By Linda Scherer
WINSTED, MN Westside Skydivers owner Joe Johnson has been operating his skydiving business out of the Winsted Municipal Airport since the spring of 2010, with remarkable success in a very short amount of time.
Following the same formula he used to set up his skydiving business in Winsted, Johnson has made plans for a second drop zone in Houston, TX which is to open between Oct. 1 and Nov. 1 of this year.
The plan is to name the new skydiving business Westside Skydivers Houston and the Winsted skydiving operation will be renamed Westside Skydivers Minneapolis.
“It’s a done deal,” Johnson said of his Houston drop zone. “A beautiful piece of land with an airstrip and no activity on it. The owner wants a skydiving operation down there,” Johnson said.
“The nice thing about Houston is there are 6.3 million people and there are only two other drop zones serving them,” Johnson added. “I will be the third one.”
The property owner of 500 acres of land, which includes a 4,400-foot airstrip where the Westside Skydivers’ future drop zone will be located, contacted Johnson with an offer when he learned Johnson was looking for a drop zone in the Houston area to expand his skydiving business.
Johnson has been traveling back and forth to Houston, working out all of the details.
“We are really excited about this, and the guy down there is really, really happy that he found us,” Johnson said. “It’ a win-win for everybody.”
The opening of the Houston skydiving business late this fall will allow Johnson to use most of his equipment from Winsted initially.
“That way we won’t open the doors a million dollars in the hole,” Johnson said. “We can go with our airplane, gear and get everything in place before we get to the busy season, which is March to September in Houston, and June to September in Minnesota.”
Johnson is also working with a private finance group that might invest some money for additional skydiving operations for several other drop zones in the country.
“So far they like the numbers and it would be my ticket to retirement,” Johnson said of the possibility.
Other drop zone locations Johnson is considering would be in Florida, California, and New York. Johnson said he looks at areas with few drop zones and a large population.
“I have spent a good portion of my skydiving career traveling the world, working in places like Australia and Malaysia, jumping all around the country, and I know what works and what doesn’t work,” Johnson said.
Westside Skydivers in Winsted
It’s skydiving as usual at Winsted Municipal Airport this season. Westside Skydivers is open seven days a week. Skydiving begins one-half hour after sunrise, and ends one-half hour before sunset.
A Cessna Caravan aircraft, which is seat belted for 16, is currently being used. The plane holds two less jumpers than last year’s Cessna Grand Caravan, but the plane performs better, according to Johnson.
It has the same engine in horsepower, but is a smaller plane, and weighs 500 pounds less. The lighter weight allows the plane to climb faster, uses less fuel per load, and is easier to fill to capacity.
When the skydiving business first opened two years ago, Johnson had estimated he would do 1,000 tandems, but he almost doubled his initial projections with a total of 1,953 jumps.
The only employees at that time were Johnson, one tandem instructor, and a pilot.
Today, Johnson employs six full-time skydivers (which includes himself), several part-time skydivers; and one full-time and three part-time pilots. He also has a full-time airplane mechanic to maintain the plane.
“No one in the industry north of Chicago can say that they have an on-staff mechanic. As far as the Minneapolis market, that is huge,” Johnson said.
Last year, he projected his skydiving business would do about 3,000 tandems, but the year ended with a total of 4,219 tandems.
“The 2011 numbers were my three-to five-year projections, and this year I am guessing the jumps will be somewhere in the 6,000 range,” Johnson said.
Another accomplishment for Johnson is just a few weeks away, when he gets his pilot’s license, a project he began working toward last year which will add a second pilot to his list of employees. He is soloing now with about 34 hours of flight time and about 140 to 150 landings. A total of 40 hours minimum of flight time is needed for his license.
New at Westside Skydivers
High altitude tandems at 24,000 feet and 18,000 feet are offered at Westside Skydivers. A normal tandem is done at 13,000 feet.
Both high altitude jumps require skydivers to use oxygen until they are ready to jump.
“We are only the second place in the country (aside from military jumps) that offer 24,000-foot tandems,” Johnson said. “The cost is higher because we need oxygen on-board and the preparation for the jump is a lot more work.”
The only other group in the country that does the high altitude jump is a group based out of Tennessee, according to Johnson.
Is the jump dangerous?
“Yes and no,” Johnson said. “If you have trouble with the oxygen system, the potential to black out is greater. You can only go from the time you quit breathing supplemental oxygen for about one minute before you black out. So there is that risk,” Johnson said.
However, Johnson said there is a built-in system that is always there and Westside Skydivers takes the utmost precautions to make the jump as safe as possible.
There are several advantages to jumping at 24,000 feet. One is that it offers the skydiver a longer freefall time. At 24,000 feet, that is two minutes of freefall time.
The skydiver has the satisfaction of knowing he is experiencing a jump few, besides the military, have made. Another reason for jumping from that height is the view.
“You can see the curvature of the earth from 24,000 feet,” Johnson said. “It’s just beautiful, really beautiful. But it’s very cold.”
Just a few weeks ago, on a very nice Sunday, the temperature at 24,000 feet was zero degrees, according to Johnson.
“It’s almost like a space environment because it’s so cold.”
Upcoming skydiving events
For the summer, Westside Skydivers has several events on its calendar.
A large group of women 50 years and older, called “Aging but Dangerous” is coming to Winsted to do an annual skydiving experience. Johnson estimates there will be more than 100 women who will participate Saturday, July 14.
Also on the schedule, for the second year, is the Autism Awareness Foundation’s event, “The Sky is the Limit,” to take place Saturday, June 23.
Participants who raise $500 or more will receive one tandem jump, a personal DVD of their skydive experience, and lunch.
There were 30 participants who raised more than $6,000 last year. The goal for this year’s event is to have 100 skydivers.
A skydiving event for The Angel Foundation has been scheduled for Friday and Saturday, Aug. 10 and 11. The Angel Foundation is a nonprofit that helps people with terminal cancer, providing emergency financial assistance
Still waiting for confirmation on a date for skydivers Fr. Tony Hesse and Craig Remer who are jumping for Holy Trinity Schools. They were the winners of Holy Trinity’s Spring Fling Auction.
Johnson’s skydiving customers are anywhere from 18 years old to his oldest, so far, at 98 years old. They are all nationalities and from all walks of life, Johnson said.
Approximately 60 percent of Johnson’s customers are female, and 40 percent are male.
“Believe it or not, the boys are more scared than the girls when they jump, but they will never admit it,” Johnson said.
With more than 9,000 career jumps behind him, Johnson still enjoys the sport.
However, he is thinking this will be his last year skydiving full time, as far as doing tandems and jumping with students.
“Don’t get me wrong, I am not done skydiving. I don’t think I will ever be done skydiving,” he said.
Johnson said he doesn’t get the first-time jumper exhilaration when he jumps, but a calming sensation.
“For me, it’s that 60 seconds of freefall where my mind cannot be thinking of anything except the skydive,” he explained. “That is when I get a break and my mind gets to shut off for a minute at a time a minute of peace and quiet and it’s very addictive if you get that adrenaline dump. It’s a powerful experience.”
Johnson added, “It’s a hostile environment, yet it’s a peaceful environment, all at the same time. With a 120-mile-an-hour wind in your face at freefall, it’s really, really loud, but it seems like you are floating on a pillow of air. It’s pretty cool.”