When Todd Davis started skydiving, he had to scrape together every penny he could for the sport. "Once I did my first jump, I knew this is what I wanted to do, but I didn't know how I was going to do it," said Davis, 28, who started jumping 10 years ago. Now, he makes a living off skydiving as a co-owner of Chicagoland Skydiving in Hinckley.
He and friend Doug Smith, 27, bought the business in December.
Davis said he loves the sport and expects the business to grow. As an instructor and videographer at Chicagoland Skydiving for three years before taking over, he watched skydiving's popularity increase.
About 300,000 people skydived last year, for a total of 3.3 million jumps, said Chris Needles, executive director of the U.S. Parachute Association in Alexandria, Va.
Increasingly safer equipment and a wider acceptance of jumping out of airplanes for recreation have contributed to skydiving's steady growth, Davis said.
"The gear is so advanced now that anybody can skydive, anyone from you to your grandmother," Davis said.
In fact, one woman last year went skydiving on her 86th birthday. This year, a woman with Parkinson's disease jumped on Mother's Day.
Standard equipment for students at the jump site includes an automatic activation device that will open an emergency parachute if the main parachute is not deployed during a jump.
That and other equipment make skydiving costly.
A tandem jump in which a student is attached to an instructor while they share a parachute, costs $175.
Beginners jumping with their own parachute pay $275 for the required six hours of training. That compares with about 30 minutes of training for a tandem jump.
Two instructors jump with each student for the first solo jump.
For another $80, a videographer will jump too, recording still and moving images from the one-minute free fall and landing that takes place five or six minutes after the chute opens.
Lisa van Deursen, a manager, videographer and instructor at Chicagoland Skydiving, said she would like to see more people hire videographers, but they seem put off by the price.
"People can't understand why it's so expensive, but I have $3,000 worth of equipment on my head," she said, referring to helmet cameras.
Planes that can hold up to 20 skydivers cost $800,000 to $1.5 million, while parachutes and other gear for one person can cost $5,000 to $12,000.
Davis and Smith lease the planes as well as the land used for the business. They employ 25 independent contractors as instructors, pilots and parachute packers.
About 6,500 jumps took place last year at the Hinckley site; in 1999, there were 3,200 jumps, according to van Deursen.
The growth comes despite the presence of two regional competitors: Skydive Chicago near Ottawa and Skydive Illinois in Morris.
Nationally, skydiving has grown at a rate of 2 or 3 percent every year for the past 10 years, Needles said. "It's not perfectly linear at all times because we are affected by movies that come out about skydiving, so you get these great spikes sometimes," Needles said.
He said improved safety does seem to be a factor, and he noted that while there are still fatalities associated with the sport, there were only about 30 deaths in the U.S. last year out of about 3.3 million jumps.
The number of annual fatalities has remained steady for 10 years, despite jumps increasing each year, Needles said.
Davis said he thinks the sport will continue to grow because of the natural curiosity many people have about flight.
"It's the closest to flying outside of your dreams," he said.
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