July 15, 2023
The second part of a 6 part series,
2023 skydiving road trip.
Part 1 of this travelogue ended with Paula and I visiting the Omaha Nebraska Zoo. After the zoo we drive to Topeka, Kansas. I find a nice wooded campsite on Lake Shawnee. It is an easy drive to Topeka where we will see the sights tomorrow.
We awake to a beautiful clear sky, morning sun filtering through the canopy of trees. The urban city does not interest us, so we visit a prairie town which has been cobbled together by the Topeka historical society.
There are various old buildings including a train depot, barber shop, general store and drug store. I break some rule and Paula insists they put me in stocks.
I send pictures of the train depot to my friend Vic, whose hobby is rendering train depots from all over the country.
A few days later, he will text me his rendering of Pauline Depot, with Paula and I in the rendering.
We buy ice cream cones at the drug store.
Adjacent the prairie town is a botanical garden. It is a wonderful place to stroll.
Our plan is to skydive in Oklahoma tomorrow, Wednesday, so we drive this afternoon toward Skiatook Lake, Oklahoma state park campground.
Still in Kansas, on the road to Oklahoma we see a sign the says “Little House on the Prairie, turn left here.” So we turn left. There, on the right side of the road, in the middle of the prairie, is Laura Ingall’s childhood home.
On the left is a vast field of grass, shorter than we remember from the TV series. It is early in Spring. The grass will be head high and amber later in the Summer.
Our reservation address at Skiatook Lake delivers us to the ranger station which is not the campground and is closed. I employ some dead reckoning, dumb luck and the map app satellite view on my phone to find the campsite. Our site parks us broadside to a gusting 40 miles per hour wind on the shore of the lake. I am afraid that the wind will blow the RV over, so I swoop a nearby site which is not occupied and head the RV into the wind. Wave sounds and wind literally rock us to sleep.
It is Wednesday morning, calm blue skies. We break camp and drive the 15 minutes to Skydive Airtight in Skiatook, Oklahoma.
The hangar door is opening as we arrive. Captain Steve is walking the Cessna 206 airplane. What a pleasure it will be to board and exit the large cargo door. Paula organizes a zig zag zig zag skydive with two locals, Ashley and Jamie. The DZ owner, Captain Rick, helps Captain Steve push the airplane out of the hangar.
The 206 roars alive. The four of us board and we are off into the cloud dotted blue sky. At 10,000 feet the green farm fields stretch out as far as I can see. Steve cuts the engine. The runway is directly below. We exit the airplane. After performing a few points it is already time to open our parachutes. I sight-see the expanse of green. A gentle wind aids with our landings.
OKLAHOMA! is OK.
After Oklahoma our next road trip destination is Arkansas. The owner of Paradise Valley Skydiving in Clarksville, Arkansas said they would be open Friday. It is Wednesday, so we decide to drive to Spadra campground on Dardanelle Lake in Clarksville. The lake is an Army Corps of Engineers project on the Arkansas river. When we arrive at the campground there is a fire burning along the road next to the camp host’s trailer. A fire in the middle of a forest. My California training kicks in. I lift my phone to call 911. Just as the 911 operator picks up the camp host appears.
“Can I help you?” I point at the fire. “Just clearing some leaves,” says the host. I speak to the 911 operator. “Sorry, false alarm. Everything is under control.”
It had rained hard earlier in the day. The camp host took advantage of the wet ground to set a controlled burn along side the road.
Our campsite is under a canopy of trees along the bank of the lake.
We take a nice long walk through the woods along the shore. We cook dinner and get to bed early. The rain returns and lulls us to sleep.
Early in the morning a train blasts its horn and the click, clack of the railroad enters my waking dream. I hear the lyrics of a Monkeys song:
“Take the last train to Clarksville
And I’ll meet you at the station
You can be here by 4:30
‘Cause I’ve made your reservation
Don’t be slow
Oh, no, no, no
Oh, no, no, no”
The song will stay in my head for the next two days.
It is the day before our Arkansas jump, so we go into town to do laundry. On our way in we stop at the South Park Restaurant for breakfast.
Carmen did not serve us. We are weirdly relieved and disappointed at the same time.
Back at the campsite we take another walk, do the duty of black water dumping, fill our fresh water tank and make a delicious salad for dinner. It rains again over night. The train wakes me again in the morning, but this time it is familiar.
We wake to cloudy skies, break camp and head for Paradise Skydiving.
As with all the skydivers we have met, the staff at Paradise is friendly and interested in our quest to jump in all 50 states. They have tandems in the lobby and are hoping for a break in the clouds. Two hours later the cloud base is 5000 feet. Tandems need 8-10,000 feet. The owner of the drop zone decides to put up the Cessna 182 so Paula and I can do a clear and pull (AKA hop and pop). One of the locals joins us. The pilot searches the sky over the airport for altitude and finds 5,500 feet. He opens the door and each of us hops out of the airplane. 15 second delay and I pop my parachute. The air is misty and the wind is stiff. Our spot is down wind so I spend the whole parachute flight tacking toward the landing area. We all make it back and the wind makes for a soft landing. Paula joins me on the field for a high five. Back outside the hangar, we take our now traditional group picture.
Since it is Friday and the drop zone in our next state is open tomorrow, we say goodbye to Paradise and head for Tennessee. The drive scenery is more farms and forests when we break out onto a huge steel bridge.
We are crossing the Mississippi into Memphis. An hour later we arrive at Wings Field, home of West Tennessee Skydiving. The legendary jump pilot Mike Mullins, owner of the drop zone, has made arrangements for an RV slot in the resident drop zone ghetto. The drop zone is an entire valley with vast grass fields to land in.
The hangar is open, so we explore all of Mike’s toys.
There is a helicopter and a biplane for skydiving. The Cheyenne 400LS is used for 41,000 foot HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) skydives. Special oxygen masks are provided for use in the airplane and in free fall. If you are a single jumper the cost is $24,000. With six jumpers on board the price is $11,000 per person. We decide not to spend the money for an additional 3 minutes of freefall. There is another sexy looking airplane in the hangar which is Mike’s personal aircraft. The star of the show is West Tennessee’s regular jump plane. It is a B90 Super King Air. The airplane has been upgraded with two 750 hp PT6 turbine engines.
We are greeted by a local jumper, Brianna. Brianna roller skates to keep up with Paula’s fast walking pace on the long walk around the skydiving center. While walking the drop zone, I rescue a little frog from the runway.
He would not have stood a chance against the King Air.
The next morning we fill out waivers. We see Brianna who brings her friend Allen over to us. Paula organizes a 4 way skydive. It is an open accordion fly-around jump. After an unlinked exit four jumpers take hands in an accordion formation. The two outside skydivers fly around to take each other’s place. It breaks at the middle and the two pairs turn 180° to re-dock, then it repeats. This jump has become one of our favorites for sharing with new friends on this trip. We manifest. We are slated on the third load. The expansive hangar’s packing area is packed. On the ten minute call we gather in the main hangar. A solo jumper asks if he can lurk us. It is OK with us. The King Air pulls through a huge door in the hangar, stops next to the skydivers, we all board the airplane, then the King Air taxies out of the hangar through another door and out to the runway. We are all seat belted on the floor of the airplane when the turbine engines roar and the King Air makes a near vertical take off. One minute later we are unhooking our seat belts. Seven minutes after take off we are at 14,000 feet on jump run. Skydiving jump planes normally have a red light and a green light next to the door. Red light means open the door. Green light means exit the airplane. Mike Mullins does things a little differently. At the beginning of jump run he dips the aircraft in a zero-g weightless maneuver. This floats everyone onto their feet. The maneuver is also the cue to open the door and begin exiting the airplane. In spite of sitting on the floor with heavy parachute rigs we all stand effortlessly. Someone opens the door and we begin to climb out. Mike’s voice is heard over the PA, “EXIT, EXIT, EXIT.” Because Mike carves a left curve through the sky on jump run, there is a calm bubble of air outside the door. The bubble of are makes it easy for myself and Allen to climb out and float (hang on the outside of the airplane). When I let go of the airplane the wind smacks my face, like a motorcyclist in an open faced helmet, suddenly in a 120 mile an hour wind. We perform six points in the fly-around. Our lurker can be seen in the video flying around us, tapping here and touching there. Because we exited at 14,000 feet the freefall is 10 seconds longer than we are used to. Something screams in my head… PULL, PULL, PULL.
We break off a little early as planned, then Paula and I fly to each other for a kiss.
When my audible altimeter sounds we track away and open our parachutes. The spot is perfect. We are dead center over the landing area.
TO BE CONTINUED next week…
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