I drive four hours to skydive at Chicagoland Skydiving Center (CSC). I do this every other weekend (or more), for most of the midwest skydiving season. I live in Fort Wayne, Indiana, so CSC is not the closest dropzone to me, not by a long shot. I make this drive because it is worth it to me. And I’m not the only one that drives this far.
Who am I, and why does my experience matter? I'm your average fun jumper in the midwest, faced with a short season, mostly weekend availability, and middle class income. I represent the "weekend warrior" who has put the time and effort in to evaluating my options in the area.
I made my first skydive as a tandem student in 2011. That first skydive was at CSC, and it changed my life. I went after my A license in 2012. Since then, I have made 300+ jumps and earned by USPA C license and a USPA Coach rating. I have had a couple of “Home Dropzones” since 2011 and have visited 9 others as a regular nomad and 7 others as a day, weekend, or boogie visit. I’m by no means the most experienced skydiver, I’m also not completely wet behind the ears. I made CSC my home in 2015 and only wish I had made that decision sooner.
There are 234 miles between my house and CSC, and the drive takes anywhere from 4 to 6 hours, depending on how unlucky I get with Chicago traffic. I have at least five other dropzones closer to home. In my search for my home dropzone, I wanted to find the magic combination of facilities, staff, and vibe. To get it, that drive is worth it to me.
Here's why I decided to call CSC home (in order of importance):
- Professionalism of the staff and experienced jumpers
Let me elaborate.
I have never had an issue with safety at CSC, and let me tell you, that's a big deal. Everyone watches out for everyone else. Everyone follows the rules. No one is exempt from the rules. Seatbelts are worn as required, gear is maintained, exit separation is observed, landing patterns are adhered to, and wind limits are followed. The safety culture is strong, and it stays that way due to communication, consistency, and accountability.
These things matter to me, and it scares me that they don’t matter to some at other places. I need to have confidence that I’m not going to get hurt by someone being allowed to do something irresponsible.
I'm being gentle to say that the safety standards tend to be lackadaisical at small dropzones. That isn’t to say that there aren’t any small dropzones that prioritize safety, but in my experience, a strong safety culture doesn't exist in that environment the same way it does at a larger DZ. Unfortunately, I experienced this first hand.
I was at [name withheld] dropzone. We scrambled to put together sunset load in time. In order to make it work economically, the owner of the dropzone got on the load so we could meet the minimum to fly. This was a small airplane with a front right side exit door (Cessna 182). My friend was in the spot at the door, I was just behind him, another friend to my side, and in the back, the dropzone owner. As we started to taxi to the runway, three of us buckled up, the dropzone owner did not. I asked the pilot to stop the plane to give the last person a chance to fasten his seatbelt before taking off. The dropzone owner proceeded to tell the pilot to take off anyway because he owns the plane and doesn't need to wear a seatbelt. If that made you cringe reading it, imagine how I felt sitting there. I asked the pilot to stop, and I got off the plane. So much for meeting the minimum to fly.
Who is to blame? As skydivers know, 99.9% of loads take off just fine. But, in the event of an accident, the person unrestrained by a seatbelt would have come crashing into person in front of him, or worse. No thanks, I don’t need to skydive so badly that I want to take that chance, nor should you. Additionally, the pilot should care what's going on in his aircraft, and was irresponsible to be willing to proceed in this situation. But his boss is saying it's okay. See what I mean that safety is a culture, not an action?
I have been trained how to save my own life. What I do not want is the lack of observance of safety in another skydiver to cost me the opportunity to save myself. CSC will never put me in a situation to have to make this choice.
As with any group activity, you have to feel right about what you are doing with the people you are doing it with. I skydive because I love my life, and nothing makes me feel more alive. I love this sport and the feeling I get after just one jump changes my mood for the better every time. Is saving a little gas money worth it to give up this part of the experience? For me, no.
Every day I've spent at CSC is great. Even when I'm the one who blows up the exit, or goes low on the formation, or biffs a landing. From my very first tandem jump there I felt safe, I felt included in this family, I felt like I belonged there.
Yes, it is possible to have a lot of fun and operate a respectable skydiving business. Events can be well planned and organized. A DZ can make you feel like you're a child at an amusement park (everything around you just magically works).
When the operations director at CSC tells you at the bonfire that the first load of the day tomorrow will go up at 8AM, you can count on a number of things:
- There will be a full staff meeting 30 minutes before start time, and everyone will be there ready to roll.
- The staff will know the operating procedures for the day (how many students, special event information, winds, landing direction, landing pattern, jump run, etc.), and will be able to advise anyone jumping of the procedures in the loading area.
- The data board with the information from the staff briefing will be posted for all jumpers to read and discuss with others on their loads.
- Manifest will be ready to put jumpers on planes by 7:45.
- Students will be waivered, trained, and geared up for load one. Experienced jumpers will be there, anxiously awaiting that 15 minute call.
- The party will have stopped the night before in time for everyone to be sober, awake, and ready to skydive.
- Anyone that partied too hard will not be allowed to jump until they are ready to skydive, not a moment sooner.
- The airplane will be prepped by the pilot and the props will be ready to spin for 8AM takeoff.
Contrast that to many dropzones where “wheels up at 8AM” is more of a wish than procedure.
I've seen DZ managers not bother to show up until 10:30AM on a Saturday. I have had to go to a dropzone owner's house at noon to get the keys to the plane and hangar because he was still asleep after partying too hard the night before. I have had entire weekends of skydiving canceled because the staff went on a Friday night bender, and unable to skydive on Saturday so they just partied it up even more the rest of the day and night..and there goes Sunday. I'm all for a great party, but when it gets in the way of you or your staff operating your business, you've gone too far.
I have never even come close to experiencing this at CSC. The staff care so much about the safety of every jumper as to keep a person from manifesting because of lack of sleep or a hangover. Even for a seasonal, weather-dependent business, nobody's money is worth enough to put someone in danger.
If you are lucky enough to have reasonable driving-distance choices for where to skydive near Chicago, you have to consider aircraft. Cessna 182s are great little planes and they work very hard for skydiving operations, but let's face it: they are cramped, slow, and most jump pilots won’t go higher than 9500 feet AGL with them. Not exactly ideal for a weekender who has to make the most of limited time off for skydiving.
Meanwhile, CSC has a meticulously maintained Super Twin Otter, a PAC 750 XL, and steady stream of other visiting turbine and specialty aircraft. I like roomy, fast aircraft flown by pilots who don't skimp on altitude. 12 minutes to get to 14,000 feet? Yes please. Not to mention, CSC offers 18,000ft tandems, meaning I can throw a few more dollars down, and get higher altitude jump just about any day I'd like.
The other big deal is maintenance. Airplanes are expensive to buy and maintain, and we've all seen jump planes that could use a little love. I don't like wondering what the maintenance record of my airplane looks like, and I'm at ease on this at CSC. The planes are kept in tip top shape and are cared for by the staff and jumpers alike.
Despite being last on this particular list, this is a big deal. I don't believe you need a fancy hangar in order to have a great skydiving operation, but it sure does make things more comfortable. This is an area CSC did not hold back. The buildings are modern, and boast all the amenities a jumper could want.
- Team rooms with secure keycode entry
- Private shower rooms with tile floors
- Guest lounge with satellite TV, DVD, etc.
- High speed internet access
- Ample indoor padded packing area
- Full service restaurant and bar
- Classrooms, conference room, and debrief stations
- Master rigging loft and one of the industry's biggest gear stores
- Free tent camping, an RV area, and extra bathrooms and showers
- Quiet areas to relax
- Huge spectator area
- Bonfire pit and events tent
- Three landing areas and forgiving outs for every kind of wind conditions
I could go on and on here too but again, I think you get my point. To top it all off, the place is spotless. There is no one on the staff that is too important to empty a trash can or pick up debris from the yard. It's part of the culture to keep it clean. I guess skydivers CAN have nice things!
To wrap it up, I'll simply state that CSC is my place of zen. I drive that far because no other place compares. If you've never been, I invite you to come check it out, and see for yourself. CSC even gives experienced jumpers their first skydive free during the first visit. Seriously. You owe it to yourself to experience what I have. Join me!