Imagine jumping from an airplane 14,000 feet in the air and traveling at 80 miles per hour. For some, it’s what nightmares are made of. For others, it’s a life-changing moment — something to rejoice in after a personal trauma or to celebrate a commemorative event — a literal plunge into the next chapter of their lives.
Skydiving has grown in popularity over the years. In 2019, the United States Parachute Association reached more than 40,000 members, its highest membership ever. While the need for speed or risk-taking may seem to be what is calling more people to skydive, their motivation may actually be the opposite: the desire to be unplugged, the quiet and peace of the freefall, and the accomplishment of facing one’s fears. To be sure, that first jump is scary, no matter how brave or seemingly prepared one feels. But that one tentative step out into the firmament can suddenly turn fear to joy and adulation.
For Kelly Turbeville, a competitive skydiver who lives in Columbia, the desire to skydive all started with tiny Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story. “My mom said I was obsessed with him,” Kelly says with a laugh. In 2013, when Kelly turned 18, her mother, Mary, bought a tandem skydiving package for Kelly and her sister, Shannon. Kelly was hooked after that first jump. Shannon loved it, too, but not as much as Kelly.
In a tandem jump, a beginner skydiver is attached to an experienced instructor by a harness with four connection points. After reaching the desired altitude, the two exit the plane as a pair. The instructor helps the skydiver achieve the appropriate jump position and handles pulling the cord. The beginner simply takes in the view.
After her first jump, Kelly received two more tandem jumps as gifts. She then put her jumping on hold as she left for college. “I didn’t want to commit to it quite yet because I wanted to focus on college. I also knew it would be an investment in both time and money that would require an income to handle it,” she says. “When I got out of college, I got my skydiving license.”
As Kelly continued skydiving, she began to watch teams at her drop zone competing in different disciplines. “It looked fun, and I thought it would be a good way to gain more knowledge and grow in the sport,” says Kelly. “You can go every weekend and make a jump or change it up. If you’re training with a team, you’re doing something different every time.”
Kelly and three other women, Emily Weeks, Erika Schneid, and Jamie Caldwell, created a team and just this past year began competing together. After only 30 training jumps, which is considered quite low, her team, the Carolina Bootie Babes XP, placed 22nd out of 30 teams nationally. Beginning in April, Kelly’s team again started their active training season. They will train about two full weekends a month, with one weekend consisting of 10 training jumps, five on each day.
Skydiving offers many different disciplines, including belly flying, freeflying, angel flying, wingsuiting, and swooping. Kelly and her team compete in four-way formation skydiving, or belly flying, in which the four fly belly to earth in formation. During the competition, the team builds as many formations as possible in a specified time period; for four-way, the time period is typically 35 seconds. Points are earned based on specific formations and other techniques. Four-way skydiving requires five skydivers, the videographer being the fifth. After filming the formations, the videographer gives the video to the judges to view for evaluation and scoring. In most cases, the teams are performing eight to 10 jumps during a competition, with the videographer filming each one and providing all footage to the judges. “The performance starts as soon you leave the plane,” says Kelly. “You turn points as fast as you can.”
Of course, becoming a competitive, or even an expert, skydiver takes time, commitment, and an initial monetary investment. The road to expert begins with the first plunge. And while one may assume the jump will evoke the feeling of a dropping stomach, skydiving does not deliver that same sensation.
“If you picture a roller coaster, you slowly make your way to the top, stop, and then accelerate. That’s where the stomach gets the falling feeling,” says Ryan “Shaggio” Levesque of Skydive Carolina, which is located in Chester and is one of the predominant jump zones in South Carolina. “Because you are leaving from a moving object when you’re skydiving, you don’t get that dropping feeling. You’re jumping from an airplane that is moving 80 miles per hour. Your body is speeding through the air at about 120 miles per hour, so there is only a 40-mile-per-hour difference between the speed of the airplane and the speed of your body in freefall.”
For Shaggio, like Kelly, he was hooked after only one tandem dive in 2001. Today, he participates in more advanced jumping, which involves flying in large formations, flying head down, and flying feet first. These jumps are not for the faint of heart and take much practice, precision, and resolve.
But first things first: the tandem jump. Getting started is as easy as picking up the phone and inquiring about a jump. For those who are apprehensive but feel the calling, Shaggio recommends they go to a drop zone, talk to those who jump, and watch them make their jumps. Seeing the skydivers board the plane; deploy at 5,000 feet; pull the cord at around 3,500 feet; and come in to land is exciting for the spectators as well as the divers.
After about 30 minutes of training, newcomers can sign up to experience a tandem freefall of their own. The first discussion point is safety, which is tantamount in skydiving. Understanding the procedures, the gear, and the rules is critical. “Safety is definitely one of the first, and most important, points they teach you,” says Kelly. “You are constantly checking your gear and everyone else’s gear.” Never has the buddy system been so important.
First-time tandem jumpers are taught to assume the freefall arch, putting their body in a position that resembles a banana. While not a requirement, this position allows the body to be more aerodynamic. During the jump, instructors are charged with helping to control the experience for the skydiver, making it more enjoyable and less stress-inducing. With practice, even the smallest of movements will change the dive. One drop of the knee or a little hand movement can create a spin. “You never know what one movement will make your body do in the sky,” says Kelly. “But believe it or not, skydiving is a pretty natural sensation, almost like swimming.”
The demographics of skydivers are as large and vast as the sky in which they jump. The only stipulation for skydiving is a minimum age of 18 and a weight limit of 225 pounds. Between tandem jumps, students, and experienced divers, Skydive Carolina organizes 30,000 jumps a year, underscoring the growing popularity of the sport. With multiple 22-seat airplanes in use at Skydive Carolina and jumps held throughout the year, skydiving is a year-round sport. And while initial start-up costs are required to purchase gear and undergo extensive training, a jump for an experienced skydiver costs only about $28 — less than a round of golf. A tandem skydive runs around $200, for which Skydive Carolina provides all of the gear that is needed for the jump. All the skydiver needs to do is show up, get strapped in, and enjoy the experience. Once the skydivers make the jump out of the plane and enter the airspace, they will experience about 50 to 60 seconds of freefall. After the parachute, or canopy, is deployed, the ride to the ground lasts an exhilarating 4 to 5 minutes.
“When you jump, the ground doesn’t rush up at you, so rather than stare at the ground, I tell people to look at the horizon. The nice views are in front of you; nothing is happening below. The sites are as far as you can see. Just enjoy your surroundings,” says Shaggio. “We are taught to believe this is a dangerous thing that is crazy for people to do, but it’s more accessible than you might think. Getting yourself over that mindset is one of the most enlightening experiences a person can have. Once they are out the door, you can see the transformation on their face.”
For Kelly, it is the feeling of pure happiness that keeps her coming back. “Even if I have a bad jump, it makes me happy,” she says. “I will come down after a bad jump and commiserate with the other divers. A bad jump just means we didn’t do all our formations, messed a point up. The skydiving community is like a giant family. And when we have a great jump, where everyone is smiling, we get points, the jump goes as planned, or we simply share a goofy face in the air, that’s when it’s just perfect.”
For whatever the motivation — sadness, jubilation, fear, or celebration — with this sport, the sky truly is the limit.