Mornings marked with wet pavement and grey skies generally don’t inspire feelings of excitement for skydivers, particularly on a weekend. It appeared I’d flown halfway across the country for a non-event.
Returning from Australia on a Monday morning, Monday afternoon was dedicated to recovery from jetlag and bad airline food consumed over the last 19 hours…. Needless to say, those precious hours weren’t quite enough, but they did give me a head start.
Tuesday marked travel to Madison, Wisconsin to meet with a production team and a shared goal of several ambitious projects, but the real reason for the travel, was that a senior executive in one of the world’s largest broadcast organizations had a wife who wanted to skydive.
The corporation had used quite a bit of my work for various projects in the past and the executive had specified me as the camera flyer of choice for this very personal event.
So…I found myself contacting Derrick and Sky Knights of East Troy, WI to set up this fairly important event. If all went well, the stage was set for some very wonderful opportunities. If things didn’t go so hot…well… you get the picture.
The night before the skydive was filled with not as much pitter-patter of small raindrop on the roof, but rather the pounding of a perturbed cloud cover dumping enough water to flood the entryway of the Sheraton Hotel in Madison, WI. It wasn’t looking good, and we were worried. The weatherman offered little in the way of confident commentary that the weather would clear by tomorrow afternoon.
We began to strategize and plan our ‘outs.”
There were none. Either the weather would cooperate and we’d jump, or not.
A ringing phone cuts through the silence of breakfast. It’s Derrick.
“It’s not looking great, so call me before you make the long drive from Madison to East Troy. I’ll have a weather update for you soon.”
The next omen of the day proffered itself in the form of a monstrous cockroach cooked into my business partner’s waffle. I’d just informed him of Derrick’s call and his face went white as a sheet just before he began to retch. It seemed like a bit of overreaction to the news that we might not make this very important jump. Then he pointed at his waffle.
Holy cow, there was a cockroach the size of a horsefly sticking out of the side of the waffle. Judging from the missing bit of the cockroach, it seemed safe to assume my partner had just chewed up the other half. It definitely wasn’t an auspicious beginning to the new day.
We headed to Dane County Airport where the Cessna 182 waited for the exec, my partner, and our pilot. The idea was that the exec and his family would be red-carpeted while I drove to the DZ with my load of camera gear, rig, and high hopes. The pilot proceeded to flood the engine of the 182, causing them a 30 minute delay… What next?
This Cessna wasn’t too thrilled to fly today.
Derrick called with the news that he had no news. “It’s looking better, but the winds are kinda high, and the clouds haven’t cleared yet. But, they’re flying the PAC anyway, because the club’s pilots are getting checked out on the new aircraft provided by Skydance.
OK…I’ll head south for East Troy. Except that Google Maps didn’t take construction into account, turning a 90 minute drive into a nearly 2.5 hour drive through backwoods and single-lane roads.
Arriving at the airport a few minutes after the 182 had landed, we pulled into the Sky Knights parking lot and were introduced to our TI (Tom) and the staff at the DZ. Things seemed to be looking up….
Sure enough, we began shooting the tandem student, family, TI, DZ….shooting nearly 20 minutes of B-roll. This was gonna be the mother of all tandem videos….
We got into the PAC, and climbed quickly to altitude. With very few people in the plane, the PAC is a rocket ship, no doubt. Everything that had happened in the previous night and day seemed like bad memories bygone….
I climbed out on the camera step of the PAC, Derrick climbed out to front float. Tom and his student take the door; Ready, Set, GO! And out they went. Beautiful exit shots, Derrick and the PAC in the background, a few puffies in the far distance….great stuff.
Derrick and I cavorted like little kids. The actual shoot didn’t matter half as much as the overall experience for the exec and his family, so we just had fun with no set blocking or script.
The tandem deployed without any issue, and as I rolled from my sit onto my belly, I saw Derrick already deploying behind me. It just didn’t feel “right.” I began to look around for the DZ.
And couldn’t find it. I cleared my airspace, deployed, and began looking harder for the DZ now that I’ve got a canopy over my head and water beneath me on all sides. Well…not quite. We were over water, but the water was unfortunately surrounded by tall trees aka “the woods.”
I watched Derrick flying in rears over top the water, perhaps 500 feet below me. I was getting nervous. We definitely were going to get past the water, but getting past the woods was dubious at best. By now, I’d located the DZ, easily two miles to the east on the other side of the woods, the freeway, and the next treeline. We were landing out. And the area was not on the overhead provided by the DZ.
I’m glad the student couldn’t hear my cuss words, because it was at that moment that I realized my very special subject was also not making it back and we still hadn’t determined a landing area.
Derrick spied a ball diamond that was surrounded on two sides by trees, one side by water and tall backstop fence, with the final border offering up a typical Amish barn complete with two cupolas on top. And of course, the field itself was defined by a small fence designed to keep dogs and livestock off the playing area. Definitely a PRO area, and not idyllic for setting down any tandem student.
Derrick and I landed without incident and we looked to the sky to find Tom and our charge. There was no hope they’d make it back, so we were fairly sure Tom would follow us into the ball field.
The tandem was just above the trees to the north, making their way to our landing area. We determined that the tandem was going to shoot the gap between the tall trees and the backstop, and that’s exactly what Tom did. Perfectly.
I reached for my cell phone that I’d left back at the DZ, so we settled in for a wait until someone found us (Always carry a cell, duh).
We shot the final interview with our student, sat down until a car from the DZ made its way to where we were waiting, and did the 10 minute drive back to the DZ.
Meanwhile back at the landing area, the rest of the group awaited our landing in the golf carts the DZ uses to retrieve skydivers and tandem students (the main landing area is a bit of a walk from the packing area and manifest.
The group anxiously awaits a view of a deploying tandem.
I was worried that the exec’s family would be upset, furious, bothered that part of the group had landed off without any way of knowing where they were. Turns out I worried for nothing…. They were so ecstatic that they stuck around the DZ for another four hours, watching the parachute landings, watching the PAC, marveling at the dirt dives, etc. It made for a terrific afternoon.
One of the Sky Knight skydivers noticed my wingsuit, and she asked me if I’d ever done a rodeo. She asked if she could ride me out of the airplane. “Of course!” I told her. Derrick thought he might be able to stick with us, as I was going to be flying fairly dirty, and he has booties with large wings.
We exited cleanly, got on level and stable right away. Annie threw out her arms and flew on my back like a total pro, even though it was only her second rodeo. We flew across the highway, leaving Derrick in the dust, so no great pix of her fist-pumping in glee. When we hit ground, she was like a kid at Christmas. My Storm had barely hit the ground before she came running over. Of course, anyone who has met Annie knows right away what I’m trying to describe; she is a thousand watts of energy packed in to a one hundred watt lamp, on the edge of blasting a hole in the universe with her ever-present smile and incredibly positive attitude. Nicknamed “Muddbutt” for a less than stellar landing at a high profile demo, she carries her 90lb frame like a heavyweight wrestler. If anyone at Sky Knights is their designated PR person, it must be Annie. This is one DZ I’m definitely returning to, and soon.
Sunset came too early, clouds rolled in, and the day was over. We bid goodbye to our new friends to make the long drive back to Madison. Best of all, it’s Friday. If you know anything about Wisconsin, the fish fry’s are weekly events to put other fish fry’s to shame. Even as I write, I’ve got a basket of fish, a cold Pilsner, hot pretzels, and a lot of noise surrounding me as this particular adventure comes to a close. Til next time….