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VOL. 42 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 16, 2018

Nowhere to go but down for international skydiving champ

Smyrna resident ascends to top of his profession

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Jake Jensen soars below the other skydivers in formation as he serves as videographer for the team.

-- Submitted Photograph Courtesy Of Uspa/David Wybenga

Smyrna resident Jake Jensen gets high on the job whenever he can. When he’s not working, he gets high just for fun.

More than two miles high whenever he is given the opportunity.

Two miles may not seem that much to some – after all, The Byrds long ago celebrated being “Eight Miles High,” but from my vantage, I’m reasonably sure they were not singing about the wild, blue yonder that surrounds Jake while he’s on the job.

Jumping from a plane two miles up, feeling the adrenaline surge spurred by being a man who lives a life of danger, is a profession far removed from his years as a mortgage broker, his career path after graduation from Weber State in his hometown of Ogden, Utah.

His second career was as a home restoration franchisee, the guys who clean carpets, restore flooring and walls, whatever is needed after a house fire, a flood or other unpleasantries.

Jake took a dramatic leap from those terrestrial trades when he decided to jump from planes, tempting injury and death and tussling with literal winds of change for a living.

And sometimes two miles isn’t high enough.

Not long ago, he got more than 3½ miles high in a world-record try that included him and 199 of his soaring brothers and sisters.

After jumping from a squadron of open-doored aircraft flying over Chicagoland, the 200 skydivers almost set a record for skydiving in a locked formation, but two of the folks couldn’t hook up with the rest. Jake says he’s been told the noise generated by 200 people free-falling in near-unison sounded like a jet to the land-hugging spectators.

“Thirteen thousand feet is pretty typical for all skydives,” says the 37-year-old professional “flyer” (that’s what these folks who jump out of planes miles above the earth call themselves. Proud to know Jake, but I’d have to call these folks something else, indeed.)

That “typical” dive translates to about 2½ miles above the cow pastures, condo complexes, gun slaughters, traffic jams, shopping centers, pizza joints and honky-tonks below.

That’s the spot where Jake likes to begin his business day. His morning commute is inside an airplane that carries him to that height. Gravity mandates his day takes a rapid downturn before his plummet is slowed by the hoped-for blossoming of the parachute.

It’s not a sure thing, which is part of the reason for the “fun.”

“There have been seven times where I’ve had to get rid of my main parachute,” Jake acknowledges, lacking even a quarter-note of somberness. “It wasn’t performing accurately. I had to cut it away.”

When I ask if that literally means cutting it loose with a knife, the sort of thing you might see in a World War II melodrama starring Cornel Wilde or William Holden, he responds in the businesslike tones of a guy who makes his living hoping for a soft landing.

“There’s a handle you pull that releases the main canopy,” Jake says. “You pull another handle then that releases the reserve canopy.”

And he could be doing that while harnessed to a near-virgin flyer who hires him for those much-ballyhooed “tandem jumps” that are designed for thrill-seekers and former presidents (George H.W. Bush took these jumps to celebrate birthdays No. 75, 80 and 90. He had experience, of course, since he jumped from his burning airplane – after dumping on target his explosive cargo – while a naval aviator in WWII (the first sequel to “The War to End All Wars.”)

An adrenaline junkie himself, tandem diving is where Jake began his transition from mortgage broker and carpet cleaner.

He began as a semi-pro, skydiving on his off hours from his “adult” jobs, strapped to the amateur adventurers or someone on a bucket list wish-fulfillment mission, floating to earth with impressive views of the mountains and valleys near Ogden.

“I was just taking people on tandem skydives,” he says of those early adventures, which I’ll detail more later. “You can make a decent living just doing that. Not getting rich. But not bad.”

He still does a lot of that even after turning his life over completely to flying, not just in the tandem flights but as an instructor and as an international competitor representing the United States.

Of course, there are business risks. While in my world as a freelance journalist, the risks are more cerebral (“what am I going to write about?”) and sedentary (hemorrhoids, strokes, loneliness and heart seizures), his business risks are in negotiating the fine line between life and death.

“You are jumping out of an airplane,” he explains of where his life of danger begins. “You are trusting equipment to help you get down to the ground safely.”

In general, he adds, jumping from an airplane two miles up “is a safe sport.”

Course that safety can be compromised by human error and equipment failure.

“We have so many safety things to make sure it’s done properly: Proper licenses when training. Instructors who can bring you along. The safety of the equipment, as far as it’s come in the last 10 or 15 years, it’s incredible.”

That incredible progress includes upgrades in machinery to, as much as possible, make sure of a soft landing rather than a splat.

“You have the main parachute, the backup parachute, automatic activation devices,” Jake says. “If you are knocked out in a skydive, hit by somebody else, this (automatic activation device) will fire for you when you reach a certain altitude” and that reserve chute will open.

“With that being said, deaths do happen,” Jake admits.

Jensen

The generally boisterous conversation with the Smyrna-based international skydiving champion and parachuting entrepreneur turns momentarily somber when we reach this subject.

“I’ve had a couple of friends that passed away. Both were canopy collisions: They were coming in to land and they ran into another person’s canopy, and that caused theirs to collapse and they fell to their deaths…. Most of the deaths from skydiving come from canopy collisions.”

He explains that if people stay aware of their surroundings, the locations of fellow divers and other common-sense rules of canopy flight, this is not a problem.

Most deadly accidents happen when an inexperienced skydiver “doesn’t fly a proper pattern into the wind, runs into someone they might not see,” Jake says. “They are looking around in their surroundings, trying to make sure where they are, and they might be in another flyer’s blind spot, like a blind spot in a car.”

But not all accidents can be attributed to inexperience, he adds, noting that his friends who perished parachuting “were fairly good skydivers.” Emphasis on the “WERE.”

Looking back on his beginnings in this business, I should note that Jake – who has now jumped more than 7,000 times – was pretty content with his ventures on the ground until on a whim he decided to take that fateful plunge, much as the thrill-seekers who have employed him in tandem dives in the years since.

“I’d always enjoyed the adrenaline sports,” says the Smyrna-based professional flyer. “Growing up I was a big back-country snowmobiler” – a sport more suited to the Rockies in Utah than to the awe-inspiring, majestic peaks of Smyrna and Rutherford County.

He even became a professional in that adventure sport, a status he gave up because he didn’t want to get injured and hurt the international competitive chances of his skydiving team.

“It wouldn’t have been fair if I’d done that (snowmobile competition) and got hurt, and it hurt the chances of the whole team after we worked so hard,” he allows.

As a pro snowmobiler “we would get up in the mountains. We were kind of from all over the West,” he recalls. “We would do all kinds of things like build big jumps out in the back country, and then every year we would release a snowmobiling film,” delivering thrills to audiences and perhaps inspiring others to join in the action.

Twelve years ago, young Jake, who as an Ogden native had grown up with the winter thrill sports – his mom Linda was a ski racer as a young woman, and all four of his siblings participated in winter sports – decided he wanted to see if parachuting would match the adrenaline-infused action of launching above the snow on a roaring machine and hoping to hit the ground safely: Man and machine intact.

Jake Jensen can be seen in the orange jumpsuit on the left side of this 200-person formation during the USPA National Championships.

-- Submitted Photograph Courtesy Of Uspa/David Wybenga

(Dad, Brent, didn’t take to the winter sports, but was a minor league baseball player and a Golden Gloves boxer. Brent is the only family member not to take a tandem skydive with Jake, who laughs that pop simply “likes being on the ground.”)

Jake’s future was determined when he finally succumbed to the urge to take his first flying leap from an airplane.

“I just went on a tandem skydive and landed – and immediately said I wanted to be a skydiver.”

He had no idea how deeply he’d get into the sport, so for about five years he continued his earthly jobs, envying the times when he would “free fall out into nothin’ … leave this world for a while” (from the Tom Petty classic, a staple in the parachuting world).

“I like that song OK,” says Jake, adding that when virgin jumpers put their adventures on video to share with friends, “Free Fallin’” more than likely is used as the accompanying soundtrack.

“About the first few years, I was doing a couple hundred skydives a year. Maybe 300. Three to four years in, I started slowly working in the sport for people who were coming out to do tandem skydives.”

He was making money at it, juggling his businesses and soon doing more than 1,000 flights a year.

He didn’t know it, but all his time jumping from airplanes and landing himself and his students safely was leading up to competition on a level he compares to the Olympics.

“Professionally, I never thought I would be on a team like this or have the opportunity to do this.

“Way up until five or six years ago, I never realized this would be a level I would accomplish.”

In October, he and his team won their second straight gold medal in vertical formation skydiving at the World Championships of Skydiving in Australia.

This competition comes around every two years. To represent the U.S. at the World Championships, teams must qualify by winning their nationals the year prior.

More than 100 jumpers from the U.S. – one of the largest delegations-- participated in various categories last month above the Aussie Gold Coast.

Jake and his team had won the previous world title in Chicago back in 2016 and the nationals again in 2017.

He’s the fifth person on the team, the videographer who flies perilously close to the vertical formation of his four teammates.

Without going into a lot of the details of the 10-round competition, the gold medal battle is composed of formations the “Inside Flyers” (Jake’s four teammates) must make during a 45-second period in each try.

The flyers are required to precisely match the formations called for in the competition and must complete as many as possible during that 45-second span.

Screen grab from http://www.sdccore.com/

In one formation, for example, “two of the teammates that are across from each other, they have to be on their heads (noggins pointed toward the earth) and holding right hands. The other two are on their feet, holding onto the elbows of those who are flying on their heads,” Jake explains.

“There are a whole bunch of formations, some are all head-down, some are mixed and some are feet-down.”

The teams that complete the most formations in each round take the points, tallied to determine the winners.

“My job is to capture every grip (on video). Every formation they have. To hold the formation, they have to touch each teammate,” he says. “My job is to film that. If there’s any grips that are hidden behind someone’s feet or head, we don’t get those points.”

He and his mates train 10 days each month, both in the sky and indoors in 14-by-50-foot vertical wind tunnels, with air blowing up from below.

That training is all for the competition, which does not give money awards, just medals. For his income, Jake spends the rest of each month training jumpers at indoor and outdoor sites throughout the U.S.

One week a month, he trains skydivers in Ogden, Utah, so he can see his son Mavrick, who is 11 and “kinda was” named (without the “e”) for Tom Cruise’s “Maverick” character in “Top Gun.” Jake’s past domestic life in Ogden also included French bulldog “Goose,” named for the other main “Top Gun” character who didn’t live long enough to make the upcoming blockbuster sequel.

While his dad is in Ogden, Mavrick does some indoor skydiving with Jake, who expresses hopes “one day he’ll follow in my footsteps as a skydiver.”

Since Jake is something of a skydiving celebrity, he is hired to participate in “boogies” around the States. Those, he explains, are weeklong events at skydiving sites. “They pay people like me to come to the event and to help attract other people who might know me and who want to participate.”

During these boogies, he organizes, orchestrates and flies modified versions of competitive formations for folks who envy his lifestyle. In some ways, it sounds like those fantasy baseball camps where grown-up, frustrated former Little Leaguers live out unconsummated Big League dreams.

“I really enjoy coaching people…. Even in Australia, to see past students of mine who were jumping with me (in the competition), it was really cool to see that,” Jake adds.

“I’ve been able to touch the sport, teach a lot of people to be successful in flying. It’s really rewarding to me,” says the flyer whose adventures can be shared @jakejensen331 on Instagram.

With all the training and teaching and flying, he could have settled anywhere. It was love – and love of skydiving – that brought him to Smyrna.

“About four or five years ago, I met my fiancée at a skydiving thing in Tennessee that I was working at.”

Ashleigh Hartman, now is 32, was at the event because she enjoys skydiving for fun.

“We became friends and started dating,” Jake says. “I moved there.”

Smyrna also is a good “center point” from which to join up with his U.S.A. teammates who operate out of Chicago, though most live elsewhere.

The fiancée thing is fairly recent, he says, laughing a bit at himself. “We don’t have a date set. We just got engaged in Australia. …

“When I got my gold medal on the podium, I had her come up, and that’s where I asked her to marry me.”

She could have said a very public “no,” humiliating this high-flying romantic, collapsing his internal canopy, in front of an international contingent of his admirers. But she happily accepted.

Even after 7,000 jumps, a healthy dose of fear remains whenever Jake climbs in a plane to begin his workday commute.

“I don’t get as scared as I was,” he says, adding that “it’s becoming routine. It’s what I do a ton of, but it’s still exciting.

“From the time you leave the airplane to the time your feet hit the ground, you let your mind go and focus on a really neat experience.”

Leave this world for a while.

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