Flying Dreams

Words: Collaboration - Amy Shaw and Taya Weiss | Photos: Various Contributors | Video edit: Amy Shaw

Inspiring People

Brave! Awesome! Free spirit! These are words adventure sports athletes hear a lot. But there’s another one that slips in there. One that is traditionally less positive: selfish. How can you put your loved ones through that?

Flying Dreams

I am a skydiver, pilot and BASE jumper. Being involved in the world of hyper extreme sports, where people tend to turn the status quo on its head has made me wonder why society has decided that a little bit of ‘selfish’ is such a bad thing.


Part of what I love about jumping from a cliff is the intimacy; no one can tell you why you should jump and, in the end, no matter how many people surround you, you will always jump alone. The result of this highly personal experience is somewhat counterintuitive, as it draws us together. I have yet to encounter a more tight knit, generous community than that of skydiving and BASE jumping. I believe the secret lies in unashamed individuality. Rather than instilling a sense of helpless dependency on one another, they inspire one another to empower themselves as individuals. Our connection to our comrade has nothing to do with what he has to offer us, other than the pure fulfilment experienced in witnessing a fellow member of the human race ensure his own happiness. Perhaps a small measure of ‘selfish’ is required to be truly selfless?


Meet Taya Weiss, a multiple world record holding wingsuit skydiver, BASE jumper and pioneer in our sport. She originated the discipline of ‘XRW’, which stands for ‘Extreme Relative Work’; a new discipline in which a wingsuit flyer in freefall and a canopy pilot under an open parachute meet in the sky and link up for extended contact.


Taya recognised the skydiving community’s empathetic understanding of the importance of one another’s dreams and in 2009 was inspired, along with several friends, to channel this unique quality to make a difference beyond our sport. The result was Raise the Sky, a not-for-profit organisation that connects skydivers to charitable and humanitarian outreach opportunities. Raise the Sky’s flagship programme, Flying Dreams, brings skydivers into schools to talk to kids of all ages about finding, pursuing and achieving big dreams, all in the context of human flight. “We use our achievement of seemingly impossible goals,” she says, “to ignite kids’ imaginations about what is possible for them with a good education and grounding in the same math and science we use to fly. Our Flying Dreams motto is, ‘If we can fly, you can graduate!’


Although from the USA, Taya has spent some time living in South Africa. “I was inspired by the energy, buzz and vitality of Jo’burg - the burgeoning community of social entrepreneurs, research organisations and not-for-profits striving to solve the important human problems of our time. I was ready to do whatever it took to become part of that movement.”


Flying Dreams works extensively with the Pastoral Centre Preschool and Creche in Kliptown, Soweto, and after Taya’s most recent visit in December 2012, I decided to catch up with her and hear a little bit more.



Taya, you’ve achieved an extraordinary amount both within skydiving and out, what are your proudest achievements?

“In skydiving, I’m especially proud of pioneering a new discipline, XRW (Extreme Relative Work). My first time flying a wingsuit in freefall docked with Performance Designs Factory Team canopy pilot Jessica Edgeington under her Velocity parachute was amazing. It marked a moment when two women in heavily male-dominated areas of our sport stepped beyond expectations and literally joined up to show that with imagination, dedication and practice, anything is possible. I’m also very proud of the 100-person Wingsuit World Record formation I organised with my team last year. We brought together wingsuit skydivers from 21 countries on 6 continents to build the largest wingsuit formation in the world, and the results were spectacular.


“Beyond the aerial achievements, I most value the opportunities I’ve had to better the lives of children in Kliptown through my work with the Pastoral Centre Preschool and Crèche and also the Silindile Trust, which sponsors a deaf girl who started out at the crèche in Kliptown and is now a student at the St. Vincent’s School in Rosebank.”


What are your goals and objectives for Raise the Sky and Flying Dreams?

“Raise the Sky aims to use the promotional and inspirational power of skydiving to responsibly raise funds and awareness for worthy causes. Our objective is to reach as many children as we can, support them to succeed in getting an education and contribute mentorship and funds to build leadership and creative skills.”


Most of the kids you meet, at least in Africa, have probably never been on an airplane, let alone conceived the idea of jumping out of one! What is their reaction when they see what you do?

“It’s funny. You might think that those technical details would get in the way of a child’s understanding of skydiving. But you’d be wrong. Every human being carries within them the dream of flight. Children just haven’t given up on it yet, putting them in a perfect position to suspend disbelief and judgment and experience the simple joy and excitement that we feel when we fly. There are a lot of ooohs and aaaahs!”


What is the strangest/funniest question a child has ever asked you in an encounter?

“What do clouds taste like?”


Not everyone necessarily feels up to jumping out of a plane. How do you think the average man can strive to inspire those around him as you do? What does it take to do something that scares you?

“Skydiving gives me a sense of perspective on the world. Every time I jump, I face a choice between life and death. If I do nothing, I die. If I deploy a parachute, I live. This is the physical embodiment of ‘choosing life’. While I enjoy the intensity of skydiving as a meditative experience, I think there are many ways to choose life every day. One of those ways is to reach out and help where we’re needed. Seeing someone else’s vulnerability opens us up to our own humanity and potential. The key is to not to try to do everything at once. You can’t solve world hunger in a day or overcome a fear of heights in a week. I’m still scared of heights! That doesn’t mean you should sit on the couch and throw up your hands. Never let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Life is a series of smaller choices and every single one counts.”


What is the scariest thing you ever had to overcome?

“In 2007 I lost my life partner and best friend (Eric ‘Tonto’ Stephenson) in a skydiving accident. It’s one thing to talk about accepting risk and quite another to experience the consequences. Before Eric died, I associated risk with a personal choice, where the ultimate consequence would be my own death. But losing the person who anchored my day-to-day life and dismantling our shared dreams for the future was much harder. I became afraid to build something new because it too could be swept away in an unexpected instant. When I tried jumping again several months later, I was moved by the power of physically choosing to live, of consciously accepting life every time I opened my parachute. That, along with the love and support of my community, kept me going and reignited my sense of purpose. It still does.”


In a world that is advancing so fast technologically, it can throw the life of an underprivileged child living in Soweto into strong contrast. Within the skydiving world, one could view XRW as the poster child for technological and human advancement. Do you find the children in Soweto can relate to what you do?

“Project XRW is all about teamwork, trust and exploring the unknown. We take very calculated risks and support each other in trying new things. The result is some of the most beautiful and daring gravity-powered flight imagination can conjure. Kids who face real risk every day in the form of hunger, violence and poverty understand better than anyone that progress requires courage and a measure of faith - the daring of the soul to go further than it can see. They brave impossible odds every day just to get to school. They are my heroes. If we do nothing else, we try to let these smallest of Sowetan adventurers know they are not alone, that we fly for them and that someday whatever they dream of can come true, too.”


So how can you help Raise the Sky and Flying Dreams? Volunteer or make a contribution today! The Pastoral Centre Preschool and Creche in Soweto always accepts non-perishable food items and toys directly, or you can make a donation at


Issue 24 Apr'13
Amy Shaw