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‘Nothing Like it’: Skydiving in Northern Illinois

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Who jumps out of a perfectly good airplane from 18,000 feet in the air? The crew at Chicago Skydiving Center can’t resist the thrill of this adventurous, crazy sport – and they take pleasure in sharing the experience with other brave souls.

Skydives at Chicagoland Skydiving Center are performed with an instructor for safety purposes. Before your parachute opens, you’re likely cruising at about 120 mph. (Chicagoland Skydiving Center photo)

Becky Johns thinks skydiving isn’t nearly as scary as it sounds. After more than 800 jumps, she finds it rewarding.

“You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone, sometimes, to experience some pretty amazing things,” says Johns. “The sense of accomplishment that you feel when you land is pretty awesome. There’s nothing like it.”

Johns is a skydiving instructor and marketing director for the Chicagoland Skydiving Center (CSC), in Rochelle, an organization that has, since 1968, introduced more than 400,000 people to the sport of skydiving.

Boasting a friendly staff, modern facilities and equipment, and multiple turbine aircrafts, CSC has everything needed to safely jump out of an airplane from nearly 18,000 feet in the sky.

“The confidence you get is really fulfilling,” Johns says. “If you can jump out of an airplane, what else in life is really going to give you too much of a challenge? This gives you the opportunity to tackle something crazy and fun.”

The facility has a perfect safety rating, meaning there have been no fatal accidents in its history.

“We are proud of having a perfect safety record here, and not many people can say that,” Johns says. “Safety is something you can never guarantee, but we run our operation to reduce the risk as much as possible. The same goes with driving your car. It depends on how you use it.”

Skydiving is the main attraction at CSC, but there’s much more to enjoy here, such as a banquet space for weddings and other private events, a sand volleyball court, bonfire pits and The Flight Deck Bar & Grill, a bar and restaurant with an outdoor patio that offers drop-zone views.

Jumps may occur from April through October, but The Flight Deck is open year-round and can host and cater events for up to 500 people. It includes an open-concept kitchen, outdoor beer garden and dining patio.

“This is an entertainment facility that features skydiving,” Johns says. “Whether you’re jumping out of a plane, having something to eat or just hanging out to watch, this is a place to be entertained. People come here over the summer just to watch the skydivers. It’s all about fun.”

It’s easy to feel as if you’re at a party. Music blares through the loudspeakers, even in the parking lot. Planes buzz overhead and parachutes fill the sky with color. You can smell the food coming off the grill at The Flight Deck. And, if you strain a little harder, you might smell the fear coming from the latest group of jumpers.

Every few minutes, a voice shouts over the loudspeakers, “Jumpers away,” and that’s when you know some brave individuals are leaving an aircraft almost three miles overhead.

Between the pre-jump training and preparation, the actual jump and descent, and a bite to eat afterward, most people end up spending about half of their day here, Johns says.

In 2011, the company moved its digs from Hinckley, 15 miles southeast of DeKalb, to the Rochelle Municipal Airport, a location about 80 miles west of Chicago along Interstate 88 and Illinois Route 251.

“A lot of the stuff we have out here now, we didn’t have in Hinckley,” Johns says, as skydivers touch down behind her. “We just had a grass strip runway, a little bit of hanger space, and a little landing area cut out of the corn. Moving to Rochelle really changed the scale of what we were doing, and it allowed us to take things to the next level.”

Skydiving has come a long way since Frenchman Andre-Jacque Garnerin jumped out of a hot air balloon in 1797. A common means of troop delivery in World War II, skydiving became a popular leisure activity and recognized sport after the war, as many former soldiers began participating on their own using military surplus gear and joining in competitions.

Naturally, the increased attention to the sport has led to new developments in parachute technology. Today’s divers have automatic activation devices, digital altimeters and other high-tech features that have led to increased safety in the sport. And, new innovations in design have improved upon the old, round parachutes, which tended to fall straight down and offered limited control.

“Today, the parachutes are more rectangular in shape, pressurized into the shape of an airfoil and they are more sporty to fly,” Johns says. “Over the past 40 or 50 years, the gear developed as the sport developed.”

Modern skydivers can control their direction and rate of descent, allowing them to glide much further across the ground and nail a more accurate landing.

“Once people started to think about skydiving as a sport application, instead of a military application, companies started to create user-friendly gear,” Johns says. “The gear evolved over time because it was less about jumping down into a field military-style and more about truly flying and enjoying the ride.”

First-time skydivers make jumps called tandems, meaning they are using a system designed for two people, and they’ll remain connected to their instructor for the entire jump. It’s the safest way to introduce people to the sport.

In order to skydive at CSC, you must be at least 18 years old and weigh no more than 240 pounds – the maximum weight at which this equipment functions properly. Everyone is weighed before jumping.

“That weight requirement helps ensure proper fit of the harness, since it’s an adjustable system,” Johns says. “The student plus the instructor’s weight have to be taken into account.”

Before they’re airbound, jumpers get a briefing on what to expect, sign waivers and go through a brief orientation. They’re then geared up with a jumpsuit, harness, altimeter and goggles.

“We try to give enough training so the guest knows what to expect,” Johns says. “This is such an unfamiliar concept. Our job is to answer questions and train the jumpers on what they need to know before we take them on the skydive.”

CSC jumpers are equipped with a main parachute and a reserve, all packed by trained professionals who inspect the gear before every jump. The instructor also inspects the gear. All CSC equipment is maintained by a master parachute rigger.

Once training is complete, the tandem passenger and instructor board the plane together. It’s about a 15-minute plane ride before the team reaches altitude. Then, it’s time to experience the world in a whole new way.

There comes a point where people usually transition from fear to excitement.

“It’s our job to help them make that switch,” Johns says. “Naturally, there’s an anxiety about the idea of jumping out of an airplane, because that’s not a natural human thing to do. Most people land and feel exhilarated, and they feel accomplished because they overcame their fears and they’ve gotten over that one thing they didn’t think they could do.”

Feeling afraid in those final moments is perfectly normal, says Johns.

“When we open the door to the aircraft and the cold air hits them, most people haven’t been in that situation before, and that could be a very intense moment,” she adds. “So, the instructors tell them to relax, and if they get to the door and need to take a second, that’s fine. The instructor is there to calm them down and remind them to take deep breaths.”

To help cut the tension, instructors may offer a little humor.

“There are some pretty lame jokes happening on the airplane, but the guests love them because they need a laugh when they’re nervous,” Johns says with a giggle. “It also depends on the person, but this method usually works.”

Once you jump, you’ll experience between 30 and 90 seconds of free fall – depending on exit altitudes. At a standard altitude of 14,000 feet, jumpers will experience about 60 seconds of free fall, cruising at roughly 120 miles per hour, Johns says.

It’s too loud to carry on a conversation in free fall, but you don’t need earplugs.

“It kind of feels and sounds like you’re sticking your head out of a car window on a highway,” Johns says with a laugh.

Once that parachute opens, it’s pretty peaceful. You’ll be able to speak in a normal voice with your instructor.

From the moment you leave the plane to the moment you land the patachute on the ground is about 20 to 25 minutes.

When you get home, if your friends or family don’t believe what you’ve accomplished, you can show them your certificate of completion, which every jumper receives after landing.

To help guests relax afterward, all jumpers are treated to a complimentary beer at The Flight Deck.

“They usually stick around and soak up the adrenaline they still have going,” Johns says. “Either people land and they can’t believe what they just did – and they’ll never do it again – or they’re hooked and they can’t wait for their next jump.”

Those who truly enjoy the experience can return to partake in CSC’s Freefall University Skydiving School, a series of programs designed to take jumpers from their first tandem jump to a licensed skydiver capable of solo jumping anywhere in the world.

“During the training program, you have to demonstrate altitude awareness, learn freefall skills, flying a proper parachute landing pattern and other skills before you can jump on your own,” Johns says. “Each jump, you have to demonstrate a new skill to your instructor.”

The training program is a 25-jump comprehensive package, through which you can receive a United States Parachute Association “A” license. CSC is an official USPA Training Center and Group Member drop zone.

“Getting that ‘A’ license is like getting your driver’s license,” Johns says. “You can go to any drop zone in the world with that ‘A’ license.”

The program also includes training tandems, ground school, Accelerated Freefall training, coaching, solo jumps, parachute packing lessons and optional indoor skydiving training.

“Our solo jumpers are licensed from all over the world,” Johns says.

The CSC is also home to the 2018 USPA National Skydiving Championships, a huge honor. Skydivers from all over the country will come to Rochelle to compete for the title of national champion in various skydiving disciplines.

If you’re interested in jumping, but are nervous, Johns suggests bringing a friend or family member with you. They don’t have to jump, but having their support is important, she says.

“Having someone you know who is on the ground, waiting for you, is huge,” she says.

Johns says she has skydived hundreds of times, both on her own and with students. She doesn’t think it ever gets old.

“Every jump is different, and I enjoy each and every one,” she says. “It’s incomparable to anything else. You have to just do it to really feel true freedom. I honestly believe it’s the greatest experience on earth.”

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