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July 2004
Hooked on Skydiving
By Ellison Clary

      “Skydiving makes you feel like you’re flying,” Danny Smith says simply.

       He’s felt that sensation more than 2,200 times and he earns a living by helping others share it.

      Smith owns Skydive Carolina, Inc., a Chester County, S.C., firm that teaches people to dive through the air. They jump from an airplane 14,000 feet above the earth and fall at 120 miles per hour for 60 to 70 seconds. At 3,000 feet, they pull open a parachute and glide to the ground.

      As they maneuver the parachute, they truly are flying, Smith says. “Once a parachute opens, you’ve got to fly it to the ground,” he explains. “You pull both of your control toggles down at the same time and it bleeds off the air speed. It’s the same way an airplane would land, putting flaps down to slow down. When you touch the ground, you’re doing zero miles per hour, sort of a tiptoe landing.”

      “Wow!” is how more than a few testimonials (viewable on the Skydive Carolina Web site) describe the experience.

“It was unreal,” says Christy Griffin of Fort Mill, S.C., describing her first skydive earlier this year. “I was going so fast. My ears were popping and I couldn’t breathe. It was exhilarating.”

      The owner of Belle Vive Spa and Wellness Center in Fort Mill says she’s jumped a second time with Skydive Carolina and plans to do it some more. “It’s definitely addictive,” says Griffin, who calls her first dive her 35th birthday present.

      Addictive is how Smith found it 38 years ago when he took his initial skydive. “After that first jump,” he says, “in my mind and heart I knew that this was a sport that I would be involved in for the rest of my life.”

      It took much longer for Smith to make skydiving into a business.

      Smith grew up near Asheville, N.C., earned a business administration degree at Western Carolina University, then spent four years in the U.S. Air Force. As a sergeant first class at Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, La., he worked in ground operations with a tanker crew that refueled B-52s. While there, he caught a performance of the U.S. Army parachute team, the Golden Knights.

      “This looked exciting,” says the wiry, soft spoken 58-year-old, who keeps his hair at service length and looks as if he could ace a military fitness course.

      “I checked around and, lo and behold, right there in Shreveport was a civilian parachute club,” he remembers. “I inquired, got my training and made my jump.”

      And he kept jumping, even after signing on with Wachovia Corporation predecessor First Union National Bank in Charlotte in 1969. By 40, Smith was vice president of the bank’s Security Services Department and, as a member of the Firestone Parachute Team, he was performing each weekend at Carowinds Amusement Park that straddles the North Carolina-South Carolina line just south of Charlotte.


The Need to Make a Change

      Smith was forty, and he was restless. “I enjoyed what I did at the bank, but it was simply time for a change,” he says. “What better way to make a change than to make your hobby your profession?”

      So Smith started Skydive Carolina in 1986 at a former military base near Chester, S.C., about 45 miles down Interstate 77 from Charlotte. It boasts three runways, each 5,000 feet long. He bought a couple of airplanes and started operating a skydiving school strictly on weekends.

      “I picked this location trying to get centrally located between Columbia and Charlotte and even the Greenville-Spartanburg area,” Smith explains. The Rock Hill resident leases the 800-acre site through the Chester County airport commission.

      “You don’t want to be near a major airport like Charlotte-Douglas,” he says. “And for a student operation, you love to have as big a place as you can.”

      The business grew, mostly because of Smith’s enthusiasm. “It’s not work to me,” he says. “I enjoy it immensely.”

      After a decade of running the skydiving business on the side, Smith decided he was ready to make it his sole source of income. “In 1996, I took early retirement from First Union and began the business full-time,” he says, adding that he’s never looked back.

      “I look at some of my former colleagues at the bank and the banking industry has just totally changed,” Smith smiles. “They’re bored to death and wish they could get out. Skydiving gave me an out to do something else and have some fun at it.”

      Starting in early morning, Smith and his staff can teach a person enough about skydiving that he or she can make a “tandem” dive – strapped to an instructor – by day’s end. That costs $179 unless you weigh 190 or more, which hikes the fee to $189. A customer can opt for “accelerated free fall” in which he or she wears a parachute and dives with two instructors, but descends to the ground individually. That costs $339. A serious student can learn to skydive solo for a little more that $1,300, but that takes 20 jumps, spread over several weeks.

      Smith declines to share revenue numbers, but the business grew steadily from 1986, when it trained 99, through the first eight months of 2001. The terror attacks of September 11 wilted interest, but Smith still trained 2,000 first-timers that year.

      Terror fears and a lousy economy dampened revenues in 2002 and, just as a recovery was building, the rains of 2003 severely hampered operations.

      “Our business is a weekend business,” he says. “Through July last year, we had lost 80 percent of our available weekend days to rain.” Even after a fall rebound, business was down 45 percent for 2003, mirroring 2002.

      Fortunately, this year’s been much better. “I think people are getting a little more confident in the economy,” Smith says. “They’ve ridden out the storm – the same thing we had to do – and they’re returning to some of the things they want to do.”

      The biggest challenge these days is the fuel for Smith’s two airplanes, a single-engine Cessna 182 that carries four skydivers and a pilot, and a twin-engine DeHavilland that carries 22 skydivers.

      “Fuel is out of sight,” Smith shakes his head. “Just go to the gas pump. What you’re paying, just think from an aircraft perspective, it’s usually a dollar to a dollar and a half more.”

      And insurance? For skydiver operations, it’s hard to come by. “We do have individual insurance we get as a member of the U.S. Parachute Association. But in terms of getting insurance to cover every skydiver that comes down, you can’t get it. That’s why we have to have all of our jumpers sign a liability waiver,” Smith explains.


Safety Prevents Accidents

      “We never hide the fact that you can get hurt in this sport,” Smith is careful to point out. “For the most part, if you follow the rules, if you’ve trained properly, and if you’ve got good parachute equipment on your back, an injury rarely happens.”

      In 26,000 student jumps, Skydive Carolina has recorded just 14 injuries, the most serious of which was a broken leg suffered by one of Smith’s bank buddies on his one and only jump.

      Those student jumps include some by celebrities such as NASCAR drivers Jerry Nadeau and Chad Little and Charlotte radio personality Robert Raiford. A Charlotte couple exchanged vows in mid-air in the late 1980s and this year a man jumped just far enough ahead of his sweetheart to unfurl a banner on the ground that asked, “Will you marry me?” (Once on terra firma, she said yes.)

      Last summer, a lady in her 80s, with a terminal illness, told her family she’d like to skydive. Her son took the course and jumped with her. “She had us all in tears before she left,” Smith says. “We were able to fulfill a dream for her.”

      Most of Smith’s staff works on a contract basis, ready to show up on short notice, depending on number of customers. They include about three dozen instructors and three pilots.

      Smith rarely jumps on busy weekend days. “I’m on the ground seeing that things get done.” When business is booming, the 22-passenger plane flies as many as 20 loads of jumpers a day.

      These jumpers and their instructors aim their 400-foot-square nylon chute canopies to touch down in a 10-meter pit built like an upside-down bowl and filled with fine pea gravel. If they miss that, there’s a soft grassy area that surrounds it.

      Smith says he’s always looking for ways to improve business and, these days, he and some staffers do more than a few promotional jumps. Smith has jumped 15 times into Lowe’s Motor Speedway and Skydive Carolina helped the Charlotte Knights introduce their mascot, Homer the Dragon, by parachuting a staffer dressed as Homer into Knights Castle. The original Hugo the Hornet also jumped with Smith’s crew.

      They’ll do what Smith calls “character jumps” too. Staffer Judy Girard sometimes portrays Marilyn Monroe in midair, complete with blonde wig and billowing dress. She’s made more than 4,500 jumps and Steve Vaughn, Smith’s director of training, has dived more than 7,000 times.

      For promotion, Smith’s getting help from James LaBarrie, whom he met while pursuing his other passion, golf. A former pro at Regent Park Golf Club near Carowinds Boulevard, LaBarrie struck a deal with Smith in which Smith taught him to skydive and LaBarrie tinkered with Smith’s golf game. Smith hopes to cut his handicap to single digits. Meanwhile, LaBarrie has signed on full-time to publicize Skydive Carolina.

“It’s a business you can make an honest living in,” Smith says. Then he smiles and adds, “I’m blessed to take a hobby and turn it into a profession. It’s given me an enjoyment that a lot of people never get.”

Retirement isn’t in his vocabulary, he says as he vows to continue diving as long as possible: “As long as you stay healthy and can pull a rip cord, you can parachute.”

      “My goal is to just keep on improving the business and making it better,” Smith muses. “Definitely keeping it safe, that’s my number one goal. I want my legacy to be, ‘He ran a safe drop zone.’”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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