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skyXtreme Goes Cross Keys
by rita - firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos © 2000 skyXtreme
Certain experiences stick out in memory either for their sweetness, the good times, a special laugh shared, special friendships made. Such was the weekend of August 19 and 20, when the skyXtreme staff converged on Skydive Cross Keys for the America's Cup of Formation Skydiving. Never having met each other before, this promised to be an interesting weekend, if nothing else!
Early Saturday morning, I'm at work rushing to wrap up some last minute details. It promises to be a long day, especially since I've already put in a full shift. With one hand initialing work schedules, tasks completed, items to be assigned to other shifts, the other is dialing the phone, making sure last minute arrangements are in place to ensure nothing goes wrong to screw up my schedule. Wouldn't want to have my fun loused up by getting called into work. I had already arranged for the rest of the weekend off.
After a short nap, I head out to Skydive Cross Keys, across the bridge from Philadelphia, in Williamstown, New Jersey. I'll meet Anne and Trisha of the skyXtreme staff at the DZ. This is gonna be interesting since I really have no clear idea of what either of them look like, and the DZ promises to be very crowded on this major event weekend. For just such occasions, I pull out my trusty "Internet" tee-shirt-a custom-designed affair that I picked up in Zhills: Orange tye-died with an embroidered "tropical skydiver" patch customized with the obligatory pink canopy. The "kryos" embroidered underneath gives me a better chance of being recognized, and thus assures that I won't have to make an ass out of myself pestering strangers. I call this my $60 tee-shirt, cause yeah that's about what I paid for it. What can I say? I never was very smart with a dollar.
I haven't been on the DZ at Cross Keys in several years, but my memories were sweet ones, tinged with the regrets of one whose student progression was not without incident. Most of experiences in this sport, the highs and the lows, took place at Freefall Adventures Skydiving School, the student end of the Cross Keys operation. Many good friends, people who shared my triumphs and my bitter failures, were still on staff there, and the prospect of seeing them again was something I both joyously anticipated, and feared.
Packing Area Cross Keys
Would they want to see me again? Would I still be welcome there after such a long absence? Sadly, when one is grounded due to an injury, spending time at the DZ gets pushed in the background, as other life pursuits tend to take priority. Weekend after weekend, I kept promising myself I would get out there. But, always there was an excuse. Weather, work schedules, other commitments, you name it. It had been a good two years since I'd been there. I was wondering if anyone would even remember me. I needn't have worried.
Walking on the DZ, looking for familiar faces, wondering if Anne and Trisha had gotten there yet. Their journey would take a lot longer than mine. Making the long drive in from Massachusetts, I had only to journey over the bridge from Philly to get there.
"You look kind of lost" echoes a familiar voice. Within seconds of arriving on the DZ, I'm enveloped in a bear hug with DJ Mike. Sharing many a debate on the newsgroup, I hadn't seen this man in the flesh since '98, when he became one of my biggest supporters during my continuing struggles to complete AFF. Mike was working the manifest at Skydive City then and it was on his shoulder that I cried when the effort just seemed too much. AFF was never easy for me, and going to Skydive City, after numerous failures at home, didn't render the experience any easier. For some reason, I just had a mental block, something that was making this effort far more difficult for me than it should have been.
Friends who had zipped through their student progressions were amazed. Here I was still at it two years later. What the hell was the problem? Zhills was my do or die attempt, last chance. I either came home at the end of that week an AFF graduate or I hung it up. It had simply come down to that. Lord knows, I didn't want to hang it up. Mike was always there after hours to encourage me, to make sure I didn't have to. This man was a true friend, and one I should have made it a point to see again long before this.
Before long, others I had known, people I had jumped with, laughed with, even had painful debriefs with, wandered over. John Eddowes. Ahhhhh, the quiet conversations we had in the student classroom. "You really want to continue with this? You think it's wise." He is a dear soul and was very concerned about some of the problems I seemed to be having, most especially my inability to stop a nasty tendency to spin out of control in freefall. He saw the sweat and the tears, knew how badly I was trying. Grounding me wouldn't be fair, but lord, he didn't want to see me hurt. He and the S&TA came up with a custom program of tandem jumps to keep me in the air while I worked out my problems with a reasonable degree of safety. Not too many DZO's would go to that trouble when simply grounding a floundering student would be so much easier.
Georgio Piatti, another dear soul. He was probably tougher on me than any other JM there. He didn't mince words in a debrief, even if it reduced me to tears. He, too, came to respect my determination, my compulsion to succeed at this. And, he, too, wanted to find a way to keep me safe while I continued my efforts. I had some of my best jumps with that man, made some of my greatest breakthroughs thanks to his patience and teaching skill. I also had some of my greatest fun with him during the tandem phase of my protracted student progression as he helped me to "discover" the true performance envelope of a tandem canopy.
Rita's Tandem - © 2000 Jan Davis
"Yep, steering control is good. It's square! Looks like we got a good canopy!"
"Okay, wanna take the toggles?"
"Now, what would you like to do?"
"Spiral until my head pops off!"
With that we'd bury a toggle and go spinning in a high speed dive.
That guy had staying power. Long after my shoulders had given up the effort, he'd still be at it until I gave the call at 1,000 feet that it was time to stop. God, I could do this all day. The hell with the rigors of AFF, I could be perfectly happy doing tandems with him for a lifetime!
Mark Kruse, another familiar face, another instructor who I had jumped with. He didn't come to Cross Keys until later, my second year there so I only shared a couple of jumps with him, but those few jumps were true learning experiences. Not much for wild tandem thrill rides, he preferred to teaching under canopy forcing me to set up the landing pattern, identify and lead us to the student holding area. I identified and handled my first "malfunction" under his tutelage, a simple case of closed end cells, but something that, at my current experience level, I had only seen in training photographs, and had to jog my memory to recall the proper actions to be taken.
"Ummmm, seems we have a problem here. Can you tell me what it is?"
"Ahhhhhh! The canopy looks funny, all scrunched up on the ends like that. Oh, wait! I got it! We got them there closed end cells, right?"
"Yep! Now what you plan to do about it?"
"Ahhhhh, think again."
"Darned. Never did a cutaway before. But, let's see, ummmmm, pump the brakes, right? Try to re-inflate them?"
"Well, do it!"
Damned! But a cutaway would have been so much more exciting.
"You never cut away a good canopy," Kruse admonished.
And the learning continues.
In between all the happy reunions, I finally spot Anne and Trisha. I shouldn't have worried about being able to find them. The custom-printed skyXtreme tee-shirts were a dead giveaway.
Amid hugs and squeals of delight, "See, I told you I had a fat ass! You didn't believe me!" , we quickly made each other's acquaintance. Trisha and I immediately got into a friendly argument about whose ass was the larger.
"Nope, mine even floats in freefall," I assured her.
The purpose of our meeting up at Cross Keys on this beautiful weekend was to conduct interviews and cover the America's Cup competition for the web 'zine. Sadly, we were just having way too much fun to give much attention to this task, or to anything coming close to resembling work.
Taking Trisha by the hand, I directed our group to the back deck, where we could get the best view of the competitors landing.
"This is the best place," I assured her. "The guys have to walk right past us, and we can use the opportunity to check out their buns!" --I had found a ready cohort in Trisha.
For anyone who has never been to Skydive Cross Keys, you owe it to yourself to make it a point to visit there. Truly what has to be one of the top ten DZ's in the country, Cross Keys represents what can truly be done when an entrepreneur sets their mind to fulfilling a vision. Beginning in 1995, the DZ was little more than a patch of land on a small regional airport. Having no facilities to speak of, jumpers packed on the snow that first year.
Rapidly expanding a bit more each year, plowing most of each season's profits back into the business, the DZ grew and grew and grew. A huge hanger one year, construction of a large outdoor deck overlooking the landing area the next. The addition of first-rate training facilities such as a campus of Skydive U freeflying and skysurfing schools. A few more trees cut down each year, expansion of the landing area, addition of more facilities such as a paintball course, and one can only imagine what the Cross Keys of the future will eventually look like!
Skydive Cross Keys
Today, it has every amenity a skydiver could wish for including a fleet of Super Otters available to whisk people to altitude in no time flat. Cross Keys is a place seemingly designed for the mega-jumper or the team engaged in a serious weekend of training. With all the support in place: resident packers, video services, rigging facilities and the like, getting in 10, 12 or even more jumps on a Saturday afternoon can easily be managed with barely a stretch.
A huge hanger, complete with air conditioned classrooms, and a huge carpeted packing area. Containing separate manifests for students and licensed jumpers, the latter use swipe cards and prepaid accounts to speed the process, thus allowing them to make more loads.
A café, offering a varied selection of lunch and breakfast items. Finally! A place where a person can get a cup of java without having to leave the DZ! It doesn't take much to please me and that simple convenience resolved the one complaint I always had with the DZ: having to walk half a mile clear down to Five Points just for a lousy cup of coffee.
And the arrival of Square Three Skydiving Store, in my case probably not such a wonderful amenity! I spent quite a bit of money there that weekend, tee-shirts, bounce-proof pants, you name it. The credit card bills are just coming in.
We could have spent our entire day just sitting in the sun stuffing our faces at the Long Delay Café, spending our money at Square Three, just enjoying each other's company. But, sadly that was not what we came for. So, we headed back into the hanger for the awards ceremony. The eight-way competition had just been completed.
Bill Ottley, a legend in the sport, presented the awards. "Who is he?" I muttered loud enough to realize by the looks I received that I had just uttered one of my famous "Rita's." Oops! Quickly I retreat into the background so that Anne can move up front to snap photos. Amazingly, PD's Factory Team has taken the Gold in this event, beating out both Arizona Airspeed and the Army's Golden Knights. Shame. Those Golden Knights are definitely the cutest of the bunch. They come complete with their very own custom Otter too. Nice! Wonder if they'd let me take a wheeeeeee!!!!! ride in it?
Rigger Loft - DJ Mike, @nne and Rita
With the competition complete for the day, Anne, Trisha and I wander around in search of something to do. "Let's go pester DJ Mike," I suggest. We all troop upstairs to the loft. Poor guy.
Being the resident master rigger on a DZ like Cross Keys can't be an easy job especially on a major event weekend such as this. Mike hasn't been out of his loft much all day.
Reserves to get repacked, minor repairs that have to be immediately tended to, jumpers, especially those involved in the competition, need to be kept in the air. Mike has been at it non-stop since daybreak. A pile of rigs are stacked up in a corner. They are due for repacks and their owners will be looking for them in the morning. Mike says he'll attend to them after sunset. Good lord! Does this guy never stop?
Quickly eyeing a display of pull-up cords hanging from a hook, I notice a batch of hot pink ones. "Hey, Mike, can I take one of these?" I hopefully ask. Rolling his eyes and knowing of my penchant for pink, Mike gives me the okay to select one. "Oh, good. This will match my hot pink steering toggles," I add as I grab the brightest pink one.
Mike just rolls his eyes and goes back to his sewing machine. He's carefully applying a patch, an almost matching piece of fabric, to an older-looking canopy. "You don't have the corner on landing mishaps," Mike assures me.
It didn't take me long to realize the benefits of being in the loft. "Hey, Anne, come on over here." Beckoning Anne and Trisha to the large window, I quickly point out the panoramic view of the packing floor below. "Ain't this great!" I enthuse. "We can really check out the guys from here! And, look! Most of them even have their butts up in the air for our display!" I've found a ready convert in Trisha, though Anne seems more interested in checking out the loft which is a pretty neat place in its own right.
A gorgeous sunset, the last load of the day gathers their canopies and begins trudging in from the landing field. Joining us on the "sunset deck," Mike offers us a beer. Sadly, we all decline. Anne's making the drive back to Philly, while neither Trisha nor I drink. We settle for some good conversation instead, and get quite an education from DJ Mike on the history of the sport and on Skydive Cross Keys.
As the night grows colder and darker, as sweatshirts and jackets are layered over shorts and tee-shirts that seemed too warm under the blazing August sun, the DZ begins to clear out. The crowd gathered at the tiki bar set up on the deck begins to thin out. People have been jumping hard all day. Tomorrow promises more of the same, with the weather forecasted to be perfect. We've got a 45 minute drive back to Philadelphia, where we will spend the night at my house, so we bid our farewells and head out in search of some dinner and a comfortable bed.
Promising ourselves that we would turn in reasonably early so that we would wake up early enough to get back to the DZ at a reasonable hour, those promises were quickly broken, and we finally crawled into bed around 2:00 a.m. Waking at 10:00, I could just hear Anne and Trisha stirring in the guest room. Oh, shit!
We arrive at Cross Keys just in time to watch the presentation of the medals in 4-way. Oh, well. At least we can watch the video replay on a jumbo size TV screen in the hanger complete with the judges scoring and utilizing the technical expertise of the folks from OmniSkore!
Finally having discovered who Bill Ottley was, I could only be impressed to be among such greatness in our sport. A man who was around truly from the very beginning, he had seen it all and probably done it all as well.
The roster of talent all gathered in one place: Arizona Airspeed, the Golden Knights, the factory team of Performance Designs, not only competing, but organizing fun dives as well.
Team Jet Stream, Bill Ottley, Jack Jefferies
Other guest organizers such as Jack Jefferies and TK Hayes of Skydive City, organizing everything from small to big ways for jumpers of all levels and abilities.
And the student program! I thought it was large back when I was doing my tandems and AFF. If large in those days, it is simply huge by today's standards. While I have not been to a great many DZ's in my short time in this sport, I can say that of those I've been to, I have never seen such a large student program run so flawlessly and with such organization in my life. This DZO should be teaching management at Wharton!
Cross Keys' student progression is under the IAF method today with three tandems, transitioning to a modified AFF-type program, including ground school. From sun up to sun down, first-time jumpers and other tandem-level students are processed flawlessly by a truly efficient manifest. All day long one can hear the pages, tandem students called in groups of four or five, to meet their "organizer" in front of manifest. Training takes place beforehand in a special room set aside specifically for that purpose. Waivers are filled out at that time as well.
Organizers, wearing headsets attached to a walkie-talkie at their hip, meet the load and pair everyone with their respective instructors. Assignments are made via manifest, where they are posted on large boards, separated by load number. Video people are assigned in the same manner. Once the load is complete and checked against the "organizer's" clipboard, the group proceeds to the boarding area. Flawless! A symphony of efficient management, the simplicity of such can be especially appreciated by an MBA type person such as me.
As plane load after plane load, each containing about five tandem pairs, lands, smiling faces and laughter, such an obvious study in pure joy, one can only begin to appreciate what a feat of organization is required to keep such a huge student program moving safely and efficiently while still allowing a major competition event, as well as all the fun jumpers and organized groups to be getting into the air as much as they could possibly want to.
Bursts of color, those freefly jumpsuits certainly come in every manner and form. I'm sitting at a picnic table with Anne admiring the group from MonkeyClaw as they walk to the boarding area. Brilliant reds, bright oranges, fun patterns of polka dots and zebra strips. You name it, we saw it this weekend. I loved them all.
"Would you ever wear something like that? I ask Anne pointing at a particularly loud color pattern, in a Hawaiian motif. "Like on the street, I mean?" We then spend the next several minutes discussing why on earth someone would want to wear a freefly jumpsuit to work as I so glibly stated I would. I like to occasionally make a fashion statement! Wearing some of these patterns certainly would accomplish that goal!
A large formation is being planned. A huge crowd gathers in front of the hanger. Mark Kruse has achieved the 10,000-jump milestone, and something special is being planned in his honor. The dirt dive looks almost like a military engagement as the points are planned and practiced. The attempt will be for three points with some 40+ people in the formation. "When will they stop practicing and just go do it?", I mutter to Anne not fully appreciating all the planning that must go into such an endeavor in order to keep it safe.
Dirt Dive "Kruse Big Way"
Since Cross Keys has a large student program, and this big way will require two Otters, the Golden Knights press theirs into service, while Cross Keys allots one of their own. The FrankenOtter will allow regular jumping to commence while the formation attempt is in progress. Patiently we watch two tiny aircraft flying high above us formation style. They seem so tiny in comparison to the big puffy white clouds dotting an almost perfectly blue sky.
Setting up a telemeter on the back deck, a device which acts as a pair of large binoculars, ground staff person "Toast" is calling out the play-by-play. "They're getting in the door," he announces. "The lead plane is launching! There go the divers!" You can actually hear the whoosh of bodies in freefall, so many on one formation. "They just made the first point!" comes the play by play. You can now actually see the formation in freefall linked up then disengaging. "There's the second point!", Toast announces. Clearer now, we can see one lone canopy deploy from the center while others turn and track like mad. Amazing! The whoosh of canopies, brightly colored against the bluest of skies, uneventful deployment for all concerned as each one touches down amid whoops and hollers, high fives and laughter. The honoree for whom this big way was launched swoops in low over the heads of the spectators yelling out a victory call as he gracefully surfs inches above the blades of grass touching down ever so gently in the middle of a group of his well-wishing friends.
DJ Mike after the "Kruse Big Way"
"Where else can one of little distinction get a chance to jump with such greats as Arizona Airspeed and the Army Golden Knights?" enthused DJ Mike as he practically bounded off the field heading back to his loft. Joining the jump in honor of his friend, and boss, he now needs to get back to work, get the weekend's backlog caught up before sunset.
But he offers to make time to take me for a tandem if I can wait until sunset. "I'll take you on a canopy ride you'll never forget," he assures me, laughing. I have to admit that I'm tempted but, sadly, it just won't work out. Sadly, I have to be at work by 8:00 so I'll have to take a rain check. "Just give me a call when you want to do it," Mike assures me. "I'm always here."
The day winds down all too soon as the parking lot empties out. The DZ is not quite so crowded as before. Sunday is the day people have to start thinking about the long drive home, the coming work week, all those practical details of modern life that need to be taken care of so that the weekends can be devoted to skydiving.
Bidding our farewells, Anne and Trisha promise that we'll do this again just as soon as we can. Laughing that we didn't get so much as one interview for skyXtreme, did little work at all, for that matter, I reassure them that we've got enough pictures, enough material, and that fun was the order of this weekend not work. As I left the DZ being the first of our group to go, I can't help but reflect on this wonderful sport we have intertwined our lives with. Each of us so different, yet so much the same. Each of us finding our place in a sport that welcomes people of all abilities, of all levels of participation, and even those of seeming non-participation.
There will be many more weekends just like this one. That's one promise we made to each other over and over again during the weekend. Vowing to return to Cross Keys, we planned for other excursions as well for this is a sport that unites people, forges new friendships, while making old ones ever stronger. And this is a sport that equalizes and embraces all who appreciate its beauty from within the skies or watching from below. We who appreciate are all in every sense of the word "jumpers"--and always will be. Blue skies!
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