Gazette Sports columnist Tom Miller conquers fear, skydives from two miles up
FORT ATKINSON—The last time I was two miles above ground, I was approaching O'Hare International Airport in a US Airways jet returning from Phoenix in late March.
Sunday afternoon, I was in a Cessna 182 two miles high, and I was set to JUMP OUT.
For someone whose knees quiver and knuckles tighten on the fifth rung of a ladder, skydiving was something I never considered. I don't do high dives at the swimming pool, for crying out loud.
Then a good buddy Dan Schultz began talking about his jumps.
When Dan reached his 500-jump mark late last summer, I considered doing a story about it. Then it turned into doing a story about me jumping.
Somewhere along the line, I agreed.
Schultz is a bartender at East Point Sportz Pub. Malts and barley can play tricks with one's mind.
Surprisingly, I had little hesitation as the Sunday jump approached. Between watching some of Schultz's jumps on video and talking to him about the staff at the Wisconsin SkyDiving Center in Jefferson, doing a tandem jump sounded safer than driving down Milton Avenue on a Friday afternoon.
Bo Babovic owns the club with his wife, Alex Kolacio. It's on County K along the Rock River.
I first met Bo around 11:30 a.m. Sunday. By 1:15 p.m., he was my best friend in the entire world. He was attached to me when we exited the Cessna and plummeted toward Jefferson County from two miles out.
Bo, a native of Serbia, is like a storybook character. He was a high school teacher before joining the Serbian special forces. He came to the United States in 1990 with $70 and not a clue how to speak English to work on the Biosphere complex in the desert of Arizona.
From there, he bought a skydiving facility in Hinckley, Illinois, about 20 miles south of DeKalb, and renamed it the Chicagoland Skydiving Center. He met Alex and after their marriage decided to sell the business.
“Too big,” he said.
After looking into starting a smaller skydiving business in the Caribbean, the couple scrapped the plan and returned to Chicago. While there, he met a skydiver from Wisconsin, who mentioned that a skydiving club in Madison had closed.
“I saw that as an omen,” Babovic said. “The next weekend, we traveled here and met the people. We really liked the Wisconsin people. Different crowd than the Chicago people.”
They opened the Atmosphair club July 4, 1998.
“We didn't have any staff,” Babovic said. “We didn't have any airplanes. We didn't have any parachutes. We didn't have anything, basically.”
Now, they have three airplanes, a tight-knit staff and many parachutes. It was renamed Wisconsin SkyDiving Center this year, but the atmosphere hasn't changed.
“After six or seven years, we were at the size that we wanted,” Babovic said. “We've maintained this family feel.”
Fort Atkinson native and resident Chris Boeve and UW-Whitewater student Jenny Buck are two members of the staff at the hangar Sunday.
Boeve started jumping when he was 14—before a minimum jump age of 18 was enforced. The 28-year-old has passed the 2,500-jump mark and is at the hangar when he has spare time from working as a Fort Atkinson firefighter.
Buck works at the hangar to support her jumping. She specializes in editing the jump videos. On Saturday, she edited 23.
Babovic has been skydiving since 1975. He has more than 14,000 jumps and has a rating earned by only three other U.S. jumpers.
“That's only the result of my love and passion for this,” he said. “I support myself and my family, but that's not our priority.”
Having him hooked to me as we somersaulted (my fault) out of the Cessna reduced the amount of butterflies in my stomach significantly.
Babovic's 30-minute instruction to first-timers deals with the emotions of jumping as much as the mechanics.
“Fear affects our thinking and actions,” Babovic said.
Fear did not hit until Schultz's wrist altimeter read 8,000 feet inside the airplane. We were above the fluffy clouds, and the fields of southern Wisconsin were little green squares far below.
Soon Schultz was turning the circled door latch. It was go time.
The wind rushed into the plane. Schultz and fellow videographer Andrew Hansen, who is a special education teacher in New Mexico and spends his summers instructing and videotaping skydivers in Wisconsin, climbed out and hung onto the side of the wings.
Babovic put his right foot onto a corrugated metal step outside the door. I put my foot next to his. Then my balky left knee delayed my leaning outside the door and into the open sky.
After convincing my knee to slide to the door, I leaned out and became Superman.
After the initial somersault, we righted the ship. The wind roared as we fell at 120 mph.
There is no “roller coaster” affect on your stomach. Besides the roar of the wind and the resistance on your body, there is no physical indication that you're falling nearly twice as fast as the speed limit on Interstate 90.
Schultz zipped in and out of view, videotaping the free fall.
The wind prevents any conversation, but no words are needed. The rush of adrenaline takes over your body.
Suddenly, Babovic pulled our chute, and we were gently pulled upright. The roar of the wind ceased as we slowed to a descent rate of about 1,000 feet per minute.
“Where are we landing?” I shouted.
Babovic pointed to the circled landing spot next to the club's hangar. We made a circled approach.
Our speed was not apparent until we were a few hundred feet from the grassy landing spot.
All I had to do was lift my feet as Babovic guided us down as expertly as I expected. A gentle butt slide into the grass ended the five-minute experience.
I had done it.
My ears were plugged. My body was tingling. My smile wouldn't leave.
My delayed exit caused our plane to go farther north of the drop zone than expected. Because Schultz and Hansen's parachutes aren't as wide as Babovic's, they could not glide as far and ended up landing in a lot in nearby Jefferson.
Neither complained. That is all a part of their sport—making the best of the unexpected.
“It is about venturing out of your comfort zone, experiencing life,” Babovic said. “Experiencing freedom, freedom from fear.”
I haven't been on a ladder since and still likely won't be going off a high dive.
But I did jump from a plane two miles above this sweet earth.
Take that, fear.