Skydivers Fall for a Living

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Wait–it’s a crazy person jumping out of a plane!

Okay, he’s not really crazy. In fact, Mike Burgess, creator of skydiving school Skydive Central New York based in Syracuse, NY, is remarkably down-to-earth (get it?) for a guy who has trusted his life to a parachute just under 17,000 times.

No, that’s not a typo: 17,000.

Burgess grew up in Baldwinsville, NY, and in the early stages of his career he worked in sales and marketing at a big bank. His first jump was in 1992 and by 1997 he’d had enough of the nine-to-five drudgery. He quit his job and founded his skydiving company, which not only offers single-tandem-jumps but (if it’s your thing) courses in becoming a certified skydiver.

BTR sat down with Burgess to ask the big questions: Do you get nervous? What if the worst happens?

BreakThru Radio: So what exactly does Skydive Central New York offer?

Mike Burgess (MB): We primarily train first time jumpers to become skydivers. We can take anyone from their first jump, which would be a tandem, all the way to getting their skydiving licenses, as well as shooting video, wing shooting, and then becoming instructors. Of course, the core of our business is the first time jumper who just wants to experience it, but we can take that to whatever career they would like!

BTR: Why did you choose this profession?

MB: Well, I was working for Chase Manhattan Bank, and the skydiving center I was diving with on the weekends needed an instructor for the next season. I decided to help them out so I got my instructional rating and absolutely loved it. I hated sitting behind a desk.

Literally, one day I was sitting at my desk at the bank with a guy yelling at me about absolutely nothing–I’m sure everybody in customer service knows how that goes–and it was raining out and I wanted to be sky diving. I decided at that moment that I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life like that, so I quit. I moved out to Las Vegas and became a full-time skydive instructor.

BTR: Did you always want to try it?

MB: Myself and some friends had always wanted to try [skydiving] and finally four of us decided to do it. The night before one guy chickened out, but the rest of us went and did it.

BTR: What was your first dive like?

MB: It was terrifying, and absolutely life-changing. As soon as I got down, I was ready to go right back up and do it again.

BTR: Do any other jumps stand out in your mind?

MB: Probably the first few jumps of my life, when [me and skydiving] first started dating. Balloon jumps and base jumps, some of those stick out too.

Photo courtesy of Kelly Corcoran.

BTR: So you base jump as well?

MB: I don’t anymore, I did a couple and left it at that.

BTR: You said you’ve jumped just shy of 17,000 times, do you ever get nervous?

MB: Only when things go horribly wrong.

BTR: [Laughs] Do things often go horribly wrong?

MB: No, not often at all, but it is dangerous. You’re basically getting out of a plane over two miles above the earth and counting on a hunk of nylon the size of your living room to slow you down. So, not everything always goes as planned.

BTR: Does someone’s first jump have to be tandem?

MB: That’s how we do it, yes, though it’s not necessarily that way but there’s always one or two instructors with you on your first jump. You can do what’s called the “accelerator free-fall program,” but less and less places are offering that. Most of the time people do a tandem jump first for the simple reason that it takes a lot of the pressure off. When you take people up for the first time, no matter how cool they are on the ground, everything changes when you get them out of that airplane. Especially if the person is trying to get certified, learning experience and hands on experience with tandem really increases the success rate of passing onto the next level.

BTR: What do you tell first-time jumpers who freak out on the plane?

MB: I tell them if they don’t want to jump, they don’t have to jump. They’ve got to do it on their own free will and we’ll happily take them right back down.

BTR: Do you consider yourself an adrenaline junkie or just a dude that loves jumping out of planes?

MB: I guess now I’m just a regular dude that likes jumping out of airplanes, though [over] 20 years ago when I started jumping I was much more of an adrenaline junkie. There are certainly people in the world that go to much more extremes than I do; but there are a whole lot more people that sit behind a desk and go home and an exciting day for them is a day of golf. That was just not the way I wanted to live my life. I get to go skydiving for a living and in the winter months I go snowboarding.

BTR: Do you ever think about the unthinkable?

MB: Not at all, actually. I figure when it’s your time to check out of this world, it’s your time to check out, no matter what you’re doing and so be it. I’m 46 years old and lived a very good life, so if it’s my time to go then that’s that. Again, it’s not worth spending my next 40 years on the couch being scared to live. All I want to do is live life and enjoy what I do every day, even if that means taking risks.