Cover photo by Laszlo Andacs
Joe Jennings is the stuff legends are made of: creativity, longevity, and a dash of badassery. Joe’s well known in skydiving for his Hollywood stunts, but more so, his incredible artistic shots of the late skysurfer Rob Harris, and the infamous “Junk Day” from his documentary, Good Stuff.
Joe was born in St. Louis but at a young age moved to New Jersey with his family. “When I was 8, I was living in upstate New Jersey on a farm. It was then my mom moved to California and my dad moved to New York, and us kids lived on a commune without parents for two years,” Joe shared. “Childhood was a pretty wild ride for me, but ultimately, us kids stayed close with our parents and with each other.”
In 1984 Joe and his then-girlfriend did their first Static Line jumps in Antioch, California, just outside of San Francisco. Joe explained, “For her, it was a lot of fun and she went on to make about 25 more jumps. But for me…. It was life-changing!”
Joe described remembering every little detail from his first jump from the visuals, the smells, and the people. “Skydive Antioch was owned and run by Bill Jones and his family which is another story in and of itself!” Joe went on, “I loved the physical training, learning the PLF, learning to manage malfunctions, etc. “Mad John” was the name of our first jump instructor and I remember at the time, he was eating lunch on our ride up to 3,500’. There were crumbs in his beard that flew around when the plane door flung open. But his teaching was solid and his commands at the door were firm and clear as I climbed from the Cessna 182… left hand to strut… left foot on step… sit up… right on strut, right foot… and step off….”
“The experience was mind-blowing! Everything felt wrong and perfect at the same time. I think I just screamed and failed to arch, but when the parachute opened I screamed again in pure joy! The exhilaration of overriding my instincts, being entirely in the moment… everything about it spoke to me and I knew skydiving would always be in my life from my first jump forward – I had found my calling.”
After Joe progressed in the sport, he moved to Los Angeles and Skydive Perris became his new home DZ. Joe was always fascinated by jumping with cameras but had no idea that it could be a career. He shared a story when Tom Sanders and Norman Kent came to the dropzone, “I was so starstruck! I couldn’t bring myself to speak to either one of them! I knew I wanted to be like them, but all I could do was stare, then quickly avert my eyes if either of them looked back.”
It was when Joe joined forces with skysurfing legend, Rob Harris to be his camera flyer at competitions. “Competing with Rob opened my eyes to the possibility that skydiving could be my career. It showed me I could learn to fly far better than I thought I could ever fly, and I was the lucky guy who got to be his camera flyer. Flying with him meant winning competitions, gaining notoriety, and opened doors in the skydiving community and also in Hollywood. The opportunities came, and I enthusiastically embraced them.”
After the 1994 World Meet, Rob and Joe traveled to Florida with Patrick DeGayardon to film with Norman Kent for an MTV special. Joe continued, “Patrick insisted Rob and I join the production because we’d beat him in competition, so naturally he wanted to have us on his next shoot. He didn’t care about winning or losing, for him, it was about how much he enjoyed flying with Rob. That’s when I knew Patrick was an unusually cool guy.”
In 1995, Rob Harris had a fatal accident and shook Joe to his core. “After Rob’s accident, I had no intention of flying a camera for anyone. However, when Patrick reached out, it felt like an old friend also in mourning, that I couldn’t refuse his offer. It felt right to work together.”
For Joe, working and competing with Rob and Patrick were the highlights in his career. That, right along creating the skydiving documentary, “The Good Stuff” made for one hell of an amazing journey for him.
I had to rewind to ask Joe about his Bill Jones story and Joe shared that after his training in Antioch and progressing in the sport, he moved to LA where the Jones’ family was running the school at Perris Valley, CA (a dropzone close to LA) and he packed parachutes for them. Then when Joe joined Rob Harris to train with him at Taft, CA, the Jones’ were running the DZ at Taft. Then Joe said, “It’s amazing how many times our paths crossed over the years. The Jones family were a big and influential part of my skydiving experience.
Joe’s had an incredible life leaving an incredible skydiving legacy and he’s still active, going strong and creating new projects. I asked what he does when not skydiving and he said, “I’m kind of a workaholic, but I love to surf. And parenting too. Raising my two boys was a wonderful part of my life. Somehow I just loved them, and all of their friends and kid energy. It didn’t do my career any good because as soon as I finished something, I’d race back home, but it was really a lot of fun!”
Although not clear on ‘what’s next’ looks like, he’s been flying wingsuits in Florida with two great wingsuiters, Dan Darby and Ashlee Richman. “It feels amazing, and I like the rush of learning new things. COVID slowed Hollywood work down quite a bit, but it’s beginning to pick up a little.” He also reminisced about the incredibly rare day in 1997 at Skydive Arizona called, “Junk Day” where they dumped big random things out of skyvans to film cool stunts. “I’m starting to plan another one, so all things go well, we’ll do another Junk Day again, or maybe even Junk Week!” he laughed. “I love geeking out on the fluid dynamics of making things fly, and the pure redneck fun of dropping things a couple of miles up, and crashing them into the ground!”
The best place to find out about all things Joe, you can follow him on his website and daydream frothing at all of his incredible cinematography here: www.skydive.tv.