While spending most of my career traveling country to country on various contracts, as well as on active duty in the U.S. Army and in the Alabama National Guard, I found I had this adrenaline niche in me that never could get filled. After riding motorcycles for a long time, I needed something else to fill the void—and there are a lot of experiences to be had on this planet. That’s when I started my skydiving adventure.
I showed up one morning in 2014 to Gold Coast Skydivers in Lumberton, Mississippi, ready for a tandem jump. I watched the video with the long-bearded fellow we’ve all come to know, and my instructor walked over and asked, “Ready to jump?” Almost at altitude in the Otter, he asked me another question: “Want to go out backwards?” I gave a thumbs up, moved to the door, and after the out-in-out count, we were watching the plane above us, banking away.
That’s how it started. I was hooked on skydiving.
I got to know the awesome DZO, Leanne Muratides Smith, as well as Ben Crowell, who became a good friend. Fast forward to my 100th skydive, complete with the pie in my face, and I realized that I wanted to work on teaching others so that they could share the joy I have in the air. So I took the Coach Rating Course there at the DZ with Karen Banks, who had also been my AFF instructor (and I can attest that it wasn’t an easy course to pass—nor should it be).
I spent those days having a lot of fun. I continued progressing into a better skydiver and coach, with the goal of one day getting an instructor rating. We attended boogies and started to learn about other disciplines. Then, one day, Gold Coast Skydivers—my home DZ—closed down. The nearest place to skydive was now three hours away. That makes for a long one-day trip, and over time those trips became more and more infrequent. Once I moved to Birmingham, Alabama, I jumped at Skydive Alabama in Vinemont for a short spell, but that was it. I began my two-year break from skydiving.
I knew plenty of friends who kept in the sport by moving or traveling a lot more. While working internationally, that wasn’t an option for me, so I sold all my stuff and just put skydiving on the backburner.
Then came the day some friends of mine told me about a place, Skydive Orange in Virginia, which is a couple hours from where I now live in Maryland. So I decided to call them up to schedule a currency jump. As I put on the rental gear, dirt dived the jump and boarded the plane, all those feelings from my first jump came back to me. “This is real again,” I thought to myself. “You got this.”
I rehearsed the dive flow in my head the whole ride to altitude, and as I set up in the door, I felt all those nerves come back—the ones you get when you’re at the edge of a tin can hurtling through the air. I gave the count, and bam, I was out the door, belly-to-earth.
As soon as I got my eyes on John Lighthall, my instructor, the dive flow felt natural. When you have hundreds of jumps, you don’t realize how quickly things come back to you once you exit that plane and you’re back in the place you love.
After landing, I realized that I was feeling again what I’d been missing for two years—my home, free of confinement. I did my coach currency jump as well, and was lucky enough to be brought aboard the Skydive Orange staff (and family), where I am currently working and jumping. I love being able to coach, so I organize the New Kids on the Block program, which is specifically targeted toward inexperienced jumpers. I’m also currently working on my AFF Instructor and Tandem Instructor ratings, hoping to finish them this year.
My break from skydiving wasn’t as long as ones others have taken, but that two years was a very long time in my head. For those who feel as though they need a break: No matter what happens in life, skydiving is always here waiting for you to come back. It may not be cheap, but you can’t compare it to anything else.
Those in the sport know the serenity and clear mind that comes with an open door, the curvature of the earth and friends close by. That’s the feeling we all long for. It’s a place we belong where we can be at peace, yet the challenges are real and so is the drive to be better.
I hope this story finds one person who, for whatever reason, has left the sport. And I hope it helps bring them back home to the sky.
Jean-Paul Stassi | C-43366
Fort Meade, Maryland