This article first appeared in Parachutist Magazine, September 1995
The 1995 World FreeFall Convention lived up to its name once again this year, drawing jumpers from every corner of the country and the globe (32 countries, to be exact). Over 3,400 jumpers made the pilgrimage to the Convention making over 40,000 skydives: 768 more jumpers and 9,000 more jumps than in 1994! On Wednesday alone, we made 5,785 skydives, and two days we broke 4,800. If Quincy is any indication, we are jumping harder than ever!
Co-organizer Rob Ebbing said the Convention went very well despite the weather. "The most important thing is that we kept on jumping," commented Ebbing during the ten-day event. No fatalities occurred this year and injuries were few and not serious. Don Kirlin said that this year's focus was on safety, and obviously, it worked. "Everyone was skydiving well and flying heads-up under canopy," he said. "We were jumping smart, and we were jumping hard." How hard is hard? During the Convention, Kirlin reported that there were 1.35 take-offs and landings per minute, making Quincy Municipal Airport the second busiest airport in Illinois (falling short of Chicago O'Hare). All will agree, the 1995 World FreeFall Convention was an enormous success; 3,404 skydivers can't be wrong.
What is the key to making this boogie magic? Kirlin claimed the secret was asking skydivers what they want and then spending 11 months accommodating those wishes. This year, skydivers asked for a cash ATM, and conveniently located next to the ticket window, they found one. More vendors set up in '95 than ever before, with eight food services and 34 merchants dealing only in skydiving merchandise. In addition, this year's Convention provided a massage booth, a laundry service, cellular phone rentals, overnight film developing, and electrical hookups. The tent village at Quincy became a 100 percent self-sufficient city that could support thousands of people all day, every day. "The bottom line was to keep people happy and to be user-friendly," said Kirlin. The best way to keep the people happy, however, was to keep them in the air, and Ebbing and Kirlin provided plenty of toys to fill that order. How do they get such great toys? "We spend 11 months shopping," said Kirlin.
When asked about the future of the Convention, Kirlin said he would love to see 10,000 skydivers making over 100,000 jumps. With a consistent 25 percent increase in attendance each year, these numbers may not be so far away. But can "Tent City" handle a population increase of this size? Not a problem according to Kirlin. Next year the World FreeFall Convention has arranged to lease the soy bean field on the far side of the closed runway. Grass is being planted in the spring, and for those who wish to escape the crowds of Tent City-"Tent Suburb" will be available. This new area will be even larger than the current camping area and will help to ease congestion. "I don't operate on limitations," Kirlin said. This attitude, shared by the entire staff of the World FreeFall Convention, is what has taken this boogie to heights not yet surpassed. The 1996 Convention (August 2-11) is already in the making, and by mid-February, the plans will be nearing completion. Kirlin hinted, "If you liked what you saw this year, just wait until next year."
As jumpers and vendors sloshed through the stinky Mississippi mud, they couldn't help but be reminded of the "Floodfest" of 1993. Mother nature made several appearances at this year's boogie, and each jumper took a little piece of her home on shoes or in gear. Several dramatic evening storms toyed with big top festivities. In a storm of biblical proportions (and possibly intentions), the big top tent came crashing down just as the wet T-shirt contest was peaking. Spectators fled the scene as the giant stakes that held the tent up danced around in the 35 mph winds. No one was injured, but the scene was a nasty one. The wet T-shirt contest never resumed.
The storms may have dampened the ground, but they didn't dampen the spirits of the jumpers, nor did they wash out an appetite for jumping. Each day, in spite of the soggy conditions, jumpers took to the skies, and continued a legacy that has drawn skydivers to Quincy from all over the world: There is always a plane; there is always a skydive to be made. The streets of Tent City at Baldwin Field required heavy-duty maintenance as a result of the stormy weather. Road crews from Quincy put down 300 tons of gravel in 48 hours in an effort to create walkable streets. As one skydiver remarked to Kirlin, "In the middle of the World FreeFall Convention, the city of Quincy is building a highway system." Jumpsuits and feet were a little bit muddier than last year, but the spirit of the Convention did not suffer because of it. The conditions in the air dictated the mood on the ground, and the sky, as usual, was great!
The DC-3, the Super Connie, the AmeriJet Boeing 727, five Twin Otters, three CASAs, Mullin's King Air, the Super King Air 200, hot air balloons, biplanes, the helicopter=8Athe list seemed endless. Once again Quincy provided jumpers with a deluxe buffet of jumpships to choose from. Kirlin said there were three "E ticket" rides this year: the jet, the Connie and the helicopter, but none of the planes were ever idle. The lines were a little bit longer this year, and a ten-minute call sometimes turned into twenty, but the efforts of the staff were always 110 percent. The number of skydivers was overwhelming and the job of coordinating them was a big one. So, who kept these planes and jumpers in sync with each other? Four very busy, very effective, very patient women. Nancy Auge, Marta Empinotti, Mary =46arewell and Angie McGreevey sold jump tickets, manifested loads, made calls, took messages, coordinated with pilots, load organizers, etc., and performed a number of other unmentioned duties. Manifest was a constant flurry of anxious skydivers eager to hop on the next available aircraft in the fleet, and the manifestresses worked from sunup to sundown in order to keep the wheels of the Convention turning. These women showed exceptional patience and professionalism in an environment that lent itself to chaos. With so many airplanes and jumpers, the potential for crowded skies seemed high. A load was dropped every three minutes, 14 hours a day, but Convention organizers were ready for this kind of traffic and eliminated potential problems by bringing in a mobile radar unit manned by the Missouri Air National Guard and by requiring all aircraft to spot using GPS. The Convention aircraft have relied heavily on GPS at past boogies, but this year it was required. Pilots also used two different jump runs-one offset a half mile to the left and one offset a half mile to the right. This allowed jumpers to be dropped with one mile of separation and still land on the airport. Bad spots were rare this year, and this meant a quicker turnaround for jumpers.
Believe it or not, some people came to the Convention without a B license-they came with absolutely no jumps at all! Frank Arenas with Freeflight International reported that he had 21 first jump students at Quincy. The program had four graduates: two from the United States, one from Brazil and one from England. Freeflight supervised over 80 student jumps with no injuries-"a great year," said Arenas. Managing instructor of Freeflight, Jim "Gila" Poer, said that the environment at the Convention is quite intense for students, but he praised them for handling it well. He added that although it was a pick-up staff for the Convention, he was very pleased with the teamwork that was a part of this group. Teamwork was necessary because the classroom and the landing area were on opposite ends of the airport and coordination was key to a smooth operation. The biggest hindrance at this year's Convention was the weather, as gear took quite a beating in the swampy student landing area, but the students came out and jumped nonetheless. The number of student jumps at Quincy has doubled each year for the past three: from 20 in 1993, to 40 in 1994, and up to 83 this year. Freeflight should easily break 100 in 1996, and those students from 1995 will certainly be back to join the big crowd next year.
It seemed there was a load for everyone regardless of skill level, discipline or jump number. World Freefall U. was a popular learning spot that specialized in one-on-one training for those not quite ready to take on the trials of bigger loads. Jumpers who participated in this program received personalized coaching, learning skills that will prove invaluable to them in all future jumps. Spencer Stuart of Peach State Skydiving tallied 76 participants and predicted that in the end, more than 100 jumpers would benefit from the coaches at World Freefall U. Stuart said that the average number of jumps for participants was between 100 and 300. They also trained five or six diehards who stuck with the program for the entire week, dramatically improving their flying skills with a single coach.
The free Convention load organizers also catered to the individual needs of novice jumpers, while at the same time arranging more difficult loads for intermediate and advanced skydivers, with formations ranging from eight to 40. Nearly 25 percent of the 40,000 skydives were organized by Convention staffers, and several organizers boasted making 50 or 60 jumps during the week. Jeff McVey, who served his fourth year as a Convention load organizer, said that dividing the loads into proper experience levels resulted in more consistently successful skydives. The load organizing tent provided clipboards for novice, advanced and intermediate levels, and the jumpers signed up on the appropriate load. McVey said that he noticed a higher experience level participating in Convention organizing and attributed this fact to the presence of the big-way attempts. "Buddha" and Gary Peek also worked throughout the year to make Convention load organizing of the highest quality possible.
Color Concepts was also offering various degrees of load organizing. Perhaps the most visible manifestation of their presence was the 100-way jewel attempt. A total of seven attempts were made, with the biggest formation building to 64. George Jicha headed up the organization of this ambitious undertaking. Michael Hoogsteden of Skydive City praised the experience for its "positive vibes and good energy." Although the formation was never completed, the experience proved invaluable. Success often lies far beyond completion. Complete with loaner ear muffs, the Muff Brothers also returned and were busy organizing loads, as were the Skydive City organizers. The Convention provided for nearly every experience level, and finding a good load was as easy as signing your name to a list.
If you were not in the mood for organized loads and formation skydiving, there were other options for those who wanted a taste of something new. Sit flying made quite an impression on many at the Convention this year. While it was present in 1994, 1995 witnessed an explosion of interest in this new technique (also called "chute assis"). Air Time Designs brought nearly 50 demo sit flying suits that always seemed to be in the air. It was hard to find a load that didn't have a pair of sit flyers hopping out ahead of the others. A seminar and one-on-one coaching were available to introduce novices to sit flying.
You could also try your hand (or perhaps your feet) at skysurfing. Coaching and board rentals were offered for $50. And Scotty Carbone's ever-popular lingerie jumps drew enormous attention, as did sporadic naked jet jumps. It seems that almost anything goes at this, the world's largest boogie.
The Convention offered a mode of flight for every taste. Once again, the Boeing 727 cargo jet delivered more than its worth in excitement. Although its Wednesday arrival time was delayed by thunderstorms, its appearance on Thursday morning had its usual flare. The AmeriJet plane flew a total of nine loads, dumping out more than 1,600 jumpers. The enthusiasm for this jumpship never seems to tire; the second jump pumps as much adrenaline as the first. The "Jet! Jet! Jet!" chant could be heard on every load, and the five minute ride to altitude and subsequent mass exodus from the rear air stairs culminated in a thrilling ride and a great story. The hot jet blast seemed to hit jumpers like an explosion as they raced out of the narrow tailgate in a single-file line, and the sight of that enormous 727 as they fell away sent chills through everybody.
At the other end of the spectrum, but no less thrilling, flew the hot air balloons. With an exit speed of close to zero (compared to the jet's 150-plus mph jump run), the balloon offered a tranquil mode of transportation from which to observe the Illinois countryside. There were 59 balloon loads that held eight jumpers each; loads flew at sunrise and sunset. Jumpers landed wherever the balloons took them, but the Illinois landscape offered plenty of suitable landing areas, with field after field of soy and corn. Marginal weather postponed several balloon jumps; however, near the end of the week, organizers began to schedule two additional loads per day in order to give as many jumpers as possible the chance to make this unique jump.
The balloon exit is like no other: no sound, no wind. All you hear is the pilot wishing you well, or your friends whooping and hollering as you inevitably reach terminal velocity, or maybe just the sound of your own heart pounding in your chest. At first, there is no wind to muffle these sounds, but after just a few seconds, it is the air you have always known. Between the roar of the jet and the stillness of the balloon jump, Conventioneers could experience the thrill of a helicopter jump. The Bell 412 that flew all the way from St. Thomas solely for the Convention had two jet engines and four rotor blades and is the only helicopter of this type used for skydiving. The chopper flew 233 loads of 12 jumpers each-quite an impressive number compared to last year's 40 loads of six jumpers each. This chopper brought many jumpers back for seconds during the Convention. The ride to altitude rivaled the thrill of the actual jump as jumpers dangled their legs over the edge during the sensational take-off. Chunks of earth dropped from sandals as the helicopter lifted jumpers into the air. The skids seemed to race just above the tops of the soy as the pilots pulled the chopper up in scarcely enough time to avoid the tree line (or so it seemed). The climb to altitude offered a view of the Convention happenings that you could not get anywhere else. The gaping doors served as platforms from which to watch all of the business in the air and escape the mud on the ground. The exit, whether you just rolled forward or fell out backward, left most without the words to describe the sensation and eager to purchase another ticket. Only at the Convention could we live like this.
Leaving the World FreeFall Convention is a strange and disorienting experience. During the entire week, the only news from the outside world that infiltrated the walls of the Convention was the death of Jerry Garcia. Other than this piece of sad news, 3,400 skydivers lived ignorantly of "worldly" bothers.
Quincy is a chance for most of us to live the life we all dream of: a life of skydiving every day out of countless airplanes. But as with most dreams, we wake up. And then we must strike our tents, hitch up our trailers, pack away our boogie shoes and begin the long drive home-and the longer wait until next year. May it be a quick and safe one.
Emily Bump, C-24036, works as USPA's assistant in the Safety and Training department, and she makes her debut in Parachutist with this report on the Convention. Bump has a degree in English from James Madison University and runs the weekend manifest at Skydive Orange in central Virginia.
This article reprinted Courtesy of USPA/Parachutist Magazine.