Freedom of Flight

By Beacon Staff

“What can I say about something I love so much? It’s the joy of my life, the beat of my heart. It cleanses my soul. The freedom of the flight can do more to change one’s perspective on life than any earthbound freedom.”

    – “Fly” by J.M. Carson, written on a memorial plaque at the airstrip and skydive center at Lost Prairie

The roar of the propeller drowned out the singing crickets.

Alyssa Swain gathered around her mother and friends to say goodbye.

It was Swain’s 18th birthday. They had traveled from Helena to the secluded airstrip tucked in the mountains west of Kalispell in Lost Prairie.

More than two years ago, she and her stepfather began making plans to celebrate Swain officially reaching adulthood. They made a pact to skydive together.

Less than three months before Swain’s milestone, her stepfather passed away. She was able to spend time with him by his bedside in the hospital, and during those final days she reassured him that she would still jump.

On July 24, Swain climbed inside the small red, white and blue Cessna 182.

When the plane reached 9,000 feet above ground, the instructor opened the side door of the airplane. The sudden loud air took Swain’s breath away.

Swain jumped. Strapped to her tandem instructor, she plummeted for nearly 30 seconds. Then a wide parachute exploded open and she floated for more than five minutes, back down to the crowd of cheering onlookers.

“You can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like. You have ideas but it’s just unimaginable once it happens,” she said afterward. “The jump was terrifying but awesome.”

“I felt safe,” she added, “because I felt like I had my guardian angel with me.”

Why do people do it, tempt providence?

For Swain, it began as an exciting way to celebrate a milestone. It became a tribute to a loved one.

Some people jump once, as a rite of passage or a way to check something daring off their list of goals. Others tally a lifetime of leaps.

Like mountaineers who scale treacherous peaks, or deep-sea divers plunging into unmapped labyrinths, skydivers test mortality, indulge in adrenaline and explore those earthly realms that seem off limits.

It’s a dangerous and, some would say, unnecessary pursuit. Yet those who are devoted enthusiasts speak of it with reverent tones and significance.

“There’s something very interesting outside the door of an airplane,” said Fred Sand, sitting in the shade of Lost Prairie last week.

“I discovered it. There are people, after making one or two jumps, they decide they have to pursue it more. And then they become lifelong skydivers.”

Some like Sand describe it as being “bitten by the bug.”

“It’s a neat thing to do; a little bit beyond the norm, I guess,” Sand said. “But if the bug bites you, it usually bites you pretty good.”

Since 1980, Sand has owned and operated Skydive Lost Prairie on the pastureland 34 miles outside of Kalispell. It’s a drop zone and parachute center where Sand and his certified staff take adventure seekers into the air for an unforgettable flight.

“We show people what Montana looks like from 9,000 feet,” the 61-year-old Kalispell native said.

Lost Prairie is one of the oldest full-time skydive operations in the state, and for 10 days every summer, it also becomes a mecca for the sport.

This weekend marks the 46th annual Lost Prairie Boogie, the oldest continuous skydiving event in the U.S. The renowned festival attracts hundreds of people every year from across the country, from first-timers to experienced veterans, for a celebration that embodies the sport’s lively spirit.

Ryan McRoberts, right, helps first-time skydiver Alyssa Swain into a harness before heading out on their tandem jump at Skydive Lost Prairie near Marion. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

This year’s Boogie is Aug. 3-11. It’s hosted by Meadow Peak Skydiving, a company next door to Sand’s Skydive Lost Prairie, which welcomes members of the public to take part in the event by jumping or spectating from the ground. ESPN featured the Boogie as the state’s premier summer sporting event for its 2005 TV segment, “50 States in 50 Days.”

Along with small Cessnas that shuttle individual divers into the air, two large aircraft from Arizona are scheduled to return to this year’s event, allowing for large planeloads of 23 people to take the leap together from 13,000 feet.

“It’s a good place to come and hang out with your friends. It’s kind of a family reunion for a lot of people,” said Reggie Cardosa, a longtime skydiver who has traveled to Lost Prairie from Arizona off and on for 15 years.

“Some folks only jump once a year and it’s here when they come together.”

The Boogie dates back to 1967, when a group of locals in Kalispell fostered a collective passion for a relatively new activity. Skydiving truly emerged after World War II when veterans with experience jumping out of planes returned home. Some of them began making recreational parachutes and hitching rides on planes. The activity developed into a novel sport by the 1960s, and a group of skydivers that referred to itself as the Ospreys began organizing jumps from the municipal airport. By the late 1970s, the raucous gatherings outgrew the site and its urban environment, so the group searched for another more remote home.

Sand, who began skydiving in 1971 when his roommate at Flathead Valley Community College invited him, established the airstrip in Lost Prairie with the help of skydiving enthusiasts.

“Fred and some of the local guys here have been around for so many years. They are pioneers of this sport,” Cardosa said.

The Boogie has become one of the signature skydiving events in the U.S. Many divers tour a summer circuit of events, traveling from places like Illinois and Iowa and making sure to stop in Montana for the Boogie.

The festivities have also had their share of tragedies, though.

Most recently, the Boogie experienced fatal accidents in both 2010 and 2011.

On July 30, 2011, 27-year-old Zack Fogle of Kingston, Wash., died after his parachute failed to open during a group jump. Fogle was a licensed skydiver and had roughly five years of experience and logged more than 125 jumps.

On July 28, 2010, 57-year old Garl “Mike” Newby, of Colorado Springs, fell to his death from 13,000 feet. He was part of a group of jumpers that had just finished a formation dive when his main parachute got tangled with another jumper’s main chute. He was not able to deploy his reserve chute in time.

This year’s Boogie will feature a ceremony and jump in memory of Joel Atkinson. Atkinson, an instructor, died in a May 2007 plane crash in Lost Prairie that killed all five people on board. The crash was blamed on 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.

Skydiving cameraman Todd Griswold composes a shot as he enters the small aircraft before heading up to film a tandem jump at Skydive Lost Prairie near Marion. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

In the past few years, skydivers have paid tribute to Atkinson by designating a “Jump for Joel” day. There is also a memorial garden at one end of the runway and a commemorative monument made of stone at the other end, featuring the name of Atkinson and David Landeck, Jr., who also died in the crash.

This year, on Aug. 9, another tribute to Atkinson is being organized in the form of a scholarship fund supporting young skydivers. A raffle and other festivities will be held to raise money during the day, with family members expected to take part in paying homage.

Atkinson’s stone memorial at Lost Prairie sits next to a tribute for another fallen skydiver: a plaque reading Joan Carson Memorial Field and featuring a poem by Carson titled “Fly.”

Carson was among the handful of initial skydivers and investors who helped acquire the land near Marion that would eventually become the airstrip and beloved drop zone of Skydive Lost Prairie. But a year after the site was established, in May 1981, Carson died in a skydiving accident at that very site when her main parachute and reserve chute failed.

Carson’s poem, which describes her passion for skydiving and helps explain why generations of divers have continued to risk everything and leap out of a plane, begins with a question.

“What can I say about something I love so much?” she wrote.

The answer: “The freedom of flight.”

The Lost Prairie Boogie is free and open to spectators during the day. For more information, visit www.skydivelostprairie.com or call 406-858-2493.

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