Tales From the Bonfire | The Wild, Wild Midwest
By Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld
As most older skydivers are aware, the Midwest was the wild, wild Midwest in the early 1980s. Skydiving planes, equipment and skills were advancing quickly enough that jumpers could start getting into real trouble. And some of them were. (My good friend Melissa Nelson Lowe and her father, skydiving legend Roger Nelson, wrote a couple of great books about this era. You should definitely check them out.) But this is a story about a young, sweet, naive, gentle, kind, loving and innocent young skydiver named Dan, who almost got caught in the crossfire.
Let me give you a bit of backstory: I started jumping in 1980 when I was a freshman at Ohio State University. Through my college years, I worked at the Greene County Sport Parachute Center in Xenia, Ohio, which Jim West owned. I was a jumpmaster, instructor, parachute rigger and jump pilot by the time I graduated in 1984. I figured I could run the place by myself if I had to, so I decided to toss my diploma aside, and at 22 years old, I bought the DZ.
That year, the tandem and AFF methods of training were developing, and manufacturers began making piggyback student rigs with square parachutes. (Prior to this, the only way to learn skydiving was to make static-line jumps under round parachutes.) This was such a huge advancement for the sport that I got my tandem and AFF ratings and used all my money to purchase a tandem rig and four modern student rigs with squares for the drop zone. In 1985, we were one of the first DZs in the country to start offering tandem and AFF student jumps, as well as both square- and round-canopy static-line jumps.
The first day of the season, the DZ held both round-canopy and square-canopy first-jump classes. When I watched the students under rounds thump in all over the airport while the students under squares tiptoed in, right on target, I realized that it would be negligent to continue to offer the obviously inferior training on rounds. From there on out, we offered only square-canopy training jumps, and we took the 100-or-so round-parachute systems that came with the purchase of the DZ and stored them in an old trailer.
Although it was the right decision, a few issues made it problematic. First, the other DZs in Ohio offered only static-line training under rounds and charged about $50 for a first-jump course. Our static-line course using squares was at least twice that (and even more for AFF or tandem). Because potential students had no way of knowing our courses were superior, they chose the less-expensive option. In addition, it was tough to find instructors, because only a handful of jumpers in the world at the time had AFF or tandem instructor ratings.
Our student business tanked, and we were going broke. So, to keep offering our superior training but also to be able to afford to stay in business, we began selling as many of the round-parachute systems in storage as we could. We hoped to be able to get rid of them before all DZs stopped using them.
In the same year, 1985, a jumper named Drew Thornton started coming to the drop zone and soon began instructing AFF and tandem students. He was one of the few instructors around, and he was good at it, but he was a bit of a suspicious character. There was nothing I could point at specifically, but there was an air about him, and he always seemed to be up to something. At the age of 40, he was already a former attorney, former police officer and former narcotics officer—a lot of “formers” for his age—and I never quite got a clear answer on what his current employment was. But he was making a positive contribution to the drop zone, so I didn’t dig any further.
One day, Drew offered to buy four of the DZ’s old, round parachutes. I didn’t hesitate and told him to grab as many as he wanted. But then he pulled me aside and quietly said, “Dan, I have something big going down. You want to be a part of this.” Red flags started flying, and every internal warning signal I had was blaring. I could only imagine what Drew was up to, and I wanted nothing to do with it. I told him, “Nope, I don’t want anything to do with anything. I have 100 round rigs in the trailer. Take as many as you want, $50 bucks per rig.”
He persisted: “You’re missing out; we’re talking about a lot of money. You could buy all the new square student rigs you want.” I said, “I don’t want to know anything. The rigs are in the trailer.” The conversation was over; there wasn’t another word.
Everything was uneventful for the next few weeks until I got a phone call from a friend who told me that Drew died on a jump … but not just any jump. A man on his way to work in the morning found Drew dead in the driveway of his suburban home in Knoxville, Tennessee. Drew was wearing a tandem rig with the reserve out and the main still in the container, night-vision goggles and a bulletproof vest. On him, he had two knives, two pistols, $4,500 in cash and 90 pounds of cocaine valued at $15 million dollars. Later, I learned that a Cessna 404 had crashed about 60 miles away in North Carolina with no one on board. Drew had apparently put it on auto pilot and jumped from it that night. I couldn’t believe it. It was more than I could have imagined, and I was very glad I had stayed out of it.
About a week later, as I was alone at the DZ packing a reserve, in walked six men in suits: DEA agents. Without saying a word, not even hello, they said, “Are you Dan B.C.?” When I said that I was, they asked what I knew about Andrew Thornton. I told them Drew jumped at the DZ and had been an instructor.
They asked, “Is that it?”
“Yes,” I replied.
The agents said that they assumed I knew about how he had been found, and I confirmed that I did. They then told me that they suspected he had an accomplice who was in the plane with him who had also jumped, someone who was also a tandem instructor and pilot. They asked me if I was a tandem instructor and pilot. I hesitantly told them that I was.
The agents told me that Drew and his accomplice had made a smuggling run from Colombia and before they jumped, they had dropped several 200-pound loads of cocaine into Georgia under military round parachutes. They suspected that Drew had a team on the ground who was supposed to retrieve those loads. I told one of the agents that I didn’t know anything about it, and he replied, “That’s very odd, you see, because on the risers of the parachutes were labels that said ‘Greene County Sport Parachute Club’ and had your phone number on them.” The interrogation began. They thought for sure I was involved and were strongly recommending that I cooperate. But I wasn’t involved and I didn’t know anything!
They finally left, assuring me that we’d be talking a lot more. And we did. They were at the drop zone nearly every day for the next month, asking the same questions. After the first week, we were on a first-name basis. Sometimes they’d act like they were trying to help me out, other times they’d threaten me, other times both. It seemed like it went on forever.
Finally, they came in looking more serious than I’d ever seen them. They sat me down, circled around me and said, “This is it. It’s over.” They said they’d uncovered everything and knew of my involvement, that they understood I was a small player, but this went all the way to the highest government offices. There wasn’t any chance I could get out of doing jail time, but if I helped them, they’d do their best to help me. They finished their interrogation, ending with, “We know, Dan. It’s over. It’s time to talk.”
By this point, they had almost convinced me that I was involved. But I wasn’t! I decided to call their bluff, saying, “You can’t have anything on me, because I don’t know anything, and I haven’t done anything. And, by the way, Drew never even paid me for the parachutes. You owe me $200 out of the $4,500 you found on him!” So, they left and the whole thing was over. At least, that’s what I thought.
Months later, I received a phone call from someone who said they were in the neighborhood and wanted to know if Jim West was around. Could they fly into the drop zone to go visit him? “Of course,” I said. “Sure.” Later, as I was descending in the Cessna after dropping a load, I saw a twin-engine plane land on our grass strip. I figured it was the person who had called earlier, and as it turns out, it was.
Once I landed, I went inside to finish some rigging work and suddenly my six friends from the DEA, along with about a dozen uniformed police officers, came running in, yelling, “Who just landed in that plane?!”
I was shocked and said, “The Cessna? I just did.”
They said, “No, the twin!”
I said, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out!” and ran out of the clubhouse, where I saw a dozen or so people in an AFF instructor rating course gathered for a briefing. There was one guy I didn’t recognize who was trying to fit into the group. I pointed him out to the police. Then I looked back toward where the twin-engine plane was parked and saw another guy running through the field. I pointed to him, too. The DEA, with help from the police, caught them both. Apparently, they had stolen the plane, flown it to Colombia and were on their way back. The DEA found nothing in the plane when it landed in Xenia, so they assumed they dropped the load under parachutes on their way back.
After things had quieted down, the DEA guys came back in. I was back at the sewing machine. They again sat around me in a circle. I remember the words, “So, Dan, I suppose you don’t know anything about this one, either?” And it all started again. But once again, I didn’t know anything about anything. And despite all their suspicions, I was completely innocent and they never charged me. Pretty soon after all this, I decided to head west and focus on 4-way.
It was just a year in the life of skydiving in the ’80s in the Midwest.
Watch Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld tell the tale himself on his YouTube channel here: tinyurl.com/danbcwildwest.
Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld | D-8424 and author of “Above All Else”