Master tandem jumper Andy Tompkins (arms outstretched) comes in for a landing at an Aptos-area beach with Simi Mann of Los Angeles.
Just before sunset Wednesday, 21-year-old Vi Vu climbed aboard a Cessna 182 airplane at Watsonville Airport for a 20-minute trip that would give her a sweeping view of the Monterey Bay, the Santa Cruz Mountains and the green valleys fading into the horizon.
Then, safely fastened onto a man she had never met before that day, she leaped out of the plane’s door, hurling toward the earth at 120 miles per hour. For 90 seconds, the roaring wind in her ears was the only sound she could hear.
As she fell closer and closer to the earth, she watched the shapes on the ground — at that height looking like a mosaic of multihued puzzle pieces — slowly coalesce. Buildings
began to take shape; the cars on the tiny roads barely visible. Soon, she could make out the trees and gentle rises of the hills below.
Then, just as it seemed as the free fall would never end, her “jump master” pulled the ripcord, bringing the pair to an abrupt stop. She looked up and saw a giant red parachute canopy unfurl above her head. Then began a gentle eight-minute glide to a perfect landing on the beach below.
It was the first time Vu had gone skydiving. Her sister, Uyen, who had gone once before, came with her.
“It seemed like a fun thing to do,” she said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Vu’s trip was provided by Santa Cruz Skydiving, a new Santa Cruz County business that opened its doors in January. Based at the Watsonville Municipal Airport, it is the first of its kind in Santa Cruz County.
It’s also owned by a woman, a rarity in an industry largely dominated by men.
They offer “tandem jumps,” where jumpers are strapped to a highly trained professional who essentially does all the work, from leaving the plane to the landing.
Laura Mullen, owner and CEO, has been jumping from airplanes for 10 years, and has more than 5,000 jumps under her belt.
She previously worked as a midwife, comforting and supporting women as they gave birth. She said the experience she gained from that phase in her life — offering comfort and making her clients feel safe — prepared her perfectly for her role as a jump master.
“The thing that means the most to me is providing an experience where people feel loved and cared for,” she said, “where they know how glad I am to have them.”
“Sometimes, I think I’m more excited than they are to share the experience,” she said.
Mullen, with a smile that never seems to leave her face and a self-described “Chihuahua-like” energy, is also the in-air videographer, using a camera mounted on her helmet to take videos and pictures of tandem jumpers in free fall.
“This actually relaxes me,” said Andy Tompkins, one of the tandem masters of Santa Cruz Skydiving.
Tompkins said he used to work in the state prison system, but walked away from the job.
“You’ve gotta love what you’re doing,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
He said the size of the business allows employees to devote more time and effort to the customers.
“We’re small, but we like it that way,” he said. “We can give better customer service. I don’t like to be rushed.”
To even be considered as a tandem master, skydivers need at least 500 jumps. Most have several thousand, Mullen said.
Mullen said that the biggest attraction about skydiving is “facing your fears, facing the unknown, and living to tell about it.”
Simi Mann, from Los Angeles, came to the airport Thursday with her brother and his friends. She said she was terrified of skydiving at first.
After she landed at one of the company’s “drop zones,” a private beach just outside Watsonville, she was ecstatic.
“It was amazing,” she said. “They’re very friendly, and you really get to know them.”
Mann’s friend — Noel Dawson — is studying applied physics at UC Santa Cruz.
“It was awesome,” he said. “You feel like Superman, like you’re going to come down and save the world.”
For information, visit www.santacruz-skydiving.com or call 435-5169
*Photos by Tarmo Hannula*
(Published in 3/31/09 edition)
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