An iconic picture of a group of formation skydivers spelling the word PEACE in the sky

Catching Up With Craig O’Brien

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Craig O'Brien smiles while on the ground wearing his jumpsuit and holding his camera helmet
Photo provided by Craig O’Brien
Craig O’Brien

has been a staple of skydiving for decades. He’s become a member amongst the skydiving photographer legends for his contributions to the sport, his incredible imagery, and down-to-earth attitude. Today we tip our hats and have a chat with this living legend! 

“My dad was a jumper in the 60’s and 70’s when I was a young child,” began Craig. “One of my earliest memories in life is going to the DZ in Arvin, California to hang out while my dad jumped. I remember my mother was not as impressed as I was, and it made her incredibly nervous so future trips back were few and far between.” 

Skydiving left a lasting impression on Craig

“I talked about making my first jump for many years before actually jumping. My parents had long since divorced and the only connection I had were the childhood memories of my dad’s passion for the sport,” Craig reminisced. “My dad moved to Australia for work so he wasn’t close enough to get me out to a DZ to start jumping. It wasn’t until friends got tired of me talking about going, but never acting on it. Three of my friends and my then-wife arranged a surprise birthday skydive at Taft, California.”


The dropzone in Taft had been closed several years and Bill Jones and his family reopened the DZ a few months prior. Craig continues to tell the story, “I had a friend who was shopping for a ski boat and asked me to drive out to Taft to look at a boat with him. Unbeknownst to me, it was the hook to get me to the DZ for my surprise. As we drove out to Taft, he told me the guy was selling the boat because he’d gotten into skydiving and all I could think was, makes sense!” He continued, “I was excited about going to the DZ to check out the jumping, and little did I know that they had already arranged for all of us to make tandem jumps!”


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“I found myself on the field faced with excitement and fear of that first jump. Upon landing my first words were to the camera flyer, Roland Barksdale I’m coming for your job!” Craig remembers that his family was very supportive of him taking up skydiving, even his mom. She, of course, would rather he didn’t jump but understood the passion he had for it his entire childhood and made him happy. 

After that first tandem jump

in Taft, 4 of the 5 friends signed up for the upcoming AFF course. “That is in May of 1993,” Craig shared. “Barksdale introduced me to the camera team at Taft and was hired to do the student video dubbing that first season while I was going through my AFF training. I didn’t have much money so it took most of that first summer to get through the course while spending most of my time editing videos. That proved to be an invaluable part of my training – watching and editing hundreds of student videos by a group of very talented camera fliers allowed me to have a strong mental picture of what my video should look like from day one.”

A photo of Craig O'Brien above a skydiving formation
Norman Kent captures a photo of Craig O’Brien above a formation in Ecuador at a boogie organized by BJ Worth

Barksdale quickly became one of Craig’s mentors along with several others. Notably, Dave Crouch, Gordon and Dianne Kaiser, and Vic Poppadotto, who were the heart of the Taft video crew that helped Craig out in the beginning. Next, another Taft camera flyer, Joe Jennings was flying camera for a skysurf team with the talented Rob Harris. “I was bitten by the skysurfing bug at first sight,” remembered Craig. 

Shortly after Jennings and Harris became superstars in skydiving competitions as well as Hollywood film work. “I did my best to hold on to the shirt tails of Jennings as well as the Jones family who was also involved with Hollywood work,” said Craig. All of that time dedicated and determination helped propel Craig in his skydiving photography career.

A photo of a skysurfer flying in a near head to earth body position
Photo by Craig O’Brien

Craig had a long time passion for photography since he was a young kid. He studied a bit of photography in college but never found the outlet he needed to make it a profession. “I’ve always enjoyed shooting sports but it wasn’t until that first jump that I connected skydiving to my passion for photography. Still, today, capturing images that express the beauty of our sport never gets old, and I still get inspired by work from other freefall camera flyers.”

Craig elaborated saying he felt camera flyers were a ‘breed of their own.’ “I love to list those I’ve been inspired by and continue to follow but it’s a long list! But I will take a moment to mention Norman Kent. Norman is not only the greatest skydiving photographer ever to grace the sport, but also an example of how to be a caring and generous human.”

Craig evolved

from the sport from just shooting tandem videos. He shoots big ways, special events, Hollywood films and many might know that he was also a camera flyer for a professional skysurf team.

“In 1997 I decided to make a huge life change. I took a “short break” from my job as an electrician and moved from Bakersfield California to Perris to try skydiving full-time. Tanya, my now wife, was also looking to transition from a weekend jumper to a full-time athlete to elevate her skysurfing skills,” said Craig. “Tanya had been competing with camera flyer, Dave Crouch but just missed qualifying for what was the biggest show in the sport at the time, The X Games. We were friends and jumped together often at Taft, and she also decided to make the move to Perris and so started our relationship as skysurf team, Team Firestarter.”

It wasn’t long until the duo fell in love with each other and grew as a team with their common path to accomplish earning a spot in the X Games. “Tanya’s focus on our goals was the biggest driving force in our success,” Craig shared. “We trained full time for five years out of Skydive Perris. We were fortunate to have the support from Skydive Perris, Bonehead Composites, Square 1, Performance Designs, Shoobi Knutson, and Kelly Farrington (Velocity Sports) that we were able to focus on the single goal of improving our skysurfing routines. And we also landed a few production jobs in between training which was a huge financial boost to keep us in the air.” Team Firestarter went on to dominate the skysurfing scene for several years and their routines from the 90’s and early 2000’s are still timeless and stunning.

A photo of a large formation skydiving bigway
Photo by Craig O’Brien

“I look back at my greatest accomplishments and to me, having nearly 26,000 skydives without any serious injuries is one of them. Yes, a few bumps and bruises, but no trip to the doctor or emergency room. I have also been blessed to be on a skysurfing team with my wife, Tanya, winning 5 National Championships and 3 World Championships. I’ve also been lucky enough to compete in Skysurfing with Sean MacCormac winning Gold at Nationals as well. Some other fun accomplishments have been involved as a camera flier for World Record large formation jumps in RW, Freeflying, Wingsuiting, and CRW. Not to mention numerous feature films, commercials and TV productions.”


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It is clear

skydiving and photography have dominated Craig’s life so we had to ask. Are there any other passions? “My wife, Tanya and our two kids, Delaney and Leah,” Craig said. “I do enjoy shooting other photography like landscapes and nature and play golf. However, I try to maintain a balance, and spending time with family and friends is important.”

With a lifetime in the sport, Craig still looks to the future. He shares, “My goals for the future is to maintain jumping and filming for as long as my physical condition allows. I’m blessed to have such a great and fun profession to provide for my family. I hope to win more competitive medals in skydiving and continue to work in the filmmaking industry.” 

Craig’s story isn’t complete without so many people who’ve supported him throughout his journey. “The Conatser Family (Ben, Diane, Pat, Melanie) and Dan BC. have been a constant support to me and my family since the day we became part of the Perris Team. It’s an honor to be part of this skydiving institution which feels more like family.

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