Decades ago, a representative from Skydive Toledo visited The Chronicle’s newsroom one afternoon and told me, “We want to take a reporter skydiving.”
I glanced around the empty newsroom. Terror struck my heart. At 25, I’d never even flown in an airplane; no way was I going to jump out of one.
“I’m sure somebody would love to do it,” I said. “But not me.”
Fast forward to Saturday, when I finally ventured to Skydive Toledo’s three-bay hangar less than two miles from my home, to watch our 18-year-old grandson, Colton Graham, and his buddy, Noah Mattison, plunge from the skies after graduating from Woodland High School.
Why do you want to do it? I asked Colton.
“The adventure of it,” Noah said.
Like many Washington businesses, Skydive Toledo, which closed for the weather in November, remained shuttered in March for the first time ever during the coronavirus pandemic, so its contract skydivers ventured south to California and Arizona for work.
Colton dove in tandem from the leased twin-engine King Air plane with Tyler Gammel, a 2003 Toledo High School graduate. He is one of Skydive Toledo’s three full-time contract instructors.
“We were the first ones in Washington to open up simply because we’re far enough away from everybody,” said Gammel, a Vader native who never knew Skydive Toledo existed before he started working there seven years ago. The business takes anywhere from hundreds to thousands of skydivers up each year, depending on the weather. Most are tandem jumps, which cost $220.
Within 10 minutes, the leased plane can take 13 people up to 14,500 feet, about 2½ miles aboveground. The first minute they free-fall from the plane, plunging toward earth at 120 to 140 miles per hour. Then they deploy the parachute. Gammel said the trip down can take a couple of minutes or longer.
“The more you play, the quicker you come down,” he said.
They hire a full-time pilot, Paul Anderson. People can ride on the plane as observers for $50, which Gammel said can be scarier than skydiving as he returns to the airport after the drop.
“He basically just noses down and goes straight down,” Gammel said.
Most of the skydivers do tandem jumps with instructors, but Skydive Toledo offers a Sunday morning Accelerated Freefall Skydive Training Course — five hours of instruction that culminates in a jump — for $314. After the training, skydivers can jump alone, although Skydive Toledo keeps two trainers in the air in radio contact with the jumpers.
“They make sure that you deploy your parachute on time, but you’re pretty much on your own,” owner Heather Whittaker said.
“People who do a tandem first have a way better success rate,” Gammel said.
Skydivers must be at least 18. They sign a release of liability beforehand, accepting all responsibility for any injuries. Nobody would ever insure a drop zone, Whittaker said, but she said they’ve had few accidents “mostly because we’re so safety-oriented.”
Gammel wore a camera on his wrist to videotape Colton during the jump. Watching Colton’s face contort on the video while gripped by wind and crosscurrents as he dropped from the plane, I thought he was going to vomit. I screamed when he disappeared from view in clouds as the parachute deployed and shifted him skyward.
Skydivers start with bellies facing the ground to find the field and land either standing or sliding on their bottoms.
Michael Martin, a parachutist, opened a drop zone in Kelso in 1972 and moved the operation north to Toledo a few years later. His son, Brett, operated it for a while and then Michael Gauger. In October 2011, it was purchased by Whittaker, a longtime Cowlitz County schoolteacher and Kelso High School graduate. She started jumping in the early 2000s and worked for Skydive Toledo a decade before purchasing the business, which owns two smaller planes. Her 16-year-old daughter, Samantha, is the granddaughter of founder Michael Martin and one of two teenage girls who work as independent contractors, earning $10 for every tandem parachute they fold. Over the Fourth of July weekend, one folded 40 or 50 parachutes. It’s a great summer job for teenagers, she said. Instructors are paid $40 per jump; if they do camera work, they earn another $30.
Whittaker, whose husband, Martin “Hoot” Stull, passed away in 2016, has done about a thousand jumps in the past two decades. She recommended we lie on the grass and stare into the sky to see the plane and the jumpers.
Jeff Peterson of Toledo, who with 4,300-plus jumps has worked for Skydive Toledo about six years, said they’re open most days.
“It is picking up now after the COVID,” he said.
Whittaker described herself as an unemployed teacher, even though she runs the business.
“I don’t think of this as employment because all the money that’s made goes back into the business itself,” she said. “So the only way I make money is when I go out and teach.”
Skydiving can change a person’s outlook, she said.
“People come down and say they’ve completely changed the way they think about things,” Whittaker said. “When you live in the moment like that, and you can’t think about anything else, it just bring over this euphoria — this bliss.
“When you’re being a meat missile and you’re coming in, you know it really puts things into perspective.”
In August 1982, a 32-year-old veteran skydiver with more than 1,600 jumps, George Gompertz of Seattle, was killed when his main parachute failed to open after he jumped from a DC-3 over the airport. Others have broken arms or legs. One woman broke her back on a solo jump.
Whittaker landed one time in the St. Francis Xavier Mission’s cemetery a mile or so from the airport off Spencer Road.
“I ended up being a big X lying in the cemetery,” she said. “That was awful.”
After Colton jumped, Gammel pointed out Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens in the mostly blue skies before they dropped into murky gray clouds starting at about 7,500 feet. He showed Colton how to pull one way or the other to spin in the air.
“When I landed, my legs were kind of like blue from cold,” Colton said. He jumped to his feet and gave Gammel a brief hug.
When we congregated afterward at our house, Colton’s ears hurt because they hadn’t popped. He yawned and heard a sizzle. He felt sick.
“But I think that was just from nerves.”
We offered him pizza; instead, he collapsed on the couch for an hour-long nap.
Would he do it again?
“Yeah, I would know what to expect this time,” he said.
As for Noah?
Once was enough.