Monday, January 17, 2011

Birth - Too Many Birds Over the Dropzone

It’s been about 3 years since the last time I jumped from a perfectly good airplane. I sometimes look to the clouds on nice days and entertain memories of an amazing and adventure filled time of my life. Skydiving was once a huge part of my lifestyle. I have spent more days than I could estimate sitting at airports from dawn to dusk waiting for my next chance to jump. The full story is more than I could ever write in one blog entry. I’m thinking that perhaps a 3 part story would be the best way to tell it: Birth, Life and Death. This entry would be the birth of my 12 year adventure into the adrenaline fueled and little understood culture of skydiving.

I was working at the indoor climbing gym in Nixa, Ozark Mountain Cliffhangers. It was one of my first jobs after returning to Springfield, Missouri from the Marines in 1996. I think I spent far more time climbing than actually working. A man named Roger Moore, not the James Bond actor, came through the door with his sons and wanted to arrange some climbing time. Instead of just paying though, Roger wanted to barter. His business was Freefall Express Skydiving. How about trading 2 first jump courses for some climbing time he asked?

The climbing gym, which attracted a certain kind of adventure seeking person similar to skydivers, thought that it was a fine idea. To my dismay however, I would not be one of the gym employees who got to jump. My first wife Jackie, being the manager of the gym, would go with the owner and take the first jump course. Yes I said my first wife, the one I married in the drive-thru wedding window in Las Vegas. I was, of course, a little saddened that I couldn't go. I couldn't afford to pay for it either but I was able to go and watch as they took the course.

The class was a 6 hour long ordeal where they learned everything they needed to know in order to survive their first time leaving an airplane in mid-flight. The bulk of the class is devoted to learning how to cut away a bad parachute and deploy a reserve if the first one doesn't work. They also spent a lot of time learning how to land properly. I was transfixed by the experience and knew that I had to do this but today wasn't my day. I took in everything I could and knew I would come back.

After they had finished their class, they geared up, climbed on the plane and took off. To this day, I can remember how jealous I was watching them go. We watched intently from the ground as the small 4 seat plane slowly flew the jumpers to 4,000 feet. As it made its way over the airfield, we could just barely see that the door was open. The first jumper climbed out of the door and released himself to oblivion. His parachute opened perfectly and he began his descent. The airplane circled around to release the second jumper. This time as they flew over the top of the airport nobody got out. The plane circled again for another pass and still nothing. After 3 passes with no jumper, the plane began to descend.

My ex had chosen not to jump. When they opened the door and she looked out to the ground nearly a mile below, the fear had been too much of a hurdle. The instructor made light of the situation by telling us there had been too many birds over the dropzone. Earlier in the day, she had asked if anyone ever hit birds while jumping. We left the airport and had a long uncomfortable and quiet drive home. The marriage fell apart shortly thereafter. I've often claimed that her decision not to jump was the reason for the end of our marriage but I suppose it was probably a little more complicated than that. Returning to the airport to make my own jump was near the top of my list of things to do as a newly single person. I saved the necessary money and within a couple months I was sitting in the class I had so desperately wanted to participate in the first time.

I made the jump and it was everything I hoped it would be. Introspection, adrenaline, freedom, post experience high and new life perspective that lasted for days to follow. I was in my element. There was also a strong sense of community among the jumpers and I was attracted to the bond they seemed to share. I loved the experience so much that I needed to jump more. Although jumping isn't as expensive as some think it might be, it was way out of my budget at that time. I did everything I could, including donate plasma, to make it through 15 of the 25 jumps needed to get a license.

It was then that Roger offered me a deal that would change my life for a long time to come. If I could get proficient enough at packing parachutes, he would pay me cash or give me credit towards jumps. Student jumps were $45 and he would pay me $5 for each rig I packed. I practiced over a winter by watching an old video called “Pack like a Pro” while unpacking and repacking an old parachute Roger let me use. Packing is an often sweaty job where you crawl around on the floor and spend large amounts of the day on your knees. I loved it. I learned to pack fast, sometimes less than 5 minutes, and had a good reputation as a reliable packer. Over the next couple of years I packed myself, $5 at a time, into over 300 jumps.

I was having a blast working off jumps on the packing mat but ultimately I wanted to move into a position of actually getting paid to jump. My chance was about to come.

Week of January 10 - Bike 80, Run 23


  1. Excellent Blog Jim... I can't wait to read the next one... It's where you met me! :D

  2. Oh yeah... 3 years is way to long... c'mon out... I got a rig for you to jump anytime... you know that.