Around 1495, Leonardo da Vinci designed a prototypical pyramid-shaped, wooden-framed parachute, which is probably not a thing you’d actually want to use. During World War I, the Allies introduced parachutes as rescue devices for observation balloon pilots. In WWII, Allied soldiers parachuted into battle, turning the tide against the Axis powers. And in the mid-1950s, the term “skydiver” was coined.
Today, some 3.2 million people jump out of perfectly good airplanes every year, according to the U.S. Parachute Association. And only 24 of them die doing so, which means your odds of survival are fairly good.
“Skydiving is a great human experience,” says Randall Fortner, owner of Skydive Amelia Island in Fernandina Beach. “Technology today makes it safer and easier than ever for almost anyone to do a tandem skydive.”
Born in St. Louis and raised in Colorado, Fortner has been skydiving since 1989 and, over the last quarter-century, has logged some 7,500 jumps.
“I got a call late on a Friday night from a friend of a friend looking for someone to skydive with him the following morning,” Fortner recalls of his first jump. “I had never considered it before then, because I really didn’t know regular people were skydiving. I thought it was just a military thing.”
The next morning, Fortner met his friend at a little airport in Cañon City for training (basically, jumping off a chair 100 times), and then waited all day for the weather to clear up. “We did our first jump and I was hooked,” he says. “My friend never jumped again.”
A decade later, in 1999, Fortner opened his first skydiving school. He currently operates two facilities, the one on Amelia Island, which he opened five years ago, and one in Phoenix. He’ll also be opening a school in Austin, Texas, later this year.
“My sons and daughter are also professional skydivers now,” Fortner says. “So it’s a family thing. Skydiving is not a way to get rich, for sure, but we have been fortunate enough to be able to keep working and jumping for 25 years.”
In that time, Fortner’s had to use his emergency parachute — the secondary chute skydivers have on them in case the first one doesn’t properly deploy — eight times. (“Obviously, they all ended OK.”) But it’s the actions — and reactions — of his clients and students, he says, that really spice up the gig.
“I would say everyone is freaking out to some degree,” he says. “It’s just not natural to jump from high places. It goes against our most basic human survival instincts. The best advice is, do it twice. The first one is great, but the second one is much, much better. Far less nervous, far more excited.”
Another local man with a thirst for feeling the air on his skin as he hurtles rapidly to the ground is Art Shaffer.
At age 53, this Gainesville native has logged in more than 14,000 jumps over the last three decades — making him one of (if not the) most seasoned skydivers in the area. Shaffer owns and operates Skydive Palatka and says that about half of his customers are from Northeast Florida.
“Over the years, I have been involved in many test and stunt jumps,” says Shaffer. “But the most exciting thing I’ve done was jumping into a Jaguars’ game as Jaxson de Ville.”
A multifaceted jumper, Shaffer also works for several military contractors doing both test jumps and training. And he’s gotten his feet wet in wingsuiting, skyboarding and BASE jumping, too. But it’s his role as mentor and instructor that Shaffer says keeps him in the business — helping noobs take the plunge.
“Very few people actually freak out,” he says. “As you ride up in the plane with the other jumpers, most people get caught up in the excitement. It then becomes
much easier to move to the door and jump. But every so often, less than once a year, we will have someone who rides back down in the plane.”
And if you’re thinking about taking the quite-literal plunge, Shaffer advises, “Jumping may not change your life, but it will give you a different perspective of life.”