LONG BEACH ROAD IN SOUTHPORT IS AN UNASSUMING, TREED COUNTRY HIGHWAY THAT STRETCHES FROM THE JUNCTION OF 133 AND 87 ALL THE WAY TO THE INTRACOASTAL WATERWAY, THEN CONTINUES TO FORT CASWELL UNDER ANOTHER NAME. ALONG THIS ROAD YOU’LL FIND A SCATTERING OF BUSINESSES: A CARWASH, A RESTAURANT HERE AND THERE, A USED CAR LOT. THEN SUDDENLY, HALF A DOZEN MASSIVE WAREHOUSES APPEAR BEHIND BARBED WIRE FENCING, SHELTERING A LARGE, OPEN FIELD PAVED IN ASPHALT. THIS IS CAPE FEAR REGIONAL JETPORT, LOCATED NEXT TO THE DUTCHMAN CREEK BAIT AND TACKLE. TO THE LEFT OF THE PARKING LOT, THERE IS AN AUTOMATED GATE FOR CARS AND, EVEN FARTHER LEFT, A PEDESTRIAN GATE NEXT TO A LARGE RED AND YELLOW SIGN: SKYDIVE ENTRANCE.
Inside the fencing, I follow the white-striped walkway to the Skydive Coastal Carolinas hangar, feeling like Dorothy on the yellow-brick road to Oz. To my right, a bright orange King Air B90 rests on the tarmac, awaiting its next load of skydivers. On this rainy Monday, the hangar is quiet, though not without activity. I find Brian Strong, the owner, in the company’s primary hangar; he explains that today is a cleaning and maintenance day and shows me into their classroom. In front of each chair there is a lengthy waiver, printed on bright pink paper. Brian plays a cheery video for me of customers in freefall; they are smiling and laughing, having the time of their lives.
Brian Strong has been a business owner for most of his life, starting with a sand-blasting and car/motorcycle painting business just after high school. But skydiving has always been his hobby. “After five years of skydiving I decided to get my pilot’s license, then started painting planes and skydiving at the same time,” he says. “Thirty-four years ago I started skydiving. Twenty years ago I opened my own [skydiving] business.” He originally opened in the Myrtle Beach area but quickly found that the town he’d chosen—Greensea, SC—was too remote for vacationers. A few years later, a friend convinced him to move the business to Southport, and the rest is history.
In the twenty years they’ve been operating, Skydive Coastal Carolinas has seen a whole range of jumpers—from a 93 year-old woman who came with fifty spectators to several marriage proposals. They even have a six-foot by sixty-foot sign that reads “Will You Marry Me?” for customers to use. One woman spent months deciding how to propose to her girlfriend, brainstorming together with Brian. Finally, she decided to buy a dime-store ring, propose on the plane, then “accidentally” drop the ring and dive out after it. The event went off without a hitch.
A freefall from one of the Skydive Coastal Carolinas planes takes between 15 and 45 seconds, depending on altitude. In clear weather, the plane can climb as high as 14,000 feet, but any low clouds could put them closer to 11,000 feet. But even at 11,000 feet, you’re over two miles high. Two miles. I ask Brian if any of his customers have ever chickened out at the last minute, and he says that in twenty years, only eight people have refused to jump from the plane. “Everybody’s nervous,” he says. “It’s just normal to be scared.” He tells me about his first jump thirty-four years ago—that he doesn’t even remember leaving the plane.Then he goes on to say that the feeling of freefall is like nothing else he’s ever experienced. “It’s extremely hard to describe – it’s euphoric. When you leave that airplane, you feel like you’re floating on a column of air.”
The most important aspect of the skydiving business is mitigating risk, and Brian explains the fail-safe parachute system. In the instance your chute malfunctions, there’s a reserve parachute to use. It will even open automatically if your main chute is not deployed by a certain altitude. Skydive Coastal Carolinas has staff specifically assigned to parachute packing to ensure proper procedures are followed. Expert packers can pack a chute in as little as seven to ten minutes. Of course, accidents do happen, but the most common injuries are broken ankles or legs—most often caused because the tandem jumper didn’t follow directions and pick up their feet on the landing, Brian explains.
Skydive Coastal Carolinas is a member of the US Parachute Association (USPA)—recognized by the FAA as the authority in skydiving—which means they are held to the USPA standard. “Always check out the reputation of each parachute center,” Brian tells me. “We are meticulous on the maintenance of the aircraft. Picking a USPA drop zone is what’s important.” He explains that often the worst accidents that occur while skydiving are related to aircraft failure, not to freefall. “The customer is entrusting their instructor with their life. That is sometimes tough to do,” he says, noting that sometimes the toughest part of skydiving is recognizing that it’s going to be ok.
On the entire east coast, Skydive Coastal Carolinas is one of the few drop zones with a view of the ocean, and the only one that allows experienced jumpers to land on the beach. Brian tells me that they get people from all over who come for the view. For newbies, he says not to wait for your friends to join you because they’ll keep you waiting forever. “When I made my first jump I made it by myself,” he says. “Don’t wait. It’s nice to just achieve this for yourself.” When I ask him if there’s anything else he would tell someone who is thinking about trying skydiving, he says that everyone should try it at least once. “And then you never know, you might just want to keep jumping, and jumping, and jumping.”