By Brittney Everett
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
John Dekowski has fallen out of an airplane many times in his life – 11,604 times to be exact.
The 45-year-old Maryland resident, who is more commonly known as JD, has been skydiving for 24 years and is currently a tandem skydive instructor at Skydive Baltimore located at the Harford County airport.
“My personal goal in skydiving is just to have more fun jumps,” JD said. “That’s really all skydivers’ goals. Working in it is great, but really, the reason we do this sport all boils down to that fun jump. Us [coworkers] all getting together and jumping out of that plane just having so much fun. People don’t realize how much fun it is.”
JD didn’t grow up wanting to be a professional skydiver.
He began jumping occasionally when he was 18 years old, but he made a career out of a painting business he ran in Baltimore County for 17 years.
When the housing market crashed in 2008, JD decided to give up painting full time and fell back on skydiving as a professional career. He says it’s the best thing he has ever done.
“To wake up and know that you’re skydiving for the rest of your life, it’s an awesome feeling,” JD said.
Throughout his 24 years, JD has reached an expert level with skydiving and is a Delaware state record holder for a 14-way jump. He has traveled all over the world to skydive, including Mexico, Costa Rica and across the United States.
In 2015, the USPA awarded JD with one of the highest skydiving honors: his wings for 10,000 jumps, making him only the 133rd person in the world to achieve this goal.
To this date, JD has documented 11,604 jumps in his log book. According to the USPA, only 2 percent of the approximate 39,000 skydivers in the U.S. have recorded 10,000 or more career jumps.
In addition, only 9 percent of skydivers in the U.S. actually make a full-time career out of it, according to the United States Parachute Association (USPA).
Skydive Baltimore offers aerial views of the Chesapeake Bay and Susquehanna River that span from historic Havre de Grace to downtown Baltimore.
At Skydive Baltimore, JD performs 40 to 55 tandem jumps per week during their skydiving season between March and November. The price to dive is $169 per person and a video with pictures package is offered for an additional $119.
Every jump comes with a free T-shit and certificate to commemorate the dive. Skydive Baltimore is open six days a week, excluding Tuesdays, and reservations to jump must be made.
Skydive Baltimore uses Cessna 182 fixed-wing single-engine airplanes to transport the divers into the sky, according to the aviation database. These airplanes are compact with a cockpit in the front for the pilots and two benches on each side of the plane for the skydivers to sit on with all their gear.
On one side of the plane is a giant door, which is wide enough for a tandem skydive and tall enough to allow jumpers to stand in a crouched position. The door opens and closes like a garage door to reveal the sky.
JD does approximately 900 jumps per year – about 700 for Skydive Baltimore and another 200 in Arizona and Florida during the winter months.
In JD’s career total, this is equivalent to about 8,703 minutes of total freefall time and 81,228 minutes of total parachute time. Putting these numbers into perspective, JD has spent a minimum six months of his life off of the ground, skydiving through the air at an average elevation of 10,000 feet.
Skydiving is a risky sport, but JD has had nothing but positive experiences. JD’s father has been the biggest supporter of his career choice and JD said he is grateful to be working in the Baltimore area so he is close to his family. Not only is his family close, but so is his personal residence.
“I live at the end of the run-way,” JD said. “And sometimes I skydive home and land on the sod farm next to my house.”
JD also considers coworkers at Skydive Baltimore part of his family.
“JD is a great friend, he is a very helpful person,” said 52-year-old Marcelo DaSilva, a skydive instructor at Skydive Baltimore who began skydiving in 1984 as part of the Brazilian Air Force. “When I first met JD he was taking me and other instructors to visit Baltimore: downtown, Fort McHerry, Dundalk. He was so happy and proud to show us his hometown. I was very surprised with his historical knowledge about Baltimore. I love to talk and spend time with JD.”
DaSilva began working at Skydive Baltimore in 2013, adding that JD got him the job. It was through skydiving that DaSilva met his wife of two years – during a tandem jump.
At times JD reflects on his first time skydiving and realizes how far he has come in his career.
“I was a lot more scared than other people who walk through here,” JD admitted about his first jump.
JD still remains in contact with his first instructor, Bobby Gleaton, from 24 years ago. Gleaton, 66, has since retired from instructing but they go on skydives together as much as possible.
“I love it when I get somebody who stays with the sport,” Gleaton said. “It’s comparable to a teacher in school having a valedictorian in their class. It’s quite an accomplishment.”
According to Gleaton, he was also an accomplished skydiver. He started his skydive career at the age of 16 and recording over 14,000 career jumps.
“John is a really good friend,” Gleaton said. “We’ve known each other forever. He makes me feel good and like I’m at home.”
JD learned a lot about his fun jump style of skydiving from Gleaton, who was a huge influence on his skydiving career.
“Skydiving is more of a mental sport than a physical one,” JD said. “It’s all about trusting your instruction, trusting your gear, and thinking positive thoughts. Focus on your surroundings and always be a step ahead. Anticipation. If you’re good with anticipation, you’ll be a great skydiver.”
JD said he has to prepare for each jump by engaging himself mentally and physically.
Debriefing is the first and most important step, he said. This is the time when he checks to make sure his equipment is secure and the parachute is wrapped properly in his bag, as well as instructing his tandem jumper on the process that will take place once they jump out of the plane.
“You want to spend time with the people you’re taking skydiving and get them interested in the sport,” Gleaton said. “John is a quiet, laid back person, not in a rush, and has a good personality, but he always gets fired up and ready to roll for the dive. He’s good at getting others to have fun.”
“We always have a different student,” JD said when discussing the excitement of the prep for the dive. “We don’t know what they’re going to do. We are on our toes and once we leave the aircraft, we love it. You get that three or four seconds of extreme fear when people first leave the aircraft, but after that usually it goes away and you can relax and enjoy the experience.”
During freefall, the human body goes into sensory overload, JD said. He said the experience creates tunnel vision, causes a loss for the sense of touch and not feeling the cooler atmospheric temperature.
“Adrenaline is so high that so many different things can happen,” JD said. “You don’t realize what’s going on and it’s really hard to remember what happened in freefall. The more you jump, the more you remember, the safer you are.”
The USPA reports that an estimated 0.06 percent of all jumps in the United States resulted in an injury and a mere 0.001 percent of all jumps resulted in a death in 2016.
Although equipment technology has increased safety and regulations are strict, accidents do happen.
JD said his cousin miscalculated a jump while base jumping in the Swiss Alps and lost his life. Some skydivers try to push the limits on a jump, which is when they get into trouble.
JD and his coworkers are experts at the sport, but they’ve all had their share of scares.
“That’s just part of the sport,” JD said. “We do watch our friends die once and a while.”
The USPA requires three years of skydiving experience and 500 jumps to become certified, but Skydive Baltimore requires at least 2,000 jumps to become an instructor, according to JD.
“The human body flies very well,” JD said. “It’s an awesome flying device. We are so exact and precise.”
According to Skydive Baltimore, the company has taught more than 14,000 people to skydive and done about 1.5 million tandem dives since opening in 1974.
“Flying is after you step out of the airplane,” JD explains. “Flying is not flying in an airplane. That would be like swimming is the same as driving a boat.”
“It’s a weightless feeling,” JD said. “It’s more of a floating than falling…you’re going so fast [approximately 120 mph], the wind is rushing up, you feel like you’re on air. A lot of famous skydivers will open the door and yell, welcome to space, or step out into space. It’s a lot like being in space with the weightless type feeling.”
All photos and video were provided by John Dekowski.