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‘Ride the Sky’ investigates Montana death

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POLSON – “Ride the Sky,” about a young woman who died in a skydiving accident in northwest Montana more than 30 years ago, will not be the best documentary film you’ve ever seen, even if you’ve only seen a handful.

But by the time its one hour and 14 minutes are up, it will have done what any documentary sets out to do – tell you things you probably didn’t know about something – along with what it specifically hopes to accomplish.

Namely, figure out what drove Joan Carson, a former high school cheerleader, to jump out of airplanes.

The latter won’t happen until the final few minutes, when director Paul Gorman finally interviews Carson’s brother and sister.

Until then, you’ll have to be satisfied with learning that at least some of the skydiving crowd of the 1970s was a passionate, free-wheeling, party-hard, jump-out-of-airplanes-buck-naked bunch.

That you’re watching people, some of them approaching the age of 70, re-live those exhilarating times of their lives is the one thing that can get you through sections of the film that clearly needed an editor.


“Ride the Sky” makes its world premiere Saturday, Jan. 25, at the Flathead Lake International Cinemafest in Polson.

Gorman, a former high school classmate of Carson’s in Redmond, Wash., re-connected with her later in San Francisco, although the nature of the relationship isn’t made clear.

Several years after that, on Memorial Day 1981 at the Lost Prairie skydiving center west of Kalispell Carson co-founded, both her main and reserve parachutes failed her and she fell thousands of feet to her death.

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Carson hit the ground traveling 120 mph, according to one of the people at Lost Prairie that day. She was 30 years old.

Gorman made two trips to Montana to interview several skydivers at Lost Prairie who knew Carson well. He also traveled to Medford, Ore., where she had flung herself into skydiving full-heartedly before moving to Kalispell, to interview several more.

There are poignant moments, like when one skydiver, who lost a young son two years before he took up the sport, explaining that “Every time you pull the ripcord, you prove you don’t want to die.”


Finally, Gorman returned to the San Francisco area where he had last known Joan Carson. There he interviewed her brother Barrie (and, in Sammamish, Wash., her sister Janet Bequette).

And there, he finally got to the heart of what likely drove Joan Carson to jump out of airplanes. If you want specifics, you’ll have to see “Ride the Sky.”

But, in addition to what they reveal, we can tell you that Barrie Carson offered up a general theory of why some are attracted to skydiving.

He jumped once with his sister, he said, and “loved it on one level, but feared it mostly.”

“What I walked away from is that divers were willing to roll the dice every time they got in an airplane, and that’s how they lived their life” he says.

That can easily be construed into having a death wish, Barrie says, “but I ended up understanding it as a life wish – that you’re so passionate about what you do that you’re willing to risk everything for it.”

Something Joan Carson wrote, that appears on screen at the end of “Ride the Sky,” backs that up.

“What can I say about something I love so much,” she wrote of skydiving. “It’s the love of my life, the beat of my heart. It cleanses my soul. The freedom of flight can do more to change one’s perspective on life than any earthbound freedom.”

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at

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