This season kickoff safety seminar may well become one of the most popular skydiving
events in the U.S.
If you weren't at the Skydivers Unite For Safety/Skydive Chicago Winter Expo on March 3-5,
you missed the event of the year.
You missed out on 40 seminars dedicated to skydiving safety, gear safety, FAA and NTSB
stances on skydiving issues, different skydiving disciplines and student training.
You missed the chance to meet and talk with 12 of the most progressive gear manufacturers
in the sport one-on-one as long and often as you liked, and even demo some of their
You missed three days of unseasonably warm weather with a Super Otter that never
You missed three days of unseasonably warm weather with a Super Otter that never shut down
and even flew a night load. Oops, did I mention those were $10 skydives, and Missy Nelson
manifested about 1,140 of them?
You even missed Roger Nelson, program director at Skydive Chicago, personally thank Terry
Murray "for all the inspiration I have" in his welcome to the event-which of
course laid the audience out in the aisles howling with laughter.
OK, all kidding aside, this was probably the most impressive skydiving event I've ever
attended. Everyone likes a good boogie with warm weather, twin-turbine aircraft and cheap
skydives, but when you add that to the safety seminars and manufacturers in attendance,
the real focus of the event, you've got a truly winning combination.
"It All Started When..."
Steve Alexander of the Columbus
School of Skydiving has been running the Skydivers Unite For Safety seminars in
Indiana and Ohio for the last 2 years on USPA's Safety Day. Their goal was to bring some
of the biggest names in the industry to provide a major draw, and devote the day to all
aspects of freefall, airplane, gear and landing safety in order to make us better
skydivers and minimize injury and fatality rates.
The seminars were well attended both years, with big names like Dan Poynter, Cliff
Schmucker, Glenn Bangs and Bill Booth delivering outstanding presentations. Skydivers
actually gave up a solid day of skydiving, once even with beautiful, warm weather outside,
to sit indoors and learn how to be safer in our big blue playground.
Last year, Steve Alexander saw something at the seminar that really got his attention.
"When John LeBlanc introduced the Velocity last year, it was amazing how many people
flocked to touch it," he said. "That's really where the idea of the Expo came
After speaking at the 1999 seminar and seeing how valuable the event was tot the sport,
Roger asked to team up with Alexander and Neece for 2000. They decided to hold the event
at Skydive Chicago's spacious, one-of-a-kind facility to give attendees the space for
booths and seminars, a Super Otter to jump and all the amenities of a major conference
hall, and then some.
The Land Of Oz
Many of the 360+ Expo attendees said a part of their decision to come was to see Skydive
Chicago for themselves, as they'd heard so much about it. "I had to come see Roger's
palace," said Bill Booth of the Relative Workshop. "If all DZs were like this,
we'd have more skydivers."
The 15,000-square-foot hangar (which has on occasion held two Super Otters, two Cessna
182s, a Piper Arrow and a Bell 222 helicopter with room to spare) easily housed 12
manufacturers' booths and several comfortable wrestling mats for packing. The new heating
units kept the hangar a good 15-20 degrees warmer than the early spring outdoors, even
with a hangar door open slightly for traffic to the Super Otter.
Away from the hangar it got even better. How often does one see a drop zone with a
350-seat assembly hall? How about one that also has three 75-seat halls, an on-site cash
machine, a VIP full bar and lounge with state-of-the-art projection and stereo equipment,
full-service gear store, oak-paneled walls, functional toilets, door prizes and three
excellent meals a day by master chef Tim Wardenski of Pahokee, Fla. and Jeanie Nelson of
Skydive Chicago? The visitors were in heaven.
"People that learn to skydive here are really spoiled," said Glenn Bangs,
director of safety and training for the USPA. "The real world just isn't like
Year two, I was hanging out with Bill Booth playing the piano.
"These seminars are great!" Brad Hazelbaker of Cincinnati, Ohio continues:
"The first year, I got to have a beer with Dan Poynter and talk parachutes
one-on-one. Year two, I was hanging out with Bill Booth playing the piano. This year, I
can just go up and talk to any of these manufacturers or whoever and ask questions, since
that's what it's all about."
The strength of all the Skydivers Unite For Safety seminars, including this year's Expo,
is the caliber of speakers they get. The local skygod at your Cessna drop zone may be a
fabulous learning resource for all of you there, but who can fail to learn something about
canopy flight from John LeBlanc of Performance Designs? And who better to tell you about
the USPA's new student training and ratings programs than Glenn Bangs? Not only that, but
how often do you, the typical skydiver, get a chance to have all these people in one
place, for a solid 3-day weekend, just waiting to answer your questions?
Add this to the fact that 12 major manufacturers brought their wares so you could inspect,
ask questions about and try out their stuff. Where else would you want to be? Not only
were they here, but they sent their best for this unique event. Simon Mundell, general
manager, represented Icarus Canopies, SSK Industries, Inc. president Cliff Schmucker came
with the SportParaSim and lots of Cypres information and Ted Strong brought a full line of
demo gear from Strong Enterprises. Designer Sandy Reid brought the new Voodoo container
from Rigging Innovations, Inc., Jenny and Marty Martin brought lots of Zute Sutes, Bill
Booth displayed a bunch of Vector IIIs and Microns, Kat Grix, new president of Alti-2
brought a calibration chamber, etc.
You get the idea. These industry representatives were available for about 21 hours across
the 3-day Expo for you, the average jumper.
Something For Everyone
The event started before most of the attendees even packed their cars. During the week
before the manufacturers arrived, designated practical rigger examiner Kirk Smith held a
rigger's course and a Vector tandem certification course. Roger Nelson held a drop zone
owner's seminar attended by six DZs from around the country, and Glenn Bangs held a basic
He was able to find and repair potentially deadly problems on 12 rigs.
The early visitors got to hear Kirk Smith, instructor and master rigger at Skydive
Chicago, discuss BASE jumping and reviewing your gear for the upcoming season. The gear
reviews turned out to be an excellent idea; after the manufacturers reviewed the latest
gear advisory on protruding grommets, Smith inspected many of attendees' rigs at no cost.
He was able to find and repair potentially deadly problems on 12 rigs.
Friday attendees also learned about the future of freefly competition with top freeflyers
Rook Nelson and Mike Ortiz of the Flyboyz. "In the previous years of competition, if
we stayed in the frame and did our trick it counted," said Rook. "Now we're
turning 20 to 25 points and looking for 30. Also, pylon racing is a good spectator sport
because it's easy to see who wins."
More freeflying and general skydiving footage was in order with the premiere viewing of
"The Clouds Edge" by New Tribe Entertainment Video and Joe Jennings' "Good
Stuff." Another video previewed later in the seminar was "Liquid Sky: Freefly
Millennium II" by Speed Curve Productions. Skydivers always appreciate good video,
especially when it's new; they were definitely not disappointed with these offerings.
At the official welcome on Saturday, most were surprised to see Roger introduce local
Ottawa mayor Bob Eschbach. Instead of warning the jumpers to behave themselves, he
welcomed them with open arms and spoke of what a great partner Skydive Chicago has been
with Ottawa. "Everyone's always watching for the burst of color in the sky when the
canopies open," he said. He figures that skydivers put about $2 million into the
local economy annually and are the biggest customers in the local motels, and invited any
drop zone managers with local official problems to call him any time.
Wrapping up the welcome, Steve Alexander said, "What we are trying to do is introduce
new techniques, gear and training with the best in the sport." And that they did.
A rigorous schedule of safety seminars began with Glenn Bangs' presentation on the year in
review. His impressive review of USPA jump and fatality statistics led into to a somewhat
sore topic for many skydivers: the USPA's stance on revamping the recommended student
program and license requirements. As many people seem to think the USPA is doing nothing
on these issues or is hopelessly deadlocked, Bangs stood most of the audience on its ear
with a proposed 8-part program that has a bare minimum of 17 student jumps, and a new
instructional rating program.
USPA also wants to kick the jumpmaster rating for good, replacing the current system with
non-method-specific ground coaches, air coaches and method-specific instructors and
"Take out hook turns and emergency procedure problems, and you remove 2/3 to
3/4 of all the fatalities we've ever had."
While not entirely new ideas (these proposed systems were announced at the DZO
conference), most of us hadn't heard of them before. "We realized that we're trying
to force-feed students too much information in a specified period of time," Bangs
said. "We have to do a better job educating the next generation of jumpers. Take out
hook turns and emergency procedure problems, and you remove 2/3 to 3/4 of all the
fatalities we've ever had. We used to teach ourselves how to skydive, and now we have all
this information from other people to train with. We have to use it." The full texts
of both programs are online at www.uspa.org (or will be very soon). Please also let the
USPA know what you think of an E-license, and what you think the requirements and
privileges should be (email firstname.lastname@example.org).
There were also quite a few seminars on drop zone issues, including high-performance
canopy and freefall training by Roger Nelson, the Javelin student rig by Dave Ruffell and
the instructor's guide to tandem/advanced freefall program instruction by Nelson.
Attendees also got to discuss jump plane airworthiness with Scot Landorf of the FAA and
skydiving liability and legal issues with well-known BASE jumper and lawyer Fred Morelli.
Roger's seminars on training were popular, as he's got one of the more controversial
student programs in the sport. Students on high-performance canopies? Absolutely, says
Roger. "Give them less transition, train them on the gear they'll jump later. And
you've got to teach them to plan. We did about 15,000 student jumps in 1999 with NO
serious injuries and zero fatalities. We did this with easy-to-fly parachutes, a flight
plan each student filled out before jumping and by teaching them the dangers and
parameters for certain toggle levels." Even though many listeners seemed disbelieving
at first, his humorous references to extremely common student problems and how his system
addressed them quickly had the whole room nodding in agreement.
John Kallend, professor of materials engineering and physics, presented another DZ issue:
his software program for determining freefall drift based on several conditions. Should
your DZ put freeflyers out before or after belly flyers? Well, that depends. Check out the
program at www.iit.edu/~kallend/skydive.html.
John LeBlanc's wing loading and canopy control seminars (one seminar with three parts)
were some of the best-attended of the Expo. They covered canopy survival skills and flying
and landing high-performance parachutes safely, and were quite useful to many listeners
who enjoyed being able to test their new knowledge the same day as the seminar. Some made
it back from long spots using the techniques they'd learned where they wouldn't have
before, and one jumper said (anonymously, of course), "I finally managed to land on
my feet! I figured out that I was flaring too slowly and had to pop the toggles down a
little faster." Simple, perhaps, but obviously a problem that hadn't been explained
to clear understanding previously.
Gearwise, jumpers got to hear reserve and main packing tips from Ty Bowen of Relative
Workshop and information on the construction and proper use of helmets from Nick Kaminski
of Sky Systems. Bill Booth gave a seminar on his 3-ring release system, and Simon Mundell
discussed the structure, manufacturing and distribution of Icarus Canopies. Doris Pfister
of Sun Path Products talked about the popular sport Javelin, and Sandy Reid discussed the
development of Rigging Innovations' new Voodoo container.
A big splash this year was Bill Booth's unveiling of the Vector III tandem container. Bill
contends that if you eliminate out-of-sequence tandem deployments, then you eliminate half
of the tandem fatalities we've had (after taking out ones that an AAD might have
prevented). This new container, although it almost looks like something you'd give your
worst enemy to jump, promises to do just that.
One of my more entertaining activities at this Expo was to grab a friend who'd just walked
in the door, tell him or her a bit about the rig as we walked to the Relative Workshop
table, then pull open the main flap and watch them recoil in shock. With the flaps closed,
the rig just looks like a big Vector III with a clear plastic window over the reserve pin
and Cypres control unit. Open the main flap, and you've got no clue what you're looking
at. A big aluminum disk sits in the center with the closing loop routed through all the
flaps, but the flaps don't overlap at all. A full description of this rig would take
forever, but suffice to say that Bill Booth has once again come up with something totally
His tests say it's impossible to have an out-of-sequence deployment with the rig due to
its secondary locking pin, it's got that weird disk to keep the bag in the container, the
handles are now retractable and there's no 3-ring release for the drogue. Several of
Skydive Chicago's tandem masters jumped it this weekend and really enjoyed it, and the
design will be finalized and in production in a month or so.
SSK Industries, Inc. had one of the most popular booths this year with the new
SportParaSim (link: www.sportparasim.com),
a hanging-harness virtual reality canopy flight simulator. Virtual pilots got to pull,
respond to various malfunctions and work on their accuracy on fields, cities and even
aircraft carriers. The harness responded to riser and toggle input, which was logged by a
nearby computer. Spectators got to watch the "jumper's" point of view on a large
TV monitor next to the jumper, with an altitude reading and toggle input monitoring.
"Skydivers here are providing the example for the simulator's usefulness," said
Schmucker. "Some of these people have great accuracy with none or very few jumps, and
others with thousands of jumps aren't responding properly to malfunctions." SSK
thinks it will boost retention rates because students will feel more prepared and
confident under a real parachute, be easier to wean off radios and they'll have something
to do in case of bad weather and scheduling problems. Even the experienced jumpers stayed
inside for the simulator on a beautiful day, and had probably the first ever zero-altitude
The simulator currently emulates a 7-cell canopy at a 1:1 wing loading, and doesn't have
data for higher-performance canopies yet although they're working on that. "This
program will always be evolving," says Jeffrey Hogue of Systems Technology, Inc., who
helped develop the simulator. "We've gotten some great ideas for this program here,
like using it to teach spotting. We're already working on two-canopy-out situations."
This would dovetail nicely with Scott Miller's dual-square-canopies-out seminar.
A Fabulous Event
Everyone agreed that the Skydivers Unite For Safety/Skydive Chicago Winter Expo was a
roaring success. When asked what he thought about the event, Edgardo Guerrero of EG Sky
Technologies responded, "I would like to come again. Don't forget to send me
information on the next one!"
The door prizes, including a free Javelin, 50% off a Vector III, a free Quasar, a free PD
canopy and a free Icarus canopy among other things were quite well received. One of the
more humorous wins was a SSK NiteStar night jump light-won by the only person on the night
jump to land in a tree.
Booth thought people weren't attending the scheduled seminars as much as with the previous
years' events, but that more people were stopping by for a one-one-one chat. "These
seminars are really valuable," he said. "Last year we talked about the increased
pull force for cutaways with soft housings and one girl turned to her husband and asked,
'I have those on my rig, don't I?' They went back to the hotel, opened her container and
had a couple of guys hold her off the ground by her risers while she tried to cut away.
"She couldn't, and she was terrified. She had her housings replaced immediately, and
had a mal about 150 jumps later. She called me afterwards, thanking me for saving her
life. That's what these seminars are about."
Ted Strong felt that it was "an excellent, all-inclusive seminar, with great chances
for more hands-on discussion of gear." Mundell felt that it was a valuable chance to
interact with competitors and skydivers, and get instant feedback on products. "It's
been a great opportunity to poll knowledge and bounce ideas off people," he said.
"It's always a great idea to hold something like this where the whole premise is
safety," said Kaminski. "Often it's the only time people think about it."
Well, the whole focus of this event is to change that.
One participant said on his post-event questionnaire, "Very well put together event!
I'm very impressed and will spread the word for future Expos." You do that, because
next year's Expo will really knock your socks off!
- Christy West for Dropzone.com
Christy jumps at Skydive Chicago. She has been in the sport for 2 1/2 years and has done
800+ jumps. She is a Women's World Record holder.