Story & Photo by Lisa Anderson
For his 60th birthday, Gary Robles’ children gifted him a sky diving experience. “Like many people, I have always wanted to skydive, and it was one of my bucket list items.”
He chose a drop zone in Titusville so he could enjoy a coastal view. That first tandem jump hooked Gary for life. “My wife jumped with me out of solidarity. She probably wishes she hadn’t.”
For his wife, the bucket item was checked, and she was done, but when Gary landed, he was ready to go again—this time without being strapped to another person. “It’s nerve-wracking [the first time], when you’re getting on the plane with the knowledge that you are going to be jumping out of it at two miles up.” A wave of terror hits you as you step to the door of the plane, he says. Then you jump. “It’s very weird because you do not have a sense of falling when you jump out of the plane.”
You fall at about 120 mph and the force of the wind creates a feeling of “laying on the air,” Gary explains. “It’s like Google Earth with sound. It’s noisy. You feel the air pressure as you’re falling against it. You know you’re falling. You see the earth slowly getting bigger, but you don’t have that pit of the stomach feeling of falling that you would if you were on a ladder and got off balance or something like that. It’s very exciting and very exhilarating. It pushed a button inside of me that I didn’t know I had.”
Taking the Leap
After his birthday jump, Gary immediately began calling around to schools to find out exactly what it would take to get licensed to jump on his own, but what he discovered was a bit disappointing. “I found out that most drop zones have an age limit, which is 18 to 60. So, here I was, a 60-year-old, wanting to start a young man’s sport.”
He did finally find an instructor willing to train him, but only if he was physically cleared of any conditions that would preclude him from skydiving. Rob Laidlaw, founder of Skydive University in Deland, met with Gary and agreed to train him. “I went through the first level of skydiving, which is called Advance Free Fall (AFF). That’s a seven-level training that you go through that really teaches you to be safe. Once you achieve AFF, you can then jump out of an airplane by yourself, but most drop zones feel that’s not enough for you to fly safely. So, if you really want to be a skydiver, you get your class A license. I relate [it] to a driver’s license. It’s roughly 25 jumps worth of training.”
Once this level is achieved, skydivers can jump anywhere in the world, and Gary plans to do just that. He already knows once COVID travel restrictions have eased, he will be traveling to Panama to jump with a relative, who is one of the top skydivers there. Gary would also like to travel to drop zones in Germany and one just north of Paris.
“I have two kids that have done tandem jumps. One of my sons tells me he wants to train.” Gary would love to have a ready-made jump partner, but his daughter is less enthusiastic about his new hobby. “My daughter, who is my oldest, seems pretty worried that dad has taken this up.”
But Gary knows all of the care and planning that goes into a jump. “It’s safer than you would think,” he explains. Everything is planned from when you jump, he continues, what you’ll be doing in the air, to where you’ll land. Other jumpers look out for you. They help you check your gear because everyone wants to live to jump another time. Gary feels you are safer jumping out of plane than driving in a car, and with only five accidental deaths in the last year, he may be right.
There are around 45,000 fun and sport jumpers in the world, and “I’m still an old rookie,” Gary says about the 73 jumps he’s had in the last year. “People I’ve trained with have a couple hundred jumps now.”
Gary would jump more often if he had the time, but he’s not retired just yet. However, being a commercial insurance agent for Lassiterware has its perks. “I am everywhere from Jacksonville to Orlando to City Point. There are a number of drop zones all over this area, Deland being the center of the skydiving universe.”
Since investing in his own gear, Gary brings it with him everywhere he goes. If he has two hours and is near a drop zone, he will usually do a couple of jumps. He finds himself looking up at the sky and saying, “It’s a good day for skydiving.”
“From bucket list thing to a hobby, I truly didn’t expect it.”