MARION – Joel Atkinson always wanted to be in the sky.
When he jumped from an airplane, whether as a skydiving instructor or just on his dives, he was immediately thinking about getting back in the air once he reached the ground. This is the Atkinson friends and family remember. Now his memory is permanently rendered in the form of two memorials at Skydive Lost Prairie near Marion, where Atkinson worked as a skydiving instructor and where he died.
On May 12 of last year, Atkinson and four others died when the airplane they were flying in crashed at Lost Prairie. The cause of the crash is attributed to a loose oil cap that allowed oil to splash up on the plane’s windshield, obstructing the pilot’s view and causing him to lose control, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Today, there is a memorial garden at the end of the runway and a commemorative monument made of stone at the other end. Gail Linne, Atkinson’s mother, said the garden is a place of healing.
“It’s a pretty peaceful place to come,” Linne said. “It’s trying to make some sense out of our sorrow.”
Along with the memorials at Lost Prairie, this year Atkinson will also be remembered at the 41st Annual Skydive Lost Prairie Boogie, one of the largest skydiving gatherings in the nation that runs from July 26 to Aug. 4. July 28 will be designated as “Jump for Joel” day, while a raffle will be held on Aug. 1 to contribute to the Joel Atkinson Memorial Fund.
The fund is reserved for contributing to skydiving education and training at Lost Prairie, and equipment if necessary, Linne said. It’s what Atkinson, who loved sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge of skydiving, would have wanted, she said. Also, Aug. 4th is the celebration of what would be Atkinson’s 27th birthday.
But as far as Bjorn Fetveit, one of Atkinson’s best friends, is concerned, any summer day is dedicated to his longtime buddy.
“When summertime came,” Fetveit said, “you couldn’t keep Joel on the ground.”
Atkinson, who was born and raised in Kalispell, showed up to Lost Prairie the day he turned 18, Linne said, but he couldn’t jump because of weather. So he came the next day and his love of the sky was born. Over the next eight years, he jumped nearly 1,500 times, including a year’s worth on the north shores of Oahu in Hawaii.
To fund his passion, he worked multiple jobs along with his skydiving instructor responsibilities. He bounced around from masonry to construction to delivering pizzas – whatever kept him in the sky.
Despite his nonstop schedule, he always made time for his friends, Fetveit said.
“If he wasn’t slinging pizzas or jumping out of planes, he was bowling with us,” Fetveit said.
Skydive Lost Prairie is reputed as a first-class skydiving location, one of the best in the Northwest United States. The crash reverberated not only through Lost Prairie circles, but throughout the skydiving community. Along with Atkinson, the wreck also claimed the life of another skydiving instructor, David Landeck Jr. of Missoula. Pilot Troy Norling of Onalaska, Wis., and Jennifer Sengpiel and Kyle Mills, an engaged couple from Great Falls, also died when the Cessna 182C went down.
Originally the memorial garden was set up at the crash site, but cattle and access difficulties forced friends and family to move it. Standing at the garden’s current location, nestled at the end of the runway, Linne motioned to the runway and then toward the crash site on a recent afternoon as friends laid down gravel around the garden.
“It’s amazing to think they took off here from the field, went over there, and then they were gone,” Linne said.
Atkinson’s father, Jim Atkinson, orchestrated the building of the stone monument, Linne said, while other family members have pitched in as much as possible. Along with his parents, Atkinson is survived by an older brother, Wade.
The garden has an assortment of colorful perennial flowers and copper ornaments, along with a framed photograph of Atkinson and a tribute to all five who died in the crash.
Each time Linne visits the garden she says a bluebird stops by and hovers for a few seconds at the end of the runway and then disappears. On the night when the final gravel was laid in preparation for the Jump Boogie, the bird hovered just long enough for Linne and a friend to point it out.
“There’s more than what you see,” Linne said. “This isn’t just any little tiny garden.”
Tickets for the raffle can be purchased at a variety of locations, including Books West, Pettyjohn’s Water Store and Skydive Lost Prairie, among others. Prizes include a free tandem skydive jump, dinner gift certificates to Showthyme in Bigfork and more. Contact Gail Linne at 862-1835 or Candice Thornton at 885-7023 for more information.
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