The crisp autumn air and turning leaves signal the beginning of the end for skydivers. As the temperature drops, a sense of anxiety rises at the Mile Hi Skydiving Center.
Jump season is coming to a close, and skydivers at the Longmont drop-zone will have to look elsewhere for fun, companionship and a place to sleep.
The cast of characters employed at the Mile Hi Skydiving Center seems endless. From the minute you step on the tarmac, you realize that this is not a typical day at the office. Such an adrenaline generating sport has its fair share of accidents.
“I’ve seen three people die in the last three years,” said Travis Annan, a 21-year-old senior finance major. “It’s pretty insane.”
In October 2004, Annan and his co-workers witnessed two fellow skydivers – Joel Zane and Scott Fiore – plummet to their death.
“They just spun straight into the ground,” Annan recalls.
“As soon as I saw them (entangled) side by side I knew something was wrong.”
Zane and Fiore were performing an afternoon air-show. The men were attached with a strap to keep their bodies close while in formation; when the strap failed to release, neither could open their parachutes in time.
“Those guys had done that together literally hundreds of times,” Annan said. “I couldn’t believe they died.”
He also remembers seeing Mary Ann Kramer fall to her death at a professional swoop competition.
“It was a total freak thing,” Annan said.
Kramer had a malfunction with her main chute, a regular occurrence once every 500 jumps. Annan recalls thinking, “no big deal, she just needs to pull the reserve.” But then, he remembers seeing her reserve chute spinning. Mary Ann was fighting it. The small reserve parachute drastically increased her speed.
“She was fighting it the whole way down. She spun right into the ground. It was horrible,” Annan said.
Annan noted that these risks make skydiving different than any other job.
“Skydiving is so different than any other business,” Annan said. “Here we work hard, but we also play hard.”
From building relationships to watching co-workers lose their lives, employees at the drop-zone cherish every day of work.
The most entertaining aspect of skydiving may not be on the plane ride up or the free-fall down. It may be in a seemingly lonely hanger. It may be in the drop-zone culture.
“It’s awesome, people at the drop-zone make skydiving fun,” said Mike Chester, a former Mile Hi employee.
Most people don’t hang out at work after the whistle blows. They don’t spend the night in the office waiting for the sun to rise. Then again, skydivers are not like most people.
“It takes a long time to figure out what other skydivers do in real life,” Annan said. “Skydiving brings us all together. I feel like I have to always be there.”
Skydiving may be a good way to make money, but it’s also how skydivers have fun.
And employees at the drop-zone know how to have fun. With games like flaming-footie, flour-drop and swoop-n-chug, the boys can’t help but have a good time at work.
Flour-dropping skydivers tote 50-pound bags of baking flour into the plane on a slow day. Then they compete to see who can drop a bag, mid-flight, onto a designated area below. But the excitement doesn’t stop there.
“After sundown, the fun part comes,” Chester said.
The drop-zone turns into a lounge where skydivers can unwind from an adrenaline-filled day.
“We light a fire, share some beers and just have fun,” he added.
But skydivers rarely relax for long.
“Truth be told, more skydivers are hurt on the ground than in the air,” Chester said.
He recalls laughing the first time he was introduced to flaming-footie, in which a roll of toilet paper is duct-taped, lit on fire and kicked around from one screaming man to another. Chester’s leg hair has nearly grown back.
Swoop-n-chug, needless to say, involves a lot of beer.
A staple in the life of an experienced skydiver, after all, is beer.
At boogies – a weekend party for skydivers, where for a nominal fee, you can party with the big boys – beer is “a necessity.”
“We know how to have fun,” Alan Martinez, a 25-year-old Air Force cadet and former Mile Hi employee said.
Coworkers make the day enjoyable. Annan remembers seeing a fellow diver, Simon, encouraging a first time jumper to skydive naked. She did.
“I don’t blame her,” Annan said with a smile. “That guy could make Alice Cooper blush.”
For the employees at the Mile Hi Skydiving Center, work has taught a valuable lesson: life is an experience, live it to the fullest. Always keep learning, and cherish every minute of it.
“I know less at 2,000 jumps than I thought I knew at 500 jumps,” Annan said.
Staff writer Mathew Planalp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.