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Skydiving business owner ready to jump in Winsted Airport

September 14, 2009

By Linda Scherer
Staff Writer

WINSTED, MN – Winsted Municipal Airport is where Joe Johnson, a skydiving instructor, would like to start his new business called West Side Skydivers.

He is hoping to move forward with his plans to open his facility at the airport April 2010, once an operation agreement with the City of Winsted can be reached.

Johnson is currently the safety and training advisor for Skydive Twin Cities in Baldwin, WI. He is a member of the US Parachute Association (USPA), holds a USPA Class D license, and has all skydiving instructional ratings.

He has made a total of 6,500 jumps in his career.

Growing up in Chisago County, about one hour north of the Twin Cities, Johnson first learned about Winsted’s airport through the FAA when he approached it with plans to start his own skydiving business.

“I told the FAA, ‘This is who I am, and this is what I want to do,’ Johnson said. ‘Where would you like me?’”

Johnson walked away with the names of three airport locations – Winsted Airport was at the top of the list.

He liked the general location right away because it was close to the cities.

The first thing he did was Google Winsted Airport on MapQuest and saw it has a grass runway.

That was a definite advantage for his business, Johnson said.

“It’s easier on the tires and equipment,” Johnson said.

Next, he looked at all of the land surrounding it and found it also was what he was looking for.

“Winsted is a beautiful town,” Johnson said. “It has a lot of water around it, making it a good visual from the air, and it is more than just a big farm field.”

When the jumpers are taken up to between 10,000 and 13,000 feet, they should be able to see the skylines of Minneapolis, and many lakes including Lake Minnetonka, according to Johnson.

“It is going to be so great,” Johnson said.

This is Johnson’s ninth year in skydiving, and something he calls his “passion.”

“You have about 60 seconds of free fall, so from the time you leave the airplane until the time you deploy your parachute, it is all about the skydiving – nothing else.”

He made his first jump in a program called accelerated free fall April 2001.

“I wasn’t afraid,” Johnson said. “Actually, there was so much stuff I had to do as far as training and I was so concerned about not screwing up with any of that, it didn’t concern me to jump out of the airplane,” Johnson said.

Since that first jump, he has made it one of his goals to own a skydiving operation someday.

He has worked at various drop zones throughout the US and in other countries, absorbing information from other skydiving operations and what makes them successful.

“Skydiving operations running out of municipal airports are pretty much standard. Most drop zones in the country run out of a municipal airport,” he said.

Johnson owns a window washing business, Blue Skies, that he runs from his home in Center City, and he has a satellite office in Norwood Young America.

His window washing business employs a manager and a two-man crew. When business gets busy, he adds employees as needed.

Owning a small business has given Johnson confidence in knowing he is ready to start this next major project in his life.

If the council gives its consent for Johnson to open his skydiving business in Winsted, Johnson will be moving not only his business to Winsted, but also he and his wife, Paula, have plans to buy a home next to the airport.

In addition, Johnson would be looking to buy property adjacent to the airport for a future facility which would include trailers for jumpers who would like to spend the night or weekend in Winsted.

To start, he will have a small Cessna 182 aircraft and one or two instructors, and go from there.

Eventually, he plans to lease a turbine aircraft (jet engine), which climbs faster and is more efficient.

The turbine aircraft will hold 12 to 17 jumpers at one time. The smaller plane will have enough room for four to five jumpers.

The operation would run from April to November. He is hoping to have approximately 1,000 jumps the first year of operation, and estimates 2,000 by the second year.

“Local business owners will benefit from the additional traffic,” Johnson said. “On any given weekend, there should be 15 to 20 folks that are just jumping for the pure enjoyment of jumping.”

Those people are doctors, lawyers, and computer programmers, who make a lot of money, according to Johnson.

People who will stay in Winsted for meals, also need gas, and would stay for the city’s entertainment.

To begin with, the skydiving business will operate out of an existing hangar, which Johnson plans to lease or purchase.

The airport’s property to the south of the hangar area and just north of McLeod County Road 5 will be used for the drop zone.

The drop zone is “huge” according to Johnson, giving the skydiver plenty of room to land.

“It is not like the old-time round parachutes, where you are just floating down and landing willy-nilly,” Johnson said. “Round parachutes have no control, they just drifted.”

The round parachutes were used when skydiving first became popular in the ‘70s, Johnson explained. Everybody was using old military surplus gear, which wasn’t very safe.

With today’s gear and with practice, a skydiver can land in a 10-meter circle, Johnson said.

New technology even allows jumpers to carry a small computer, called automatic activation devices, that fire a reserve chute at a predetermined altitude.

“So if you are in free fall, at a chosen altitude it will fire a reserve, so if you become unconscious or lose awareness of your altitude, you will not fall to the earth without a parachute. There is going to be a reserve to take its place,” Johnson said.

Even taking all the necessary precautions, accidents happen, and Johnson is open to questions about skydiving safety.

Johnson talked about the first fatality Skydive Twin Cities had last year, after being in business for 10 years.

The skydiver had used his own parachute.

“He miscalculated,” Johnson said. “He was doing what they call a hook turn.”

The jumper was an experienced jumper who had made between 5,000 and 6,000 jumps, according to Johnson.

“Everything was perfect,” Johnson said. “He lost one of his steering toggles – it slipped out of his hand – as he was coming out of his turn. It hooked him into the ground at about 60 miles per hour.”

Johnson told the city council at its Sept. 1 meeting that the skydiving operation where he currently works in Wisconsin, has called in emergency services approximately two or three times a year, usually for a sprained or broken ankle.

Once his skydiving operation is up and running, Johnson wants to promote his foundation for at-risk kids called “Fall Free.”

Johnson, who had a difficult childhood, wants to give youth the opportunity to experience the thrill of a jump.

“I am just hoping to let kids know people can be trusted. By helping others, it helps me, so it is a win, win for everybody,” he said.

Johnson has also taken training in Arizona for a program called RAM (remote area medical), offering his services as a volunteer who is willing to drop doctors and supplies into remote parts of the country. He has heard that there might possibly be an upcoming documentary on the program so people will be able to learn more about the service it provides.


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