“I really just have a love for parachutes,” Tom Fortner insists. “That’s where this all started.”
It shows. Tom started packing parachutes in 1996, when he was just a kid, as an active contributing member of the family business (dropzone ownership, naturellement). As he grew in the sport and began jumping himself, he ended up picking up all the instructor ratings skydiving has to offer, then moved on to get his hardware rating—the “rigger ticket”—in 2005. Tom is currently studying to earn his Master Rigger certification, which is the highest certification available in parachute hardware design and maintenance, held by just a few people the world over. As of publication, Tom has been jumping for 20 years. He’s been a certified parachute rigger for 15. Suffice it to say: Tom has been deeply in love with parachutes for most of his life, and it shows in every pack job.
“I was really fascinated with the systems from day one,” he notes. “Form the moment my skydiver dad brought his parachute home and started showing me what these things were about, it was so neat. Just the elegant design of the kit itself captured my attention; later on, I was transfixed by the processes involved in making them, fixing them, sewing them together.”
“When I became a rigger,” he grins, “I realized you can sew everything. There are stitches in everything you see in every corner of your world if you just look for them. It really became a new experience to look around and see how much the world is stitched together.”
Tom’s work here at Skydive San Marcos is to put the stitches in our world. As a certified parachute rigger, he maintains all the parachuting equipment at Skydive San Marcos to his signature persnickety standards.
Tom’s high standards were passed down to him down the paternal line.
“I started packing when my dad started jumping,” Tom remembers. “He was the one that got me into skydiving. He would take me out to the airport with him during summers and on weekends. I would watch him jump, and he taught me how to pack.”
After a few years of this, Tom started packing parachutes at the dropzone where he was jumping in southern Colorado, not far from where he grew up.
At a certain point, Tom’s father decided to quit his day job and go all-in with skydiving. Tom and Tom’s little sister eagerly contributed their efforts to the cause, driving three hours each way to the new family dropzone every weekend to help out. As is the story with all small, family businesses, it wasn’t all cotton candy and puppydogs, but the sometimes-brutally-hard work paid off: The family-owned Denver Skydivers for a long time; a small dropzone in Boulder for a few years; a long-beloved Cessna operation in Casa Grande, Arizona; another one north of Jacksonville, Florida, on Emilia Island. As the Colorado dropzone became busier and busier, so did Tom, both in the sky and on the packing mat.
“That was our life for a lot of years,” Tom muses. “We’d drive hours to go work at the airport and see Dad, then go back and finish up high school. By the time I was a senior, I had lots of jumps under my belt. I ended up jumping into my high school rivals’ football game. I got to be the hero and landed on the spot on the 50-yard line, with the game ball, for the biggest game of my senior year.”
“I thought I was a rock star,” he laughs, “But the next day at school, nobody knew who I was! I don’t think they even knew what happened. I just flew down under a parachute and landed. They didn’t see any of the preparation for the jump; the exit out of the airplane; navigating down over a highly congested city. Nobody knew what I was doing.”
“GoPro has since opened our sport up to the world,” he continues, “and now people are getting a better sense of what’s involved and the nature of what we do. First-time tandem skydivers are coming in with a lot more education—some of it good, some of it bad, but the conversation has been started, and I think that’s really helping.”
It wasn’t long after that when the harsh Colorado winters got the best of Tom. Chasing sun, he came to Texas. Lucky for us, he loved it. He’s been here for a decade.
“Part of the appeal of this place,” Tom notes, “Is that, when I first showed up, the management really encouraged us to be multi-rated and to use those ratings, and to contribute our best ideas. That really engaged me–that this place really encouraged and fostered us to think and do a little bit of everything. Nothing has changed. It is a really good environment.”
According to Tom, that environment is the most important part of the equation when you’re choosing a skydiving dropzone. It tells you a lot about the philosophy of the place–and, of course, speaks clearly of the community’s safety culture.
“Whether we’re talking about new jumpers or tandem folks,” he says, “If you have any apprehension or reservations at all about skydiving, go to the place without jumping. Just sit down for a few minutes and get a feeling. If you don’t like that feeling, don’t jump there. If you get a good feeling–they are including you, and you feel like they are paying attention to you, you feel like whatever you are seeing is safe, and you get a good vibe, that’s where you need to go. This stuff is subjective.”
Tom knows that a first-time parachute ride is a scary prospect. So when he talks to new students nervous that their parachute won’t open, he carries two decades of experience and a great deal of empathy into the conversation.
“I start by explaining that we’re regulated by the FAA,” he says, “and that parachutes get inspected and repacked every 180 days whether they need it or not. I usually try to relate it to something really familiar: their car. There are things on your car that you probably haven’t looked at in years, and you trust it every day. We, on the other hand, deeply inspect our gear every six months, without fail, whether it needs it or not. And this stuff is made out of the same stuff as the seat belts in your car: three times as strong as it needs to be, so you are in good hands. Real-life correlations make the most sense to nervous newcomers.”
“The car analogy is especially good,” he goes on, “because you can really equate what I do to the job of a mechanic. I’m really the mechanic of the parachute world. It is my job to take things apart and replace them when necessary, to keep inspection records of what the gear has gone through and then to assess it and keep it in good shape.”
“I feel like we are somewhere in between a totally mechanized thing and a totally artful thing,” he adds. “Half of what I do is logic; half of what I do is feel. I obviously have to use the left side of my brain because [rigging] is very structured and by-the-book, with very solid techniques to use to do work. But the other side of the work is so emotional; joy, and colors and feeling. I’m an artist as much as I am a mechanic.” He smiles. “You could see that as magic, I guess.”