Leaving the military was an exciting time in my life. I’d spent seven years serving my country and now it was time to move on and get an education. I was excited to start using my GI Bill and finally figure out what it was I’d be doing the remainder of my life. It didn’t take long to figure out school was not one of those things.
My first semester at Washington State University was exciting. Meeting new people at school and while working at Rico’s, a jazz bar downtown, kept me going. Weekends were spent skydiving at the local drop zone and flying cessnas around Eastern Washington. I’d learned both skydiving and flying while in the military. Now I attempted to continue my aerial activities but the cost to maintain gear and flight hours proved disastrous.
Forfeiting my wings it wasn’t long before I lost all interest in school. I finished the semester barely passing most classes, not sure if I made the grade point average to continue receiving my GI Bill I was completely disoriented. The income I was accustomed to receiving in the military was gone. The stability of a home, gone. Most friends, gone.
I did the only thing I knew. I dropped out of school and moved to Eloy, Arizona, home of one of the largest dropzones in the country. Larry started a Cessna drop zone in Wild Horse then moved it to Coolidge and finally to Eloy where he amassed a fleet of De Haviland DHC 6 Twin Otters complete with souped up engines. He hired me to help run day to day operations, regaining my wings I was thrilled to be back in the air.
Summer in Arizona is hot therefore skydivers prefer jumping elsewhere during this time of year. Long ago Larry decided on sending his airplanes to skydiving boogies across the country during the hot summer months, instead of having them sitting idle under the scortching Arizona sun. Boogies are skydiving events held across the world where jumpers flock to specialty aircraft, essentially big skydiving parties. They involve loads of jumping during the day and heavy partying after sunset. Chris, head full of dreads, would pilot the Twin Otter and I would be his co-pilot in charge of keeping the aircraft in the air by refueling it, loading it and flying right seat.
We crisscrossed the nation dropping jumpers at small and large boogies from one of the smallest at Star Idaho to the largest, the World Freefall Convention in Quincy Illinois, where we found ourselves hypoxic at 19,000 ft in free fall along with seven other skydivers. The day had come to an end, we put the airplane away and had just sat down to crack open a beer when the pilot of a stretch King Air dropped by and asked if we wanted a free jump. Free and jump are not two words you normally hear simultaneously at a drop zone. We rushed to the airplane gearing up along the way. With only nine jumpers in a plane made to hold twice that amount we climbed like a bat out of hell.
Almost all onboard where world class skydivers, many holding world records and or national titles. We planned our jump in the plane noticing the altimeter spinning upwards 16,000, 18,000, 19,000, as we hit 20,000 feet the pilot gave us the green light to exit. Everyone hypoxic from the lack of oxygen we exited the aircraft to nine one-ways. Plummeting to the ground at one hundred twenty miles per hour oblivious to the dive we planned, gone was the ability to recognize our situation. The sun setting below the horizon, we fell individually through 17,000 feet as a sudden rush of oxygen entered my conscience. Like waking up after daydreaming while driving, I realized I was in the air, the dive plan? I looked around at the others, by 16,000 feet we quickly snapped together holding hands in a big circle laughing our asses off, aware we were all experiencing the hypoxic effects we all consciously agreed to hold the circle and laugh for the next 12,000 feet. Of all my skydives this is one I’ve never forgot.
Chris and I flew those planes across the country two summers in a row. There were two close calls. The first at the freefall convention in the summer of 1994. With a light load of skydivers I was flying right seat. The weather was muggy, hot and wet. The windows fogged so bad they were immediately wet after wiping them down. This made it hard to see but not impossible.
Cleared for takeoff Chris pushed the throttle forward the turbines spinning faster we sped ahead. Just before crossing the intersecting runway both Cris and I noticed, to our horrer, the nose cone and four engines of the massive Ottis Spunkmeyer Super Constellation speeding towards us from our left. Chris pulled the yoke rotating and lifting the airplane prior to impact, the aircraft missing each other by mere seconds. Relieved we gave each other a solemn look then laughed and counted our lucky stars. The jumpers behind us unaware we climbed to altitude, dropped the load and returned to earth for a well deserved beer.
The boogie continued without incident. It was on the way home that we experienced our next sketchy moment. With two Super Otters, a term coined by Brian the dropzone manager due to the souped up engines, at the boogie we decided to fly back to Arizona in formation. Larry flying the lead aircraft, Chris flying the trail plane. I flew right seat while Katerina, Cooper and Brian slept in the back. Somewhere over the Midwest we flew into a storm. Without notice the lead aircraft disappeared. I heard Chris mutter
*Larry where are you?*
All of a sudden a blinding flash goes off right in front of us, the brightness so intense everyone sleeping in the back awoke, instantly rushing to the cockpit. Chris pulled the throttle back and pushed the yoke forward diving the plane to get it away from the tail of the lead aircraft. It was the tail strobe of the lead plane going off just a few feet ahead of us. We flew a mile apart the remainder of the way home.
It was on a trip to Colorado that I left the airplane and the dropzone. Flying over Durango Colorado I contacted the airport manager at Gunnison asking if he would call my friend, Big Doug in Crested Butte and ask him to meet me at the airport in a half hour. Big Doug was confused but hurried to the airfield. We landed in Gunnison and taxied to the FBO where Big Doug rushed out to meet us. Engines running the plane stopped just long enough for me to drop the ladder, I asked Big Doug to get in. We were on our way to Longmont for a weekend boogie and didn’t have time nor fuel to waste.
*get in!* I yelled as I lowered the ladder.
*where are we going?* yelled Big Doug over the roar of the engines.
*I didn’t bring any clothes, my car is in the parking lot!* Explained Big Doug.
Chris didn’t have a problem making the pit stop but we were in a hurry and didn’t have time to burn fuel.
*we’ve gotta go!* He yelled from the cockpit.
*Are you coming or not?* I hollered to Big Doug.
*I guess, I don’t really have a choice!*
And with that he climbed in, buckled up and insisted on knowing what was happening. I retracted the ladder, closed the door and gave Chris a thumbs up. Spending less than five minutes from landing to take off in Gunnison we departed for Longmont.