Andy VanHandel has one of the biggest hearts in the sport of skydiving. Through a series of organizations, he pursues his main passion of supporting veterans through tandem jumps, using skydiving as therapy to reduce issues that can lead to depression and suicide. 2023 will be the ninth year for his biggest such event, Freedom Freefall, which is held annually at drop zones around the country. Veteran or not, any skydiver that meets Andy is sure to be inspired.
“Andy is the person I always wanted to be. He is a leader when you need someone to lead; He is a follower when you need a team. Anybody who meets Andy knows they made a friend.“ –Jim Patrick, Profilee #105
Nickname: Bad Andy
Birthplace: Neenah, Wisconsin
Marital Status: Married for 12 years to Tricia
Pets: One rescue dog, Chloe
Occupation: Truck driver
Education: High School, U.S. Army Basic Training (Ft. Leonard-Wood), U.S. Army Bradley Fighting Vehicle Systems Mechanic (Ft. Knox)
Life Philosophy: Listen to others. You do not need to agree, but respectfully listen.
Jump Philosophy: Smile. Have fun … that is, after all, why we do this!
Container: Aerodyne Research Icon, United Parachute Technologies Sigma Tandem
Main Canopy: Aerodyne Research Pilot 188 and A2- 350
Reserve Canopy: Aerodyne Research Smart 220 LPV, United Parachute Technologies Sigma VR-360 Tandem Reserve
AAD: Advanced Aerospace Designs Vigil, both in tandem and sport rigs
Home Drop Zone: Seven Hills Skydivers in Madison, Wisconsin
Year of First Jump: 1999 in Omro, Wisconsin
Licenses/Ratings: A-36696, C-31553, D-24545; USPA IAD/SL-I, Coach, Tandem Instructor and Safety and Training Advisor
Associations/Club Memberships: USPA and Seven Hills Skydivers; volunteer at HOOAH Wisconsin, board member at Veterans Skydive 4 Life
Total Number of Jumps: 3,600
Tandems: 1,900 FS: 1,400 Wingsuit: 150 Freefly: 100 Accuracy: 100 Demos: 10
Number of Cutaways: Four (only one on a tandem … knock on wood)
Tell us about Freedom Freefall:
Back in 2013 or so, I was jumping at Green Bay Skydivers in Pulaksi, Wisconsin, when I met a student who lost her fiancé to suicide after suffering from PTSD. She started skydiving, at first, to memorialize him (he was Airborne). She found that skydiving was therapy. She found an organization called HOOAH (Helping Out Our American Heroes) who do all sorts of things for veterans to reduce and hopefully eliminate veteran suicide. In 2015, we put together the first Freedom Freefall event in Omro, Wisconsin. We put up nine veterans from six different wars in one day. The event became an annual one, being held at as many as seven drop zones across the country, all on the same day.
Does one particular jump stand out?
That would be taking Oliver Disotell, a 95-year-old World War II Marine paratrooper, on a tandem during that first Freedom Freefall. The stories on the way up to altitude in the C-182 … my goodness. I am 100% sure I was more scared than he was. Those WWII vets are wired differently than the rest of us. He passed last year at 99. But I was told by his friend who worked at a McDonalds in Berlin, Wisconsin, that he was there every day until the day he passed showing people his DVD (she said she had to provide the computer to play it), telling everyone that he jumped with Bad Andy. Rest in peace, hero.
What’s the most bad-ass thing you can do in the air?
Taking someone up on a tandem who is really unsure and scared, then landing and they keep smiling until they leave the DZ.
Who have been your skydiving mentors?
Bill Hasenfus and Al Binnebose, at my start. Sam Schaffer and Bert Geldenhuys when I started throwing drogues. Jim Patrick when I first became an S&TA years back. Michael Wadkins, currently, as a Regional Director and friend with anything skydiving-related.
What are your skydiving goals?
To help as many veterans as I need to through skydiving. The veteran suicide rate is way too high. Skydiving can be very helpful. Until the veteran suicide rate is zero per day, this is my calling.
How did you become interested in skydiving?
I was dating a girl years ago, and we decided to try it. The rest is history (and so is she).
Most embarrassing moment at a drop zone:
Telling someone my nickname was Bad Andy, and they heard “Bad Landing.”
Is there a jump you would like to do again?
Jump 384, the first time I was injured. Three or four of us younger jumpers thought we could handle the turbulent winds that day. The winds were blowing in the absolute worst direction at that DZ. My canopy decided to dive at about 40 feet, and I had little to no chance of flaring. I broke one ankle and sprained the other. The highly experienced jumpers were in the hangar watching. Lesson learned. Would I do it over? No, I would sit that one out altogether.
Suggestions for USPA:
Keep on doing what they are doing. I like the initiative they have taken with the incident reporting.
What other events do you do to benefit U.S. military veterans?
I help out HOOAH with a few of their many programs. Yesterday (as I write this), some of my Seven Hills team and I participated in a 17.6 mile ruck march for veterans suicide awareness, to help HOOAH raise money for events like Freedom Freefall. I am also a board member of Veterans Skydive 4 Life. We are a 501(c)3 non profit that has the same goals in mind as HOOAH, to eliminate veterans suicide. We have an annual event (Veteran Wind Therapy) at Wisconsin Skydiving Center in Jefferson. We also have a motorcycle ride in Michigan every year.
How did you get the nickname “Bad Andy” when the opposite is true?
When I started skydiving in 1999, Domino’s Pizza had a character called Bad Andy. Being a bigger guy, I may have gone low on a few formations, and you know skydivers—one person gives you a nickname and it sticks.
What is your perfect day like?
No wind, high puffy clouds, warm with a little humidity. Tandems on the books. Meeting more potential skydivers. Helping a few veterans see life.
For more information about supporting veterans through skydiving, visit hooahinc.org and veteransskydive4life.org.