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Flying suit that enabled landing without a parachute was made in Zephyrhills

ZEPHYRHILLS

When Tony Uragallo's friend told him he wanted to fall 2,400 feet from a helicopter and not use a parachute, Uragallo was one of the few people who didn't think he was insane. Uragallo, owner of TonySuit Wingsuits in Zephyrhills, finished Gary Connery's flight suit four months ago. On Wednesday, he watched Connery, a British stunt diver, become the first person to make a successful wingsuit landing without using a parachute. The occasion called for champagne.

• • •

Jumping out of a plane in a wingsuit is a little boring, Uragallo said. A wingsuit has extra fabric under the arms and between the legs, creating a glide rather than a drop. It's a slow, easy flight, unlike the heart-stopping plunge of skydiving. It's only when you careen past clouds or mountains that you realize how fast you're tumbling toward the earth.

Uragallo, now 58, began skydiving 40 years ago, and in 1976 he began sewing suits. At the time, skydivers used World War II flight suits and track suits, Uragallo said. During an outing one weekend in London, Uragallo saw a man from Arizona in a white suit with a rainbow design. Uragallo wanted it, but he couldn't afford it. He dragged out an old sewing machine his mother had taught him to use for basic fixes, and he taught himself to sew a suit worthy of flying.

Back then, Uragallo was a bricklayer living in East London. He biked across the city with fabric rolled into a quiver and sewed in his bedroom after work.

He hated bricklaying, and he didn't like London much. The weather was soggy and uncomfortable, severely limiting the weekends he could skydive. He spent most weekends stuck in pubs with friends, which didn't appeal to him.

Moving to Florida, where the weather shone perfect for falling thousands of feet, became a dream. In 1979, he came to Zephyrhills, a skydiving mecca. He scraped together the money for the move by selling his diving suits, and soon he made as much sewing as he did bricklaying. He announced he was quitting his other job. His father was shocked his son wanted to sew for a living.

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Six months ago, Uragallo and Connery sat in Los Chico's in Zephyrhills, eating chimichangas and hashing out ways to make Connery's plan plausible. Uragallo had been making wingsuits in addition to smaller diving suits for six years. But the landing always included a parachute.

For Connery to land without deploying a parachute, he would need a new suit. Connery wanted to use the Apache, Uragallo's fastest suit. Uragallo insisted he would land too fast. They worked on five prototypes, and he experimented until he had a suit that was easy to slow, lift and glide. The final product still contained a parachute. Just in case.

• • •

Uragallo started watching Sky News, a United Kingdom station, at 7 a.m. Wednesday, when Connery was scheduled to make the jump in Henley-on-Thames, England. The fall wouldn't be broadcast live. He waited.

He had reason to be nervous. A man wearing one of his suits died after landing on his back during a jump in Switzerland last month. Before that, another man, Jhonathan Florez, set several world records after a jump in a TonySuit in Colombia. Anything could happen.

Uragallo trusted Connery, a professional stuntman who had planned the jump carefully. Still, if Connery were hurt or killed, Uragallo wouldn't just grieve that someone died in one of his suits. He would mourn the loss of a dear friend.

"I do this for a living. What could go wrong?" Connery had said with a laugh.

Connery's jump time was pushed back to 11 a.m. Uragallo searched Zephyrhills for champagne and plastic glasses for his 22-person staff. He finally found the goods in Walmart, sped to his office and the staff waited.

Connery made the jump. He survived. No one told Uragallo, but he knew as soon as the news broadcasts showed Connery preparing for the jump. They wouldn't show that if Connery had died, Uragallo thought. Uragallo and his staff watched Connery's plunge and his landing on a cushion of more than 18,000 cardboard boxes. Uragallo couldn't stop smiling, and he cracked the Walmart bubbly.

Very little sewing was accomplished in Uragallo's shop Wednesday. It didn't matter. A little insanity deserves a lot of champagne.

Mary Kenney can be reached at mkenney@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6247.

Flying suit that enabled landing without a parachute was made in Zephyrhills 05/24/12 [Last modified: Friday, May 25, 2012 8:31am]

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