Out of a Perfectly Good Airplane

Our writer visits Skydive Smoky Mountains and takes the big plunge


by Mike Gibson

When you're hovering in a Cessna 206 single engine turbo skywagon at an altitude of 12,000 feet, the ground below is little more than an abstract concept; it's really nothing at all like it seems when you're standing on the top rung of a high ladder, or peering over the side of a cliff, all solid and proximal and foreboding. Not that the prospect of what you're about to do is any less scary, mind you, having watched five fellow passengers painstakingly crawl to the front of the little airplane and open the door to the screaming wind and perch in an impossibly precarious position on the lip of the doorway and hurl themselves like lemmings into the chasm of wide open space.

And then when it's your turn to struggle to the fore in the face of G-forces and rushing air, your body constricted by a web of canvas and nylon straps, and lean out into the void, your foot awkwardly proffered and propped on a tiny strut on the side of a wing in preparation for your own great leap of faithâ well, yeah, it's a little nerve-wracking.

Except there's really not much time to dwell on the fear. Because before you know it, the plane is empty of passengers save for the pilot, yourself, and the tandem skydiving instructor to whom your harness is strapped, prodding insistently behind you, and without thinking, you've wrestled yourself into position, teetering on the precipice, preparing to sail off into the ravening maw of God-knows-what on the count of oneâ twoâ. Threeeeeeee....

"Everyone remembers their first jump,â” says Skydive Smoky Mountain co-owner and pilot Kipp Burnett, an ex-marine with a pleasantly weathered face and a wavy shock of sun-bleached hair. â“When I first got back from Vietnam, all I wanted to do was fly. Then I had my first jump, down in Pensacola (Fla.). And suddenly it was like, â‘Damn! Where have I been?' Then I got lost in the Fever, which lasts about 500 jumps or so, until you finally wake up and start dating girls again.â”

That first jump came in 1971, as Burnett was training for certification as a Naval flight instructor. Since then he's jumped out of the proverbial perfectly good airplane more than 4,000 times, and watched many times that number hurl themselves from the door of one of his planes.

He founded Skydive Smoky Mountains in the early 1990s with fellow enthusiast Gary Speer, who operated the Flyaway indoor skydiving windtunnel in Pigeon Forge. When Speer moved to Las Vegas and the promise of another new skydiving operation, he sold his share of the business to Burnett and his wife Teresa, who had never so much as considered skydiving, her husband's enthusiasm notwithstanding, until she became an active partner in the business.

â“Before that, I had nothing to do with it,â” Teresa laughs. â“Once I was a partner, I thought it would be a good idea to give it a try.

â“It's great fun,â” she says, noting that she's made dozens of tandem jumps in the years since, â“but I generally handle most of the business on the ground.â”

After changing venue to a handful of different locations around East Tennessee, the Skydive Smoky Mountains drop zone (or DZ; skydiver shorthand for the place where you jump) has made its home for the last two years on Fish Hatchery Road off Highway 81 just outside Morristown, on a venerable old farm property with an airstrip that's older (at 60 years) than the road that is now its primary access. Bound by a cornfield and a rutted creekbed on either side, and by Fish Hatchery Road and the Nolichucky River on both ends, the narrow grassy strip is a forbidding prospect for pilots who lack the experience of a Kipp Burnett.

â“There's a point you reach on your takeoff where you don't have enough runway to stop, and not enough room to turn,â” says SSM instructor Nash Copeland, also a pilot in training. â“So at that point, you'd better have enough lift to clear the river. For skydiving in general, most of the bad accidents are airplane accidents, not jumping accidents. That's usually the most dangerous part.â”

(For the record, most experienced jumpers say skydiving is still statistically safer than either driving a motor vehicle or flying on a commercial airline. And the SSM folks have never see anything more serious than a broken legâ"due to a poor landingâ"on the grounds of their DZ.)

Though it operates only weekends, and remains more-or-less dormant through much of the year due to weatherâ"â“We go year-round, weather permitting,â” says Kipp, â“which usually means we don't do much business for four or five months of the year,â”â"SSM (the only United States Parachute Association-certified DZ in East Tennessee) does a brisk business, thanks in part to new developments in skydiving technique and technology over the last 20 years.

One such innovation is the accelerated freefall (AFF) method of skydiving instruction, which has supplanted the old static-line military method as the most popular mode of learning. Copeland explains that static line jumpers experience essentially no freefall on their first several jumps, as they leap from a plane at low altitude, attached to a line that deploys the parachute for them within an instant of making the jump.

In AFF jumping, a first-time skydiver is accompanied during a roughly 40- to 60-second freefall by a certified teacher on either side, instructors who give direction, pull the chute, and have the experience and wherewithal to handle any midair problems that might arise.

â“With the static line jump, you're so scared when you're about to leap out of the plane,â” says Copeland, a veteran of over 1,700 jumps. â“It's total sensory overload, and then suddenly you jump and your parachute is open and you're floating, trying to get your bearings. With AFF, it's total sensory overload, and then five seconds into the freefall you regain composure, and you're having a blast.â”

A second innovation, tandem skydiving, opened the field up for novice jumpers who want to experience the thrill of a free-fall skydive, but are less interested in putting forth the money and effort necessary to become a certified jumper (which, through AFF, would usually require around $1,200 and seven jumps).

With tandem jumps, novices are harnessed to experienced tandem instructors, who coach them through a â“dirt diveâ” run-through on the ground, and then provide mid-air instruction, but ultimately perform nearly all of the heavy lifting. â“We tell people not to worry; even if you lose your mind and forget and do everything wrong, we'll do it for you,â” assures SSM tandem instructor Tim Carlyle.

And though it's evident from watching a handful of skydiving videos (SSM videographers also accompany tandem jumpers, and preserve the inaugural diving experience on DVD) that most first-timers recover from the paralysis of fear within split seconds of hitting the open airâ"usually responding with an elated thumbs-up to the midair videographer who has maneuvered, camera in hand, to within inches of their faceâ"there are always a few difficult exceptions to the rule.

â“Occasionally you get people who scream all the way down,â” Copeland says. â“We've had people get sick, or pee in their pants. The tandem guys get vomited on every once in a while.

â“Usually, the people who get sick don't get sick 'til the parachute is open, never during freefall,â” he says, adding with a smirk that, â“With the ones who pee themselves, it's always a little more difficult to pinpoint exactly when they start to pee.â”

But what's it like, performing for the very first time this bizarre midair ritual that goes against the grain of every human instinct of self-preservation? This unquestioning leap into space that sees you plummet earthward at speeds up to 120 miles per hour, then float on faerie breezes for five unbelievably serene moments 'til you kiss the ground below?

For most people, the answer is: It's like nothing you've ever done before.

â“It's an experience you can't relate to someone unless they've done it themselves,â” says Teresa Burnett. â“They think it's going to be like a roller coaster; you'll go up and up and your stomach starts to turn. And it's really not like that at all.â”

Copeland describes it as â“a sense of pure speed, rather than a sense of falling. There's really no sensation that the ground is coming at you.â” SSM client Joe Guidali, a Knoxville-based IT director and an A-level licensed jumper, is perhaps even closer to the mark when he likens it to â“having a dream where you can fly.â”

â“The first time was overwhelming,â” he adds, â“the most fun I could ever imagine having in a sport.â”

Now the jaded veteran of a single tandem jump myself, I can tell you that it's all of those things. And more. It's a state of mind, a state of body, a state of being, a few moments of near-paralyzing fear followed by the greatest single mainline rush of high-octane euphoria anyone is ever likely to experience on this side of the Pale. It's like jumping off a 12,000 foot high-dive into a vast pool of exhilaration.

I visited SSM a skeptic, a generally cautious sort pushed into the experience more by the promise of a story and the incessant pestering of a skydiving friend than by any burning desire to test the Fates. I departed a true believer, preaching the word and planning my next jump. Flying, for me, will never be the same.

You can visit the SSM website at www.skydivesmokymountains.com , or call at 865-577-9798.


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