How Skydiving Changed My Life

John Hamilton

I was sitting in my easy chair after work watching the local news when I saw an alert on the screen reporting a small plane crash at a local airport. My two business partners, who were brothers, had planned to pilot a small plane to pick up a customer that afternoon, so I was immediately concerned. Later that night, I learned that it was their plane that crashed and that they both had been killed.

The next six months would be the worst of my life. It was January 2005, and our small business, which I managed, had recently been awarded several major contracts. I was already suffering the stress of too much work and—in addition to my grief and that of my employees—had the challenge of continuing the business without two of our most experienced leaders. While the business would eventually survive, my life would become a casualty. The daily stress was never-ending, and I had this intense feeling of needing to do anything to get away from the situation. One day, five months after the accident, I decided I needed skydiving in my life again.

This would not be my first experience with skydiving. In 1972, I returned from Vietnam to Fort Knox, Kentucky, looking for adventure. I found it when I met several experienced skydivers who had just started the Fort Knox Sport Parachute Club. I was the first student to make a jump at the club. I used a military T-10 (with panels cut out and toggles added) donated by the 82nd Airborne.

I loved the sport and in the next four years became a jumpmaster, qualified as a senior rigger and completed most of the requirements for a D license. We had many Huey helicopter pilots on post who needed flying time, so lifts were free, and we jumped all weekend from early morning to sundown. On my 297th jump, I came in too fast on a downwind landing and broke my ankle. I had recently gotten married and had a demanding job, so I decided to end my parachuting career in 1975.

By 2005, it had been more than 30 years since I had made a skydive. I was 58 years old and knew little about modern equipment or techniques. I found a jump club in Cedartown, Georgia, three hours from my home in Alabama and drove down early on a Friday to learn to jump again. My instructor, nicknamed “Fast Eddie,” was a friendly, heavyset, late-30ish guy who had just the right temperament to retrain an old skydiver like me. Learning to jump again was challenging, and the emergency procedures were the opposite of what I had learned in the ‘70s. The parachutes flew much faster and responded quicker and landing required flaring instead of a hit-and-roll.

I made my first jump as a solo freefall with two instructors flying nearby if I needed help. As we walked to the aircraft, Fast Eddie said, "John, skydiving is like riding a bike, once you have done it, you never forget how." He was right. By my third jump, I was doing turns and flips and linking up with the instructors in the air, flying effortlessly to the target area and making stand-up landings. For the next 18 months, jumping would be great therapy for me. I loved the fact that on the drop zone, I had no responsibility except to be safe for others and take care of myself. I didn’t have much in common with the younger jumpers, but they respected me for learning to skydive again and would often jump with me, correct me when I did a bad job packing or instruct me on how to make a better landing.

My life gradually returned to normalcy again, and after 50 jumps, I just got up one day and decided to walk away, retiring from skydiving a second time. Today, I still skydive but only in my mind, where I always fly stable, land gracefully and jump on the next load without having to repack.

John Hamilton | C-7280
Madison, Alabama

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