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Davis, California

Monday, June 17, 2024

Davis skydivers take the 13,000-foot plunge

Some might call it suicidal and insane. Participants call it “relaxing” and “de-stressing.” It allows you to see the Golden Gate Bridge, Mt. Shasta and Lake Berryessa all in 30 seconds.

The sport is skydiving. Novice and experienced jumpers take the leap from Davis’ only skydiving company, SkyDance SkyDiving, which instructs thousands of students each year, based out of the Yolo County Airport.

Instructors lead first-time students through an hour of instruction before suiting up and getting in the plane. Students can jump alone or with an instructor, and have the option of jumping at 9,000, 13,000 or 18,000 feet, with 30, 60 and 90 seconds of free fall, respectively. The basic tandem jump from 9,000 feet costs $159, while the longest fall from 18,000 feet costs $379, according to SkyDance’s web site.

Jumping out of the plane isn’t as terrifying as it may seem, said SkyDance manager Neal Wathen. After checking the altimeter and deploying the parachute, which either the student or instructor can do, he said it becomes suddenly peaceful and quiet.

Most inexperienced jumpers are nervous before their first time, especially as they sit in the plane anticipating the plunge, Wathen said.

“It’s like you’re on the top of the hill of a rollercoaster about to go down,” Wathen said. “But unlike on a coaster, you’re already going 100 miles per hour.”

Wathen said that experienced skydivers range in skill – some have made 50 jumps while others have made thousands. These jumpers have their own gear and pay only for the $22 plane ride.

The most difficult part of skydiving is exiting the plane, said UC Davis senior international relations major Sean Mula.

“Everything you’ve known your whole life screams at you not to do it,” Mula said.

Julie Zapelli and Debra Ashburn of Sacramento were waiting at SkyDance on April 3 for the winds to die down to less than 25 miles per hour so they could complete their jumps.

Zapelli had jumped once before and Ashburn had never jumped. Both were excited to do so, although Ashburn admitted that the safety video left her “a bit freaked out.” However they both agreed that they were sure it would be fun.

“I’ve never heard of anyone getting to the ground and hating it,” Zapelli said.

Like Zapelli and Ashburn, four SkyDance instructors – Jeffrey Einsohn, Ted Volpendesta, Kevin Anfinson and Kurt Issel – were waiting out the high winds on Sunday morning. Their skydiving experience ranges from two to 20 years. These instructors became interested in skydiving at a young age, often after seeing skydivers on TV.

“I used to send my G.I. Joes flying out of windows as a kid,” Einsohn said.

Wathen jumped for the first time in 1989 with friends and, after becoming hooked, became certified and started spending weekends jumping. In 1996, he took a week off work to set a world record for a “formation” – a free fall in which multiple people grip each other during the descent. He never went back to work and has been working at SkyDance ever since.

Mula was skeptical of the sport at first, and recalled criticizing a friend for participating. However, once he started, he became addicted and couldn’t stop.

“Here I am today front flipping out of airplanes at 13,000 feet and loving it,” Mula said.

A typical day for Mula starts hours before the jump when he monitors the wind and weather and packs his parachute. After boarding the plane, Mula’s excitement becomes overwhelming.

“You fist pound the people around you and wait for the green light,” Mula said. “By this time my heart is racing.”

After exiting the plane – Mula’s favorite method is a front roll – he works on skills such as turns, flips and barrel rolls. At 4,500 feet, the pull sequence begins.

This all may sound terrifying to new jumpers, but experienced jumpers said the sport actually has many safety protocols. Many accidents are due to jumpers taking known and avoidable risks, Mula said.

“Safety is dependent on two things: the drop zone and the skydiver,” he said. “SkyDance takes every measure to be safe, [which] only leaves me [to be safe].”

Mula’s safety procedure includes carefully packing and inspecting his chutes, thinking about emergency procedures before jumping and pulling the parachutes at a higher altitude to allow time to confront any possible problems.

Skydiving gear is considerably safer than it used to be, Wathen said. Jumpers now use square parachutes, which are more reliable than round ones, and are safer for avoiding obstacles and landing. An automatic activation device ensures that the parachute is automatically deployed at 2,000 feet in case the jumper is unable to release the parachute.

Einsohn, Volpendesta, Anfinson and Issel noted that the most significant injury the group had endured was a cracked bone from landing in a gopher hole. They agreed that skydiving is their number one way to forget their worries and focus on the present.

“I do it to shut down my mind,” Volpendesta said.

Mula said that he encourages people to at least try a tandem jump. “You’re going to be scared. I still get scared, but that’s also the reason I keep coming back and the reason you think about doing it.”

KELLY KRAG-ARNOLD can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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