By Starrla Cray
WINSTED, MN Growing up near the Osceola, WI skydiving club, Joe Johnson often imagined what it’d be like to leap out of a plane and soar through the atmosphere.
His first jump didn’t happen until his 28th birthday, but Johnson quickly made up for lost time.
“Now, 12 years later, I’ve done 10,000 jumps in eight different countries,” he said.
Johnson’s skydiving business in Winsted has also blossomed. When Westside Skydivers first opened in 2010, it did about 2,000 tandem jumps. That number rose to 4,200 in 2011, and 5,100 in 2012. In the future, an annual average of 4,000 to 5,000 tandems is anticipated.
At Westside Skydivers, student skydivers do two tandem jumps (meaning that they are harnessed to the instructor) before diving alone.
“Tandems are my favorite,” Johnson said. “I really enjoy sharing that experience with someone for the first time.”
Skydiving for a cause
In 2014, Johnson will be making an attempt to break the record (107) for most tandems in 24 hours to raise money for the Angel Foundation, an organization that provides financial assistance to cancer patients and their families.
“My dad received assistance from them,” said Johnson, adding that his father passed away from cancer in 2009.
Another non-profit Johnson plans to benefit through skydiving is Remote Area Medical (RAM), which gives free medical care to people in remote areas around the world. If the mission is able to go through, Johnson will be jumping in Guyana in March.
“I’ve always wanted to jump a doctor or nurse in,” he said, adding that skydiving will save two days of hiking where travel by vehicle is not feasible.
Journey to jumping
Back in 1991, when Johnson graduated from Chisago Lakes High School, he had no idea these kinds of opportunities awaited him.
“I was accepted into the math program at the University of Minnesota, and was thinking about becoming a financial advisor,” Johnson recalled.
He ended up studying at Vermillion Community College instead, but decided it wasn’t a good fit after two quarters. He then went to school at St. Paul Technical College for a machining degree, while working full time as a machinist at night.
After two quarters, Johnson quit school and became a landscaper during the day, while keeping his night-shift machinist job.
By his late 20s, Johnson was ready for something new skydiving.
“At that point, I wanted a hobby,” he said. “I was working all the time, and I really had no hobbies, and no life outside of work.”
Skydiving soon became his passion, and he became the head skydiving instructor at Skydive Twin Cities, in Baldwin, WI.
While in Baldwin, Johnson met Kristin Merritt, who grew up in that area. Initially, Merritt had no interest in skydiving.
“She didn’t even know what a tandem was when we met,” Johnson said.
After four or five months of convincing, though, she went for it.
“I was forced,” Merritt laughed.
Now, she’s done 70 jumps, and serves as Westside Skydivers’ drop zone manager.
Johnson and Merritt live next to the airport, and their sons, Ethan (8) and Sam (6), go to school at Winsted Elementary.
“Kristin is very friendly and very good with customers. She remembers people’s names,” Johnson said.
“It’s getting harder, now that it’s 5,000 people instead of 2,000,” Merritt said.
In part, Johnson attributes the rapid growth in his business to good customer service.
In November 2012, he opened a drop zone in Houston, TX, called Westside Skydivers Houston. By keeping a similar name, Johnson hopes to build national recognition for his company.
“It’s really exciting,” Johnson said. “I had people jump here, and then buy a gift certificate to Houston because they’ll be traveling down there.”
In the future, Johnson hopes to open a few more drop zones in other parts of the country, and possibly one in India, as well.
Johnson said he also enjoys the business and government aspect of having a skydiving operation, and does his best to alleviate concerns others may have.
“I’m lucky to do what I do,” he said. “It’s not really like work. Every day is Friday for me.”
To learn more about Westside Skydivers, call 888-758-JUMP.