Don is a legend around Skydive San Marcos–and for good reason. He’s a great skydiver, he’s a stone-cold pro instructor and he has an almost magical ability to befriend anyone within, like, two minutes. His smile has welcomed an innumerable amount of new jumpers to the sky–and it just might welcome you, too.
Don made his first skydive about 10 years ago. He was still working in the IT business at the time, and one of the guys on his team–a fella named Jim–was going skydiving for his birthday at Carolina Sky Sports in Louisburg, North Carolina.
“He said, ‘Who wants to come?,’ and about 12 people were like, ‘Yeah!,’” Don laughs. “Of course, the day of the jump it was just the two of us that showed up.”
Don didn’t waste a moment. He enrolled in the Carolina Sky Sports’ student skydiving program–but the weekend he was supposed to complete his ground school, the dropzone suddenly stopped doing civilian operations.
“I made 5 jumps in their Tandem Progression program,” Don winces. “This is one of the reasons I see TP programs as a way to separate students and their money and not a way to teach skydiving.”
He had to start over, so he committed to a longer drive and signed up at the Raeford Parachute Center. Lucky for us, the people and opportunities he encountered there sealed the deal for Don. In short order after AFF, he earned his USPA Coach rating, did quite a bit of 4-way and 8-way Relative Work jumping, perfected his aerial-videography game and picked up an AFF Instructor rating. He kept his IT job, but had fully embraced the “double life” that lots of fully committed skydivers lead: from Friday afternoon through Sunday night, you wouldn’t see him far from the dropzone. When the economy guttered and the IT job slid out from under him, Don was ready.
“I told myself, ‘Great! Now I’m going to do this full time,’” Don remembers. “I moved into my camper and onto the dropzone, as you do. That was in 2012 and a friend of mine was working down here in San Marcos. He told me wonderful things about this place–all of which, as it turns out, were true.“
“There are lots of really great people here,” he continues, “And I really like Texas. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I came out here for the first time, but I really like the culture around here. And the drop zone is great: Beautiful facilities, great aircraft, and the gear is taken care of. It is a fun but very professional vibe. I really dig that. I came down here to check it out and I never left.”
“The folks that are in charge, like Vic [Krusi, SSM’s General Manager], really help perpetuate that attitude: Basically, we’re going to go out and have fun, but we’ll be safe and smart about it. That lends itself to such an easy, laid-back approach to things, and so when there is correction that needs to be made, it’s taken very well. We have a really good positive feedback loop set up between the newer jumpers we have coming out and the more experienced skydivers who have been jumping out here since day one.”
Don points at that positive feedback loop as the self-sustaining heart of Skydive San Marcos’ approachable, inviting skydiving environment.
“I feel like if you set up a culture of safety that feels natural to people and comes from within,” Don notes, “Then you don’t have to do so much heavy-handed enforcement, because people are in the right place mentally. My approach is this: The less rules we have, the better, because the principles that guide us are going to keep people from needing those rules at all. If somebody had to put a sign, it is because there was a problem. We work hard and we teach hard to keep the problem from having in the first place so we never have to put up a sign.”
According to Don, the Skydive San Marcos community shares a passion for skydiving that pervades everything they do. On a weather hold, for instance, the staff will bide the time in examining the gear–not because they’ve been
told to, but because that’s what they love. Everyone chips in.
Don remembers an even more poignant example of this culture of volunteerism from just a couple of weeks previous, when the family and friends of a Marine that had passed came out to the DZ for an ash dive. Coincidentally, a Marine Freefall team was also out at the DZ doing some training and, through the grapevine, found out was going on. They volunteered to be part of it.
“Some of the local jumpers also got involved as well,” Don remembers. “Somewhere along the way Vic also volunteered to jump a 30’ American flag as part of the dive. It all came together at the last minute and ended up being something very special for the family.”
These days, Don–who describes himself as a “very goal-oriented person”–has been keeping himself very busy working on his examiner ratings, which will allow him to “teach the teacher.” He’s started with USPA’s Coach Examiner rating, and he plans to work his way through the full list.
“I didn’t really know that I would like to teach until I started teaching skydiving,” he grins, “And I found I really enjoy it. It’s fun to see people master these new skills–and, personally, I like to geek out about teaching methods and us them to teach people even more effectively and efficiently. For me, those examiner ratings are just the next step down the line.”
“I want to see this drop zone to continue to grow,” he asserts. “We’ve got a good core of fun jumpers here and some strong students coming up through the system, and I want to see that ramp up. Our tandem skydiving program keeps the lights on and keeps us in nice gear, but it’s the student program that really inspires me.”
“Skydiving is still at its most fun,” he concludes, “When you can do it with people who know what they are doing. I want my students to become the kind of skydivers that we all want to jump with. Out of all of it, that’s my biggest goal.”