By Pete Lehmann
A shorter version of this article was originally published in the May/June 2021 issue of USHPA Pilot magazine.
In October 2020, the ultralight-soaring world lost one of its giants, Jim Zeiset or, as he was better known, JZ. JZ was many things in the sport of hang gliding—an important figure in what is now USHPA, an organizer of a World Championship, and the owner of Pendulum Sports. He was perhaps best known as the leader of The Green Team, a traveling circus of green-clad competition pilots who he led in domestic and international competitions.
JZ was an inventive and successful entrepreneurial engineer, the world’s best shade tree mechanic, and someone who made at least two fortunes building a prosperous business that survives him. He fathered two sons, enjoyed four marriages, and led an exuberant life.
None of the above gets to the heart of JZ. More than a catalog of virtues, accomplishments, and the occasional vices, JZ was a swashbuckling force of nature. Far more than most, JZ did things. He did not merely talk about achieving something; he did it. If he told you he would do something, he followed through. He was, as he said, results-oriented. This didn’t always make him the easiest person to be around, as it was his way or the highway. He could be a bastard. At the same time, he was an extraordinarily kind and helpful person, who financially supported friends in difficulty, funded flying events, saved the lives of perhaps three crash victims, could fix anything, and would never leave a stranded pilot by the road. JZ was always there to help.
The Green Origin Story
JZ’s ultimately tumultuous life began near Philadelphia as the son of observant Mennonite parents. Indeed, JZ’s first year of college took place at a Mennonite school in Kansas, from which he was promptly expelled. Remaining in Kansas, JZ eventually graduated from Wichita State with a degree in aeronautical engineering and began working there for the U.S. Air Force.
At his brother Danny’s urging during the mid-seventies, he became involved in hang gliding in Colorado. Having a plan to establish his own business, JZ had settled in Salida where he bought property and established Monarch Manufacturing.
His firm ingeniously took scrap paperboard used for making milk cartons and created simple containers in which grapevine seedlings could be planted at nurseries and then transplanted to wineries. This product proved so successful that by the mid-nineties, he was almost literally printing money. The remarkable thing about the business was not just that he had come up with the idea for an innovative product, but also that he built the machinery to produce it. He designed, engineered, welded, and machined the equipment that produced the “Plant Band.” He was a self-taught machinist who also understood electrical controls and the chemistry of inks. He procured raw materials, arranged sales, and organized shipping. He did everything in the early days, including creating a market for the product he had invented. As the business expanded, the itineraries of his marketing trips had a curious way of matching the rhythms of the hang-gliding competition circuit.
All the while, he flew. While building his business, JZ always found time to fly throughout Colorado, principally from the demanding nearby Mt. Princeton. Hang gliding has always been dangerous, but never more so than in those early days, as JZ learned first hand when his brother Danny was killed at Princeton when tumbled in a lee rotor. Despite that sobering set-back, JZ continued to fly, and by the early eighties, he had become one of the region’s most experienced and competent pilots. He was active in opening and clearing sites (often involving dynamite and, on one occasion, an automatic weapon), organizing events, and flying in them.
While flying in one of the Colorado Regionals, JZ’s aggressiveness bit him, resulting in his first parachute ride. He exploded his glider while trying to escape the grip of a towering cu-nim into which he had deliberately flown. While descending under canopy towards an uncertain fate in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the talkative JZ was told to “shut up and die like a man.” It ain’t easy being Green, as he would have said.
Along the way, he began a side business, Pendulum Sports, a supplier of hang-gliding equipment, to subsidize his flying and provide equipment to local and visiting pilots. Recognizing a need for oxygen systems when flying in the mountains, he established the first rental pool of oxygen rigs for transient pilots. Knowing the inadequacy of the Radio Shack CB radios that pilots flew with, JZ, a ham operator since childhood, found a superior solution. Pendulum Sports obtained a dealership for Maxon business-band radios (which he serviced). He then approached the FCC to acquire the business band license for the USHGA radio frequencies, which are still used today.
The Green Team
The above serves as an introduction to the legendary JZ, the one who conceived, funded, and led The Green Team. JZ had always been gregarious and, with his forceful personality, a natural leader. By 1986, he was one of the central figures in Colorado’s then very active hang gliding scene. At the time, he owned a rumbling, jacked-up, full-size 4WD Ford van named The Mountain Queen. The enormous van transported a buccaneering crew of pilots up the rugged Colorado mountains and chased them across the landscape for a flat fee of $20/day regardless of how far one flew; this rate also included an endless supply of his staple rum-and-cokes.
During a competition at Dinosaur, Colorado, that vehicle was my introduction to the adventure that was flying and traveling with JZ. One day we were returning on a dirt road, with only JZ, myself, and a driver in The Mountain Queen. JZ was driving, and we were debriefing our flights while drinking rum straight from a half-gallon jug. JZ calmly reached below his seat, pulled out a pistol, and began firing shots over the heads of the cows peacefully grazing alongside the road. Welcome to the Green World.
Over time, the motley crew of pilots orbiting around JZ and The Queen was transformed into The Green Team. At some point, JZ was inspired to form a hang gliding team that would be part traveling circus and part advertising write-off for his increasingly prosperous business. The essence of the Green Team (named for JZ’s favorite color) was that for a fee that varied from zero to fifty percent of costs (and one’s soul, as Erik Kaye, author of “Eagles in the Flesh” says), a team member would be provided with a state-of-the-art, green and white glider decorated with Pendulum Sports logos, a similar harness, a flight-suit uniform, entry fees, and transportation to contests. There were no formal criteria for membership in the Green Team other than to be one of JZ’s friends, a decent pilot, and living somewhere beyond conventional society’s norms.
Flying in competitions across the continental United States, Australia, Brazil, and Argentina, the Green Team left a trail of fun, outrage, and a touch of criminal misbehavior. JZ was bailed out of Brazilian jail (into house arrest with his Brazilian girlfriend), while Zoardog set a Telluride mountain on fire during a spirited aerial battle involving pop flares. There was a knife fight at the 1989 Nationals in a Dunlap, California cowboy bar involving the Green Team, local rednecks, and the first post-Soviet Russian hang glider pilots visiting the country. The Russians had landed in San Francisco penniless, unannounced, and missing half their gear. At his own expense, JZ had dispatched two vehicles to San Francisco on the seven-hour round-trip to pick them up and bring them under the sheltering wing of the Green Team. The innocent lambs. At the time of his passing, JZ still had a redneck’s knife as a souvenir.
Later, on a trip to Argentina, JZ was trapped overnight on an Andean mountaintop after having broken a downtube while top-landing. Zoardog had to lead an Argentinian mountain rescue team through the fog to get him out. It was all good fun, and Hang Gliding documented many of the team’s misadventures with numerous cover shots and centerfolds of the green gliders taken by team member Gerry Charlebois.
A USHGA/USHPA Leader
JZ’s prominence within his USHGA region, along with his certainty of knowing things better than others, made it inevitable that he would be elected to the then-USHGA Board of Directors, where he was to become one of the organization’s mainstays over three decades. He served as president and long-time member of the executive committee, providing (with others) leadership in the organization’s transition from a California club to a national association. Indeed, he and Russ Locke (the then-president of USHGA) were key to moving the organization from Southern California to Colorado Springs. Later he was one of the early advocates for bringing paragliding into what is now USHPA. He was also a vigorous participant in the BoD’s nightly meetings of the Financial Redistribution Committee (the poker game), which enthusiastically welcomed his well-funded presence.
One of his most considerable contributions to the sport during those years was in hang gliding competitions. He served as the U.S. Team Leader at several World and Pre-World Championships in Switzerland, Australia, and Brazil. He later became the BoD’s go-to person to organize events in times of need. In 1993, when the original organizer of the Owens Valley World Championship quit one month before the event, JZ was asked to step in. On short notice, JZ organized and ran an excellent event, personally absorbing a considerable financial loss in doing so.
The next year, with no bids to organize the U.S. Hang Gliding Nationals, JZ was again asked to quickly throw together a meet. This he did at his home site, the 12,200 foot-tall Mt. Princeton. Using Green Team manpower, he built (illegally, of course) ramps at launch. The road up Princeton was incredibly rough and made even more difficult to negotiate by the existence of Forest Service water bars (bumps) across the road. In the days leading up to the event, the fleet of overloaded rental minivans had trouble crossing the bars. In a classic example of JZ’s can-do mentality, he bought a small bulldozer and erased the Forest Service’s water bars—a fact only discovered when the local Forest Service official (an ex-girlfriend of JZ’s, as chance would have it) came to observe the first day of the competition. The competition was only allowed to continue with JZ’s guarantee that the water bars would be restored and the ramps removed after the comp.
In time, a period of financial difficulty and the inevitable mellowing of age led to the decline and ultimate demise of the Green Team. For a while after that, JZ continued to fly hang gliders, sailplanes, Dragonflies, and his beloved green Cessna 320 twin. This aviation odyssey was not entirely free of incident, and along the way, JZ notched three parachute deployments, two mid-airs, some broken fiberglass, and bent metal. But he walked away from it all.
In the end, JZ’s declining health slowly robbed him of the ability to fly hang gliders. Still, he remained a presence in the community, financing events, providing wisdom, and even driving for visiting pilots with his vehicles that retained glider racks long after he had stopped flying. Visitors from around the world were welcomed with open arms at The Ranch.
When I last visited JZ two months before his death, he was in a calm, contented place. He and Amy, his wife of twenty-two years, were living happily in their extraordinary new house. JZ had finally retired, leaving the once again flourishing business in the exceptionally capable hands of his son, Zack. JZ was at peace when he died and experienced an equally peaceful departure.
As rough as JZ could be, he was also one of the kindest and most intelligently interesting people I have known. Particularly late in life, as some of his rough edges had worn off, I was surprised by how thoughtful and judicious he had become. I was reminded that the flamboyant character of legend had, in the end, not strayed too far from his Mennonite roots.
Many will miss him, a genuinely larger-than-life pirate at rest.