Sky High

Published 11:59 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Flicking her pen in between her fingers, Shannon Kirkpatrick was on a recruiting mission.

The young woman kept shifting in her seat as she sat across a table from her mom, Karen.

“Mom, come on, you can do it with me.”

“No, no, no. I have a little bit of living left to do.”

“Oh, and I don’t?” Shannon replied.

She fidgets in her chair once more, this time turning completely to the side.

“She’s just chicken,” Shannon said.

To be fair, Karen did have reason to “be chicken.” Shannon was signing the last of her release papers to go on her very first skydive.

Sitting in the office for Skydive Suffolk, which is located in the back of the Suffolk Airport off Carolina Road, Shannon had seen an introductory video detailing skydiving risks, had a training session with a tandem jump instructor and was now signing the last form acknowledging the potential harm that could occur from jumping out of a plane.

At the bottom of her last form, Shannon needed a witness’s signature.

Her mom agreed to sign it.

“I just signed my daughter’s life away, I guess,” Karen said.

Shannon rolled her eyes, and walked out of the office to watch as a group of skydivers were making their way to the drop zone. The brightly colored parachutes were so high in the sky they looked more like exotic birds flying through the clouds than grown men and women taking one of life’s biggest adventures.

“You know,” Shannon said, “you only live once.”

If there ever were a motto for the group of men and women working at Skydive Suffolk, that would be it.

“It’s the fastest game in town,” Larry Pennington, owner of Skydive Suffolk, said. “It’s a fun, clean, drug-free adrenaline rush. I like to introduce people to the sport because it’s a good, healthy rush.”

Pennington took over the business in 1983, but he said skydiving has long been a part of Suffolk’s history.

Skydivers have been jumping into the Suffolk Airport fields since the 1960s.

Pennington himself took his first jump in 1976.

“I was scared to death,” he said. “I was absolutely terrified. It’s scary, but it’s thrilling.”

Since that first skydive, Pennington has taken more than 9,800 jumps. He even was responsible for training former President George H. Bush for his skydives in the late 1990s.

Pennington also has grown the Skydive Suffolk business from the small thrill-seekers’ excursion to the massive undertaking it is. When Pennington took over Skydive Suffolk, the business would average about 20 jumps a day.

Today, it averages between 300 and 400.

“It’s as big now as it’s ever been,” Pennington said.

On a Saturday morning in August, Shannon Kirkpatrick was one of the jumpers getting ready.

Following all of the safety protocol and training steps, she would wait along with three other fellow jumpers for the Skydive Suffolk plane (a PAC750, which is the first plane ever built specifically for skydiving. “It’s probably the best machine for the job,” Pennington said to pick them up.

Once the plane pulls up, the novice skydivers, along with their tandem partners, take to the skies.

The PAC750 can carry up to 15 passengers more than 13,500 feet in the air in less than 10 minutes. While in flight, jumpers get their last minute instructions/reminders from their tandem partners.

They also receive their last minute hazing.

As the jumpers fight their nerves, anxiety and racing heartbeats, they look to their jumping partners and see them reading copies of “Skydiving For Dummies” or pretending to have a missing latch on their harness.

But once Shannon and the rest of her jumpmates get to the 14,000-foot mark, it will be all business.

“We treat every jump like it’s our first jump,” Pennington said. “There is no jump so important that it can’t wait.” In fact, in the more than 25 years Pennington has owned Skydive Suffolk, there has not been a major injury or death for student or tandem jumpers.

Inch by inch, jumpers scoot their way toward the now wide-open side door of the plane. They slide their legs through the open hole, look down and see nothing, no trees, identifiable bodies of water or building tops; nothing but oceans of blue below them with the occasional white glob of clouds.

Leaning back into their instructor, jumpers flip backward out of the plane until they find themselves horizontally parallel with the clouds. Winds rush against every inch of their bodies as they shoot from the sky at about 120 miles per hour. Time, however, is of no consequence, because after seemingly an instant of velocity, the parachute opens, tugging both jumper and instructor back into the clouds only to gently glide their way back down.

“You feel alive,” Pennington said.

The average jump at Skydive Suffolk will give jumpers roughly 60 seconds of freefall, and then another four and a half to five minutes sailing through the skies after the parachute opens.

During the descent, downtown Suffolk is more and more visible – and jumpers can make out roadways, parks and even some businesses.

Almost as soon as the jump begins, skydivers are back on the ground, with an exhilarated exhaustion that comes only by knowing one has just cheated death.

“Skydiving was amazing, breathtaking really,” Kirkpatrick said. “It was really like nothing else I have ever done in my life. I am really addicted. I plan on doing it again real soon.”

After close to three decades in the skydiving business, Pennington said each jump is as exciting and terrifying as his last – and each jumper feels the same way.

Through the years, Pennington said, he has seen everything from birthday and anniversary celebrations to bachelor and bachelorette parties take to the skies.

While he can recall many of his jumpers, one, in particular, he’ll never forget.

One day, a man called Pennington asking if would take a quadriplegic skydiving. Pennington said he initially shot down the idea, until he heard from the man himself.

“He had just about come to the end of finding a reason to live.” Pennington said. “Everywhere else he went had turned him down. Finally, I said, ‘If you’ve got enough to go, I’ve got enough to take you.’”

It took Pennington and his staff’s extra hands and creative thinking to get the man in his harness, but they finally got him up in the air and let him fly.

“Out of all of my jumps, that has to be a favorite,” Pennington said. “You could see how happy he was just by looking at his face when we got on the ground.”

And that’s a feeling Pennington and his staff know well.

“There’s nothing like it,” Pennington said. “And if it quits being exciting, well, I’ll probably be dead.” ←