The air crackles with excitement in the airplane hangar where jumpers get ready. A beautifully painted Cessna Caravan idles on the runway, ready to take its passengers on the adventure of a lifetime, whether this is their first jump or their thousandth. College student Jacee Proffer came to Skydive Sebastian from Texas with her friend Alyssa Keegan for her first jump. “We had just finished finals and wanted an adventure, and took this last-minute trip here, so why not jump out of the sky?”
Proffer is being fitted with the harness that will secure her to the tandem pro she’ll jump with, which is how everyone gets started. “It was a little sobering to sign the release, but if it’s God’s will that this is how I go out, there’s no stopping it,” she adds with a mischievous smile. Despite this fatalistic statement, Proffer is ready and willing to try this. “I always like to do new, fun things,” she says. Her tandem instructor checks her gear one more time, and they head to the plane.
Liam Wertheimer, an instructor at Skydive Sebastian, has participated in the sport he loves for about six years. Most jumpers start at a young age, and he is no exception. “I had my first jump at 17. My dad was a jumper and I had watched him go my whole life.”
Despite his familiarity with skydiving, and the fact that his first jump was a tandem, Wertheimer was scared. “My second jump was on my 18th birthday—my first solo jump. I was nervous for months ahead of time,” he admits. “That day, I did two jumps and it was amazing.”
Wertheimer wears a gift from his father around his neck, a silver pin representing the pin that opens the container holding the parachute. “The pin holds the container closed until we are ready to open it,” he explains. “Then, we throw the little ball at the bottom of the container, which pulls the pin that opens the chute.” This is a two-step process: The ball controls the smaller pilot chute, which then rips out the full chute.
At just 23 years of age, Wertheimer has made more than 4,000 jumps. “You are never really an expert; we are always still learning,” he says. “I’m teaching canopy courses now.” Chutes have different built-in technologies than when he started in Clewiston. “I needed to take a step back and relearn.”
He started packing parachutes for money and spent most of it on jumps. Now he likes to enter competitions using high-performance parachutes. “At ground level, there is a pond with buoys. We drag our feet through, with the goal being accuracy, distance, and speed between buoys,” he explains, “then there is a very small box we try to hit. It’s really fun.” Last year, Wertheimer was second place overall.
Proffer has returned from her first jump, a little disheveled but wearing a triumphant grin. “It was very intense, but peaceful too,” she says. “I thought we were jumping last, and then my tandem instructor just let go and we were in the air. When the chute opens, it’s smooth—you just glide around. It was really fun. I would do it again.”
The drop zone manager is Morgan Hahn, who has the responsibility of scheduling; overseeing day-to-day operations; and working with employees, contractors, and customers. “We have planes that hold from 15 to 22 or so,” she says. “We have the sky van, too, like in Operation Dumbo Drop when the big back door opens. It depends on the flow of business as to which airplane we use.”
Hahn explains that many jumpers are snowbirds; most places up North close for winter, which is when Skydive Sebastian is thriving. As we watch a few solo jumpers land, I tell her how surprised I am by the smoothness of the landings—just a touch of the feet to the ground and then a couple of walking steps forward to take the momentum. She nods. “Our more advanced jumpers are using Ram air canopies of various sizes, which are like the difference between driving a Corvette and a bus.”
Hahn believes that jumpers need to learn the physics of steering the canopy—the open parachute—and how to execute a good landing. “The higher-performance chutes are rectangular, with brake lines, so when you pull those, it controls how much air is going through the chute, and that contributes to a smooth landing,” she says. “So, graduating from the bus to the Corvette is a matter of learning the physics of it.”
Hahn’s husband, Andrew, whom she met while skydiving, owns the Zoo Bar adjacent to the Skydive Sebastian drop zone. He lends a practiced ear to jumpers both before and after their adventures, and, if prompted, offers a bit of advice. “What surprises newbies is that it isn’t like a roller coaster because you leave the plane at the speed of the plane,” he says. “It’s terminal velocity. You are just floating, thinking, ‘Wow, I’m really flying.’”
Andrew Hahn is at D level. “I have the jumps for a D license but I need to fill out the paperwork,” he laughs. He has done angle flying formations, changing pitch and creating a downward angle that moves the jumper forward and changes the speed. “You are carving in the sky,” he explains. When asked what he loves about skydiving, his answer is immediate: “The freedom. You are in a state of flow—time dilates.” He chose this sport because of the longevity. “You can do this a very long time. It’s the life hack of adventure sports.”
Skydiving has a language all its own. These are terms you will hear around the drop zone.
Blue Skies Much like “aloha,” a phrase used both for greetings and farewells; a friendly hail that wishes other skydivers a perfect day for jumping
Container The backpack, or rig, that contains the parachute
AAD (automatic activation device) a small computer system installed in a parachute that will deploy a lifesaving reserve parachute at low altitude if it senses that a main parachute hasn’t yet deployed
Hop ‘n’ Pop A practiced low-altitude jump from about 3,500 feet, wherein the jumper pulls the chute quickly after stabilizing and lands within seconds
Swooping Accelerating the rate of descent by making turns using the toggles, or handles, that control the canopy
RW relative work, such as formation flying with other jumpers
Drogue A smaller parachute that can be deployed for deceleration during fast descents
Off-Landing Missing the drop zone, or DZ