On December 16, just days before the start of the USPA National Collegiate Skydiving Championships at Florida Skydiving Center in Lake Wales, beloved DZ Manager Betty Hill succumbed to cancer after a battle of 20 years. This year would have marked the 10th time that Hill hosted the Collegiates, and the meet staff, judges and team coaches—many of whom had worked with her for decades at this event and others—missed her presence and mourned her passing.
As Betty Johnson, she was an 18-year old high-school graduate in Maryland when she found her unusual path to skydiving. Her skydiver boyfriend, George Kabeller, started a drop zone, and Betty quickly began to learn the ins and outs of running manifest, keeping the books and managing a DZ. As the business grew, they moved the Southern Cross Parachute Center from a grass strip near Downsville, Maryland, to an airport with a paved runway in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, soon acquiring a fast-climbing Douglas DC-3 and naming it Southern Cross.
In 1984, the now-married couple bought the DZ in Zephyrhills, Florida, calling it the Zephyrhills Parachute Center. Betty’s winning personality helped attract skydivers and teams from around the world to the facility. Tragedy struck in 1987 when the DZ’s main building burned to the ground, rigs and office equipment included. Undeterred, the couple rebuilt, christening the new DZ Phoenix/Zephyrhills Parachute Center. Challenged by an unsupportive city administration, in 1995 the couple pulled up stakes and bought the DZ in Lake Wales, Florida, essentially starting over. Although the Kabellers divorced two years later, Betty stayed on as the DZ manager.
In 2000, now married to Roger Hill, Betty learned that adversity wasn’t done with her. She received a diagnosis of cancer and dug in for a pitched battle. Then, in 2004, not one but three hurricanes passed over the DZ, destroying the hangar and the jump plane and requiring Betty to once more rebuild a DZ while fighting insurance companies and another unsupportive city administration. She persevered and Skydive Lake Wales/Florida Skydiving Center came back to life.
All along the way, Betty had thousands of skydiving customers, many of whom became great friends and supporters, and she always gave a hand to down-and-out skydivers when needed. She only ever made one jump, but few have had as positive an effect on skydivers as Betty Hill.
USPA honored her memory at the banquet following the collegiate championships. It was a fitting location, given her unwavering support for the event and up-and-coming skydivers over the years. Facing a standing ovation by those attending, Executive Director Ed Scott presented Roger Hill with a commemorative portfolio that read, “As the owner and manager of four ground-breaking drop zones over the course of 48 years, Betty Hill was a bright and shining emissary of our sport, introducing thousands to the joy of skydiving and providing a home for many hundreds of skydivers who enjoyed her love and support. Her memory will long endure in the hearts of those skydivers. Blue Skies, Betty.”