Brandon Johnson Takes Flight In the Air Jordan V x Off-White
The skydiver, who has done over 7,000 jumps, talks about his early track & field days, teaching in Dubai and finding freedom in the sky.
Photography: Beau Kahler
Humans have yearned to fly for thousands of years, evidenced by numerous winged inventions throughout history. And though our bodies aren’t built for bird-like soaring, some of us have come to define flight by the feats of great athletes. MJ’s gravity-defying style not only changed basketball, it lifted our imaginations. A millisecond of him, frozen in the air, crystallizes a singular, courageous power that captivates each new generation.
Skydiving instructor Brandon Johnson knows that you don’t need wings to fly. As a child in Arlington, Texas, he was always looking up. He loved astronomy, aviation and speed; he first committed himself to football and then to sprinting. He got a track & field scholarship to the University of Central Arkansas, and though an injury put him on a different path, it also brought him closer to his aerial ambitions.
Brandon Johnson skydiving in California while wearing the Air Jordan V x Off-White
After college, Brandon joined the U.S. Air Force. While later contracting in Kuwait, he stumbled upon some YouTube videos of skydivers. On a vacation in nearby Dubai, he learned about the premier Skydive Dubai company and decided to do his first jump in 2014. The experience was so sublime that he also tried out other skydiving disciplines like wingsuiting. In 2017, Brandon moved to Dubai, where he started teaching. These days, he has plans to take his flying aspirations further and make skydiving as inclusive as possible.
MJ ferociously flew and excelled in the fighter plane-inspired Air Jordan V. As a kid, Virgil Abloh watched him do it on TV, a time when he dreamt of taking off as a designer and collaborating on models like the new Air Jordan V x Off-White. Brandon Johnson took that shoe to the California skies, jumping from 13,000 feet into the ether.
Below, Brandon shares how he’s furthering his passion for skydiving and describes the process of wearing Vs in the air.
What was your life in Arlington, Texas like before skydiving came into the picture?
Growing up, I was really sports-oriented. I did football, track and some basketball here and there. Half-way through high school, I switched from football to track. I went to college for track, as a sprinter doing the 100-meter, 200-meter and relays. I imagined myself breaking state and national records, getting on the fastest relay team and eventually making it to the Olympics. Then, I got injured.
Once I got out of college, I decided to join the Air Force. After that, I got a contracting job in Kuwait. While I was in Kuwait, I went over to check out Dubai. They had a skydiving school there, and I was like, “Okay, let me try it.” I ended up falling in love with it. I was there every single weekend, just jumping, jumping, jumping. It eventually got to a point where I was like, “I can get paid to do this, why not give that a shot?” And here we are.
When you joined the Air Force, were you thinking about becoming a pilot or just your aspirations to fly, in general?
Definitely. My grandfather was in the Air Force, as well. A lot of people on my mom’s side of the family were in the Air Force, so that influenced me. In the back of my mind, I thought I’d eventually become an officer and start flying planes. Growing up, Top Gun was my number one. It still is. I’ve always loved planes.
How would you describe your first exposure to skydiving — a world beyond aviation?
I was on YouTube one day, and I saw a recommended video of a guy jumping off a cliff in a wingsuit. I started watching more and more of the videos he was posting. It was like flying with his body, basically. That piqued my interest. I was like, “I want to do that, to fly without needing a plane.”
You’ve become known for your galaxy-inspired wingsuit. How does wingsuiting fit into the world of skydiving?
I like air, space, galaxies, and all of that kind of stuff, so the galaxy images on my wingsuit are actually from the Hubble telescope. The number one rule in skydiving is to look good. It makes me feel good to have a cool wingsuit. When I wear it, I feel unique. Not only am I usually one of the only Black skydivers out there, I might also have my galaxy wingsuit on.
There are a lot of different disciplines within skydiving. People usually imagine someone’s belly falling to the earth, and that’s called belly flying; it’s the basic way you learn to fly, when you’re starting off. Then, there’s free flying, which is flying on your back or flying different orientations like head-first or feet-first. Then, there are movement jumps, like tracking, where you’re just flying through the air like Superman. Then, there’s canopy piloting, which is just like flying with an actual parachute.
I’ve found that free flying is what I love the most, because you’re actually flying every part of your body in the air. It’s a lot harder, challenging and fun for me than flying normally. I like wingsuiting, too, because it’s like being your own plane. You can actually see and feel yourself through the air, making progress across the ground as you’re flying. Your skydiving gets extended to about three minutes instead of just one minute. On days when there are really big, puffy clouds, you get to just cruise by and drag your fingertips through them, carving and making little valleys. It’s an experience.
“I was like, ‘I want to do that, to fly without needing a plane.’”
How would you describe the feeling of free fall for those who haven’t experienced it, including all of the emotions that come with it?
Well, there’s terror, especially the first time! I wanted to back out. Once you’re out of the plane, all of that fear just goes away. You’re in a moment of bliss. Everything goes away for the one minute you’re in free fall. It’s like therapy. It’s magical. It’s zen.
The number that comes up in regards to your skydiving career is 7,000. What have your 7,000+ jumps taught you?
It’s still fun, every single jump. It’s just not as stressful anymore. Before, there was so much stuff that I’d be thinking about. “Am I doing that right?” “Did I check this?” Now, I can just enjoy more of that full minute and process what’s happening.
Also, skydiving is super, super safe. People automatically think that if you’re jumping out of a plane, you’re crazy. We could jump out of the plane, pass out, and the parachute is still going to open up. I want to stress that it is a lot safer than everyone thinks. Athletically, it’s definitely challenging. People don’t really understand what it takes to fly, stay stable or be in different positions.
When you put your hand out of the window on a highway — you know how the wind jerks it around? You learn how to manipulate that air with your body, so that your flying is smooth. Like competitive athletes, there’s a lot to think about and just do.
How has the time you’ve spent being an instructor changed or inspired you?
I’m still motivated by the simple act of getting someone off of the street, who knows absolutely nothing about skydiving, who might be scared, and watching them get over that fear of jumping out of the plane door — watching it work and seeing them get super pumped about it. Even if it was just doing a backflip, it might be the world to them. Seeing the excitement on people’s faces after their jumps, that’s what keeps me going. Some of them become instructors and pass down the education, too.
After getting your teaching certifications in Dallas and Dubai, a top tier drop zone, and now skydiving all over the world, what’s the ideal jump for you?
I would say it’s all about the view. Jumping in the countryside over farmland isn’t necessarily the most spectacular view. I jumped in Kenya, where there were white sand beaches, so you could see the water and the land. Any jump near the water is pretty cool. Being free fall and going past clouds, to actually reference how fast you’re falling, is an amazing visual.
You were filmed and photographed in the new Jordan x Off-White collection in California. What was that experience like?
I wanted to capture the shoe as best as I could, but I also really, really wanted to get that Jumpman pose. We did a couple of practice jumps, because that position is really hard to do. On the first day, we did five jumps, and two or three of them were just to get that Jumpman shot right. On the second day, we did five jumps, as well.
I was excited about it. As someone who grew up wearing Jordans, it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. The shoes look great, and so do the clothes.
MJ redefined flight on the basketball court in a way that inspires people from all walks of life, to this day. How has flight been redefined for you through skydiving, and how do you work to encourage people of color to join you?
For me, flight has a different meaning than it did when I was younger, because it’s my body that’s being flown. I’m not sitting behind a joystick with physical aircraft. It’s me and gravity. I am the plane. There’s something about just being in the air, off the ground, that’s satisfying to me.
The skydiving movement has been growing, even during the pandemic. We’ve been getting more and more people active in it. I’ve been trying my best to kick the door down completely. I’ve had a lot of people message me saying that they had never seen a Black person skydive before. I put as much on social media as I can, because we are out here, and we are doing this. I want to get rid of the stereotypes. This is something that anyone can do, and it’s not crazy.
What’s the future of flight for you?
So there’s this thing called Jetman, and there are only two people doing it, but they have a parachute and a jetpack on. It’s the future of actual human flight. It’s really appealing to me, because it’s the next level, without requiring planes or anything. They’re literally just flying. They can go back up instead of just falling straight down. I’d like to redefine flight in my own way, whether it’s that route or finding something else on my own that’s different.
The Air Jordan V x Off-White releases October 29 on SNKRS and at select retailers. The apparel collection releases mid-December.