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|Mullins' King Air Boogie|
by rita - email@example.com
Photos by Ben Barton - firstname.lastname@example.org
The sun rising over a wide open field. Blades of grass blowing softly in a gentle breeze. That sweet smell of freshly plowed field. Dampness of the morning dew signaling a new day filled with unlimited possibilities. Laughter, exchanged greetings, "Did you sleep well?" waft through the morning air as people make their way to the showers stumbling with sleep-filled eyes. I'm scrounging for a cup of coffee knocking on trailer doors. "Anyone got a cup of java for a sleep-starved woman?
Off in the distance, the sound of an aircraft can be heard taxiing out of the hanger. I smell that gawdawful smell, the one others love, but it makes me sick: fueling the plane for that first load that will depart in but a few minutes. Manifest calls out names, "Only three more slots available". Most of us are much too slow this morning to even contemplate the wind dummy load. These are but a few snippets, a DZ as it awakens to a new day. One that, at least at the outset, promises to be a full one with loads flying constantly.
This is West Tennessee Skydiving located out in the sticks. A long ride down an endless dirt road that takes you from nothingness to paradise in eleven miles flat. Trailers and campers are parked here and there. People know how to make themselves at home here. You can tell they've staked out their territory many moons ago and turned that little spot of paradise into their home away from home which they've used weekend after weekend for a long time now.
The people out this way are friendly. Like many skydivers, they may have never laid eyes on you, but that doesn't matter. The hug, the greeting--all is just as friendly as if you were their best friend or someone they've known for years.
There's an environment here but I can't quite put my finger on it. It's a lot like the DZs I've always been partial too. The smaller places. The spots that rise up from the overgrown weeds. The places where people become family, and maybe they don't have a fleet of turbine aircraft at their disposal seven days a week, but that Cessna can sure be a fun place on a slow weekend.
The weekend I spent at West Tennessee was anything but slow, but it was probably not quite as "happening" as it could have been if the weather had cooperated a bit more. Dreary weather on Saturday and a doom-filled forecast for the weekend probably scared a lot of folks away or made them hesitant to make the long drive south. But that probably made the boogie even better, more enjoyable for the folks who did brave the trip.
The Mullins clan run a first-rate operation there. Poppa Mike flies that King Air like there's no tomorrow and fills in at manifest in between loads. Getting tandems registered, ensuring students have a jumpmaster to take them on that next AFF dive, keeping the upjumpers happy--it can't be easy! But somehow, through a system he's probably honed over the course of many years, he manages it. Then there's Andrea, his wife. She rules the manifest with an iron glove. Keeping details straight, managing the finances, taking in the cash, yelling at Mike because he put the twenties where the tens were supposed to go--keeping the myriad amount of little details straight. Details that may not seem important to most of us, but that can be critical to keeping a dz above water, and simply paying the bills. In between all that, she's keeping an eye on the kids, her own two-year-old in addition to the broods of many others. I don't know how she does it, but she does, and keeps a sweet disposition all the while.
The packing room was full with people rushing for the next load. Reve' Smith from Ohio makes a neatly hand-lettered sign, "Packer Available", and stakes out her turf. It's not long before she's got several clients. There's too much going on to pack--they'd rather just let her do it.
Over on a tarp behind a row of trailers, I'm kneeling on the ground watching Larry Contrell busily at his rigging chores. Not only does he have mains to pack and jumpers to keep in the air, but there's been a cutaway this morning. He's got to get the reserve repacked and the jumper back in the air. This was the first time I'd ever watched this process and I was amazed. This is not a time to be asking questions! Just watch! You can see his concentration and questions wouldn't be appreciated right now, nor should they be. "I make a guarantee to all my customers," Larry explains. Any one of my pack jobs that malfunctions, and I'll either repack the reserve for nothing, or pay the customer's rigger to repack it. I take pride in my work, and it shows." His words weren't necessary to prove that. Simply seeing is believing. "Further, I tell my clients that I will gladly jump any reserve I pack, with no other rig in the container. That's how confident I am of my reserve repacks." He's had a couple of people take him up on that guarantee in year's past, and he's put his money where his mouth is. Talk about confidence in one's work! Talk about balls!
Ben Barton is organizing a 4-way drill dive for Reve'. She's only got 60-some jumps and hasn't been in the air for a month or so. She didn't come to this boogie to mega jump but just to get in some packing practice and catch up with friends from the rec.skydiving boogie a few months' past. Dirt-diving a simple 4-way, I can see that Ben and his group have already put Reve', who is somewhat the nervous type, at ease. She's really looking forward to this skydive and it shows. Her anticipation turns to pure exuberance a short time later as she walks back to the hanger laughing and regaling us with stories of new abilities discovered. "They let me go, and I didn't go anywhere--just hung in place", she said with laughter and an ear-to-ear grin. Oh, God, shit like this makes me look oh so forward to the day when I can get back into the air! This sport is incredible!
James and Charm have arrived and I quickly hook James up with Ben. Within minutes he's set to do a 4-way with a group Ben has put together. A bit more intricate this one will be as they set to work dirt-diving the planned formations. Charm and I settle in to watch.
A couple of hours later, the winds are getting "funky." Only the confident are jumping now. The gusts are well over 22 miles an hour. Students have long ago been grounded, and low timers like Reve' have grounded themselves. Shortly thereafter, all but the most experienced are opting to stay on the ground--especially after one "funky" landing where a canopy collapsed and dumped it's pilot about ten feet. That one resulted in an ambulance ride, but luckily no serious injuries.
"I'm getting bored," I tell Charm a couple of hours later. "It's time for a bit of excitement." Not about to chance a tandem in these gusty winds, I decide on an observer ride. "Let's see if Mike Mullins gives the wild rides everyone claims," I mumble to Charm. Frankly, I thought he was probably over-rated, but then I've always been a wild one!
Thirty minutes later I stumble back to the hangar--hair splayed out all over and blubbering. "What the hell happened to you?" asked Charm.
"Jesus H. Christ! ... I need a cigarette!" I plop down on the bench and immediately light up. "That was f*cking incredible!" Two minutes--so help me Christ--two minutes from 14,500 feet to ground zero! We were practically "head down" for that entire time. God, I love this!
Quickly, I'm back at manifest. "You got a spare slot for an observer?"
Andrea Mullins wasn't quite done dealing with me. "We've got another addict," she tells Mike, as I fork over the ten bucks for my slot. "Just make sure you don't bump a skydiver for me," I tell her. I can "observe" on any load.
The interesting thing about an observer ride with Mike is that it provides some awesome photo ops-- more so than riding observer in most jump ships. In the Otter I rode right next to the pilot way up front where I couldn't see the jumpers. But in Mike's plane, the observer sits on the throne, literally!--what used to be the shitter when the King Air was flown as a corporate jet. What fun! That toilet seat is right next to the open door. Makes one adjust their seatbelt very, very carefully, tugging on it all the way up just for a bit of extra security.
And those stories about Mike's famous "seatbelt checks"? Yeah, they're true.
"Is the observer belted in securely?" yells Mike. Because of the location of the intercom speaker off to my side, I can't quite make out what he is saying. His son, Joel, prompts me. "He wants to know if your seatbelt is fastened." Oh, yeah!" I'm giving Mike the thumbs up and Joel smiles mischievously.
Oh, yeah! Holy shit! I can feel my body lift off of the seat and I hear gleeful laughing as Mike performs a gentle parabola. Just enough so that the jumper's helmets that they've let go of seem suspended in mid-air hovering for just an instant. Watching that provides an awesome effect!
Then you learn real fast! As the jumpers exit, snapping pictures, waving, laughing, finally that last 2-way is in the door. You start hanging on for dear life 'cause after one ride with this guy, you know exactly what's coming. They're out! Holy shit! A jab at the controls and you're headed right down almost completely vertical with the wind roaring in your ears blasting your hair every which way as it pummels you from the open door. You yell with glee! Laughing! Oh, Christ! If you can't jump, this is as close as you're gonna get to it! You look over that way and see canopies in the air. Holy shit! We're gonna get down before the jumpers! Amazing! That smooth touch down onto the grass of the runway!--I barely felt that! "Hey, Mike, how do you do that, man?" Here the guy's been flying for 35-plus years. Guess it's called incredible skill, huh?
Quickly unhooking my seatbelt, I gotta hurry up out of here. There's another load waiting to board. A helpful jumper offers me his hand. They know I'm still a bit stiff from my injuries. Several of these kind folks have asked me why I'm not jumping. I carefully climb down the ladder onto the soft grass below shaking my head, "that guy is incredible"! With knowing nods, some stifled giggles, the jumpers quickly ascend. Before I'm 20 feet towards the hanger, the plane is turning around and preparing for another rocket-like takeoff. "Wonder if he beats the speeds of the space shuttle," I'm mumbling to myself as I make my way back to the hanger and my friends to regale them with tales of my latest adventure. "You've gotta take one of these rides," I tell Charm. "Oh, no, I'm not as crazy as you," she responds. One look at me and she's convinced she won't enjoy this nearly as much as I do.
The barbeque that night was a feast. Drunk Chicken they called it. Ummmmm, better not eat too much of this, I remind myself. After all, I'm supposed to be on a diet. I spoon another generous helping into my plate. Every night we ate well, due to the culinary talents of Ben and his entourage.
Stumbling tiredly into the packing area, I was ready for bed. Reve' was still in there ... catching up on a few pack jobs she wanted done for her clients before she turned in. Here, I just wanted to say goodnight. I was off to bed. But, Reve' had other ideas. "Wanna take a quick packing lesson?" she offered. Oh, dear. "Quick" and "packing" and "rita" are simply words that don't go together too effectively. Two hours later, but with a much better grasp of the fundamentals, I exhaustedly made my way back to bed. Reve' and James were now deep in conversation discussing the jumps they would do tomorrow.
The antics at the bonfire went on well into the wee hours of the morning--long beyond my body's ability to keep up. I was snoring happily, dreaming of noses and tails, A-lines and D's, how to flake and fold, and quarter the slider. Dreaming of such things as I lay tucked snugly into a warm sleeping bag resting comfortably on a huge queen-size air mattress that Larry, the rigger, so thoughtfully loaned me. "Sure I won't bust it with my fat ass?" I asked him as he was blowing it up for me. "Naaaaaaaa, if we haven't busted it with our antics on it, trust me, you won't." Giggling at the thought, I happily thanked him earlier that day as we tossed it into the tent Reve' and I were sharing.
Another day on the drop zone. This one starts much later. Manifest is taunting, "Wassamatter, can't anybody get up? We've been here for an hour already!" comes the voice of Andrea over the PA. "Maybe we've got the wrong idea here," she adds. "Let's see, maybe we should change the way we operate like charge "normal" jump prices. Yep, okay, everyone, we're giving lift tickets--$17 for 10,000' in our trusty 182. Yeah, that's the ticket. And, oh, yeah, there will be a, oh, $20 dollar boogie fee. And maybe we should fill in the swimming pool with concrete. Yeah, maybe we need drabbier facilities." You can see people grabbing their rigs and tearing off to manifest. No one wants to hear that shit.
In no time the airplane is making its way into the sky with a gaggle of happy jumpers aboard. Another load is making their way out to the tarmac to be ready when Mike lands 'cause they know it won't be long.
"Gonna take some more observer rides today?" asks Charm as she plops down next to me on the bench outside of the manifest building. "Come to think of it, yeah, I guess I will." Smiling, I make my way back into manifest.
"Not so quick," Ben tells me. "Larry's packing up your new rig, installing the Cypres. Wanna see what your reserve looks like?" I go tearing off in the direction of his tarp with Charm not far behind.
I should say that this rig is nothing like what most jumpers would call hot. In fact, they would probably rather be caught dead than wearing this thing. It's huge. But it's perfect for me, and in great shape too. It was Ben's first rig--the one he bought right after his AFF Level I jump. That guy knew he wasn't gonna be giving up this sport anytime soon! With a PD260 main to see me into the air when I first get back, and Ben's docile Tri 220 as a more long-term canopy choice, I should be well protected from the vagaries of my sometimes unlimited stupidity on final approach. Throw in a 202-square-foot reserve (of the most beautiful combination of white with magenta undercells) and a brand new Cypres, and all I have to do now is finish losing these remaining pounds, and I'm good to go.
"Do me a favor," said Larry, as I stood there stupidly watching him at work. "Here, hold these two ends while I put a molar strap around this." Carefully, barely wanting to touch anything for fear of screwing something up, I gingerly hold both ends as Larry slides the strap around and affixes it. "Now you can say you helped to pack your reserve!" Larry proclaimed. All I could do was smile stupidly. Shame I'll have long needed it repacked before I'll be jumping this rig. But, hey! Look at all I'm learning!
Poor Reve'. She stupidly let me talk her into taking an observer ride with me. "Come on!" I admonished. "It'll be fun." This time we're sitting up near Mike in the front facing the rear of the plane. I wanted Reve' in front of me on a bench seat. "We're gonna have a blast," I assured her. She just weakly smiled. "Good thing I didn't bring my camera on this ride," I added, as Mike started taxiing to the runway. "I don't know if you realize it or not, Reve', but when he dives, we're going backwards. Wheeeeeeeee!
Another observer is sitting on the throne in the back, and as we dive, she appears suspended above us yelling gleefully as Reve' and I exchange thumbs up with her. Mike is pointing at something off in the distance. "Over there!" I can't quite see from my vantage point what the hell he is talking about. Finally. A burst of color ... a huge tandem canopy suspended off in the distance. But wait! What's this? At high speed they appear to be flying backwards! What the hell? Is everything okay there? Just then it dawns on me. The tandem is relatively still. The TM is pointing to us for the benefit of his student. What I am seeing is the effect of our speed flying past the tandem. My lord! What a way to spend a beautiful day!
The day winds down early. People have started departing. The weekend slowly comes to a close. A few diehard jumpers remain --those intent on squeezing every last ounce of sunshine out of this beautiful day. The boogie passed much too quickly, and everyone seems to hunger for more. But, sadly, work and the responsibilities of everyday life beckon, as trailers are hitched to trucks and tents are slowly dismantled. No one wants to see this weekend end.
I make my way into the hanger, as Ben is packing up his trailer for the trip back to Memphis. I want to thank the Mullins clan for their kind hospitality, and for one of the most wonderful weekends of my life. "You be sure to come back soon, okay?" admonishes Mike. "Yeah, and hopefully you'll get back into the air real soon, too, and can jump at our next boogie," adds Andrea.
As the sun was just starting to set in the western sky, we slowly pulled out of the parking lot. Other jumpers were carefully directing Ben around other cars, with his huge 30-some-odd-foot-long trailer. This is the life, I'm thinking. Somehow I gotta figure out a way to do this every weekend--every day--for the rest of my days on this earth.
Page 1 - for more stories see Page 2