I could die.
Endless possibilities swirl along with the growling engine of the Cessna 182 wide-body airplane.
At 6,000 feet and climbing, Kenneth “Sonny” Bader, 65, yawns. Plunging to the ground at a high velocity doesn’t enter his mind. Instead, he contemplates a long nap. After all, Sonny has 6,500 jumps under his feet. He is no rookie. His son, Travis, 29, moves gracefully in the small space, unhooking his seatbelt and slapping a black helmet over his head. The aircraft’s interior is tight, allowing enough room for only four people and the pilot.
Just a week before, I sat across from both men sipping a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Skydiving had never been on my bucket list. Why would I want to jump out of a perfectly good plane?
“It’s a fascination. It’s beautiful. It’s an incredible experience,” Travis explains. “It’s just you and the air, fast-paced, and then you have the serene, quiet canopy ride.”
Sonny insists the only way to really know what it’s like is to come out and try it. Newcomers could either jump alone or tandem (with a certified skydiver).
Yeah, right. And yet…a desire to leap into the unknown appealed to me. A week later, fear paralyzes my mind as I fill out forms, basically signing my life away. I watch a brief video where an old bearded skydiving legend warns about all the ways I could get injured, maimed, or die.
The Lincoln Sport Parachute Club members calm me down. “No one has died from it in the club,” Sonny says. He suspects the last skydiving death in Omaha occurred almost 40 years ago, and modern technology has decreased the odds.
Sonny, a Federal Aviation Administration Master Rigger, checks, repairs, and modifies each pack. I trust his skill as the airplane climbs in elevation to the drop zone. Tandem master Greg Hladik is sitting behind me in the plane, so close his chest vibrates against my back as he talks.
“We are in this together,” Hladik reminds me. Screaming, throwing up, or clinging are all a part of the tandem game. With 300 tandems and 1,260 jumps to his credit, Hladik reminds people to slow down their minds, take it all in, and enjoy the ride.
“I love it. It’s a thrill every time,” he says.
Hladik, a paramedic with the Omaha Fire Department for the past 11 years, is known for his state and national record-setting wingsuit formations. He begins the process of hooking us together as I make the mistake of glancing out the window to watch the increasingly distant plains below.
The pilot, Rick Buesing, turns around with a confident smile as we ascend to 10,000 feet.
“Are you ready?” Sonny asks.
“No, but I’m okay,” I reply. The thought of plummeting into the deep blue sky has my stomach dropping before even approaching the exit door.
Sonny’s first taste of free-falling came right after high school in 1970 when he joined the Army. An airborne recruiter roped him into a parachuting opportunity. Stand up. Hook up. Go. As Sonny exited the door, he couldn’t believe the rush. It was a shot of adrenaline he had never experienced before. Sonny became hooked, a junkie.
“I jumped many times after that. I got high off the opportunity to get high,” Sonny says laughing.
For three years, Sonny was active duty with the 82nd Airborne Division. He later trained in long-range surveillance with the Nebraska National Guard for 25 years until he retired as an E8 master sergeant. After the Army, he attended college to become a car mechanic. At an Omaha Royals game, Sonny saw a group of skydivers jump and realized he missed the excitement. Soon after, he became involved with the Omaha Skydivers for two years. When the group disbanded, Sonny joined the Lincoln Sport Parachute Club in 1979. He earned experience in tandem, demonstration, and static line jumping. Plus, Sonny gained an entire new family that loved leaping from planes as much as he did.
On the side, Sonny still taught skydiving ground classes at home every Friday and Saturday night. He used his then-3-year-old son, Travis, to show students the perfect arch. Sonny would hold Travis in the palms of his hands, throw him up, and have him assume the position. Travis and his sister, Toni, would jump off the coffee table to demonstrate a tuck-and-roll.
Toni made about 20 jumps before she discovered boys, but Travis was born to rock the airwaves.
“I was more nervous handing him a set of car keys than handing him a parachute,” Sonny recalls.
Travis, then 16, had the wildest nightmares before his big tandem.
“There is nothing natural about launching yourself from an airplane. Don’t do skydiving if it doesn’t make you nervous,” Travis says. “It has to have that fear factor. You are not shying away from fears, but embracing it.”
Travis dived his first tandem when he was just 16, following with a solo when he turned 21. Travis, a U.S. postal worker, became a static line instructor on the side.
“That’s what I do for money, but skydiving is what I do for a living,” he says.
Travis watched his father, a professional exhibition-rated skydiver, when he participated in numerous ground crews. His dream was to do a demonstration jump with his father. Travis had his chance two years ago, after receiving his own PRO rating from the U.S. Parachute Association. Both would jump into TD Ameritrade for a military tribute event.
“Are you ready?” Sonny asked his son.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment my entire life,” Travis remembers replying. He now has 750 jumps to his credit, plus a PRO exhibition rating and a D license like his father.
In addition, Travis and his father compete in skydiving events such as sports or zone accuracy. Sports accuracy is almost like a human dartboard. The person who lands closest to the bulls-eye wins.
“It’s like hitting the top of this coffee cup with your foot,” Sonny says.
Sonny, a 10-year accuracy champion, has had a two-year dry spell. The gold medal at the Cornhusker Games this year went to his son, but at least the tradition continued in the family. Travis now aspires to compete on the national level and is training to get his tandem license. Sonny is working on an instructor rating for scuba diving.
But it is obvious that both love their monthly meetings and weekend jumps with the club. The Lincoln Sport Parachute Club skydivers, 60 strong and welcoming of new members, love seeing other people safely enjoy skydiving and the friendships that come with it. Sonny bursts out laughing remembering one woman’s enthusiasm. She waved and even kissed the cameraman. After 30 seconds of freefall, the chute opened up, and she said, “I think I just had an airgasm.”
It can be expensive. For example, a tandem will run someone $250. Add a video, and it can run an additional $125. But join the club, and a dive will only run about $20. (Annual dues cost $125. Members are also required to belong to the U.S. Parachute Association and have made at least five jumps.)
Travis slides the door of the plane open with a grin as he, along with his father, crawls out on the ledge. A blast of frigid 100-plus mph wind rushes into the compact area. Hladik throws me on his lap and pushes me toward the edge.
With my legs hanging over the side, I have second thoughts. Hladik rocks twice…and just like that, we dive.
I could explain the absolute cool and chaotic insanity of the free fall, the hushed beautiful stillness of the canopy, or the relief of softly hitting the ground. But, like Sonny says, come out and experience it for yourself.
Visit skydivelspc.com for more information about the Lincoln Sport Parachute Club.
This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.