale World Record, but which was not exceeded until 1983).

Murphy blazed trails for women in the sport. She organized and was on numerous Women’s Star Crest Recipient jumps (a formation consisting of eight or more women) starting in the 1970s, a time when both 8-ways and women skydivers were rare. She was on the 1978 team that set the FAI Women’s World Record for Fastest 10-Way Speedstar and on the 1983 FAI Women’s World Record for Largest Formation Skydive (a 32-way). Murphy also excelled at night jumps: She was on a 15-way all-female night jump in 1978, and in 1979, she was on the coed team that flew a night 24-way, the largest nighttime jump ever accomplished at that time.

At Skydive City Zephyrhills, the drop zone she co-founded, Joannie Murphy (center) accepts the Gold Medal for Meritorious Service from USPA Southeast Regional Director Brandon Radcliffe (left) and Executive Director Albert Berchtold.

In 1984, Murphy opened the Sunshine Factory with Henri Pohjolainen (who now owns Sunrise Manufacturing), one of the earliest skydiving pro shops, in downtown Zephyrhills. The company, which Murphy currently runs with Dave Ruffell, is now located on the drop zone and is a household name in skydiving circles. It supplies gear to jumpers around the world and prides itself on its customer service.

Six years after opening the Sunshine Factory, Murphy teamed up with Susan Stark to open Skydive City on the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport. The drop zone moved into an unused area of the airport property that contained only a World War II bunker and an old taxiway to the runway and had only a footpath for access. With the wholehearted support of the city, improvements immediately began, and over time the drop zone became the world–class skydiving destination that we know today. More than 70,000 skydives now take place each year at Skydive City. Jumpers from around the world are attracted to the DZ for its excellent facilities and aircraft, as well as Murphy’s signature “Z-hills style.” (With her art school background, she designs the DZ’s spaces and jerseys and puts together the special events and entertainment at the DZ.)

On top of all this, Murphy is dedicated to preserving the history of the sport. She has put together a mini-museum of skydiving at the Birdhouse, the onsite bar at Skydive City named for formation skydiving legend Jerry Bird. Murphy is also an avid supporter of the International Skydiving Museum and Hall of Fame and is one of its trustees-at-large.

It was in the Birdhouse that Murphy—visibly moved—accepted her award from USPA Executive Director Albert Berchtold and Southeastern Regional Director Brandon Radcliffe. She thanked her assembled friends and expressed her appreciation to Pohjolainen for his support in the early days of running the Sunshine Factory. With tears in her eyes, she exhorted the assembled crowd to follow their dreams, since they can come true!

The citation on her Gold Medal reads, “For 50 years dedicated to skydiving, in which she set records, pioneered safety standards, preserved the sport’s history and, above all, kept skydiving available to the world in Zephyrhills, Florida.”

Creativity and Innovation

Morris “Moe” Viletto, D-5853, Receives the 2021 USPA Gold Medal for Meritorious Service

At its 2021 summer meeting, the USPA Board of Directors posthumously awarded Morris “Moe” Viletto D-5853, with the USPA Gold Medal for Meritorious Service. Viletto was a colorful figure in the skydiving community, much beloved for his general good humor and high spirits. In his 50 years in the sport, he moved skydiving forward both publicly with high-profile stunt work on Hollywood films and behind-the-scenes with his innovative rigging and mentoring of others. During his career, he made approximately 6,000 skydives, including 1,300 wingsuit jumps in the last 20 years of his life. He passed away peacefully in his sleep in April 2021 from an illness and, in true skydiver fashion, left his home drop zone the funds to hold a large party when he was gone.

Viletto started skydiving in 1971 and was a trailblazer in the sport throughout his life. He performed tandems for the Relative Workshop (now United Parachute Technologies) before there were drogues and was one of the earliest accelerated freefall instructors. His interest in air sports also stretched beyond skydiving. He made the first of more than 800 BASE jumps in 1984, staying interested in that sport throughout his life. He actively hang-glided in the ‘80s.

He became a Federal Aviation Administration Master Rigger in 1975 and started his own company, Tailored for Survival, a specialty sewing and design company that at first focused on skydiving but soon branched out. He was known for purchasing various company’s rigs and performing “rig autopsies,” tearing the gear apart to see how it worked and what could be improved. Along with innovating for skydivers by producing (with Precision Aerodynamics) what was likely the first video packing manual and inventing the molar strap and pioneering the use of clamps for reserve parachute packing, he designed a BASE rig with a storage department for camping equipment and a harness for hang-gliding. He even performed hot-air balloon repairs. Known as having a deep well of knowledge, skydiving gear manufacturers and other industry professionals sought him out for advice and consultation on complex problems. 

While living and jumping in California in the 1990s, Viletto began working as a stunt performer, stunt and safety coordinator and rigger. His work can be seen in films such as “Hot Shots! Part Deux,” “Operation Dumbo Drop,” “Drop Zone” and “Space Cowboys,” as well as countless TV commercials. His Hollywood rigging work—which included designing hidden parachute systems and making various object drops—demanded a high level of creativity and technical proficiency. Viletto even designed a moped scooter cutaway system for a Yamaha commercial in which the stunt performer made a skydive on a scooter, landed with the scooter and drove away.

USPA Southeast Regional Director Brandon Radcliffe (left) and Executive Director Albert Berchtold (right) present the late Moe Viletto’s Gold Medal to his representatives (from left) Derek Thomas, Tiponi Potts and Scott Callantine.

After living in California for more than 20 years, he moved to Freeport, Pennsylvania, in the early 2000s. There, he continued with his rigging work while becoming an integral part of the jumping scene at Skydive Pennsylvania in Mercer and wintering in Florida. He also shared his wit and wisdom with readers of Blue Skies Mag, penning a series of columns from 2015-2019.

At the Birdhouse bar at Skydive City, USPA Executive Director Albert Berchtold spoke about Viletto’s career and accomplishments, and then he and Southeastern Regional Director Brandon Radcliff presented the award. On Viletto’s behalf, friends and colleagues Scott Callantine, Tiponi Potts and Derek Thomas (wearing a Tailored for Survival jersey in remembrance) accepted the Gold Medal plaque, which reads, “For 50 years of rigging innovation, stunt work, technical sewing and mentorship of riggers and jumpers, and for being the architect and pioneer of equipment and techniques for the advancement of the sport through a passionate approach toward improvement, precision and safety.” Following the presentation, Callantine hung the Gold Medal on the wall, where it will remain in perpetuity as a reminder of Viletto’s creativity and vision.

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