Phil Campbell senior at home in the sky
Kim West, Franklin County Times
PHIL CAMPBELL – Dillon Spurgeon is a typical high school student who enjoys playing sports and spending time with friends.
But instead of working at the local Piggly Wiggly or recovering from Friday night football, the Phil Campbell High School senior spends his weekends packing parachutes and jumping out of airplanes.
Spurgeon, who was voted "Most Unpredictable" by his classmates and played football and basketball for the Bobcats until this season, traveled with a group of friends last spring to Rock Mart, Ga. to try skydiving, which is the recreational sport of parachuting.
"I was always telling my mom that I would love to go skydiving," Spurgeon said. "I have a cousin who is a skydiver, and he invited us to come to Rock Mart. So we went on April 7, and I did my first tandem jump. I pulled the parachute on the next jump, and I finished (training) July 27."
A novice skydiver typically jumps with a trained skydiver in a tandem jump, which allows the instructor to control the student's exit from the plane, body position during the freefall and parachute deployment.
Spurgeon earned his skydiving certification, or A-license, after completing three months of a skydiving course this summer. It included a six-hour ground course and seven levels of Accelerated Free Fall (AFF) training, which cost $2500 but prevented him from paying for each training jump.
AFF is the most commonly used training because it allows a skydiving trainee to experience a solo jump, or free fall, from an altitude of 10,000 to 14,500 feet faster than static training. The more affordable static training is used frequently for small drop zones, but requires more jumps before a student can experience individual free fall.
"Rock Mart is a three-hour drive away and the third-best drop zone in the country. It has bunkhouses to stay in, so I leave Friday at 10 p.m. and get back around 10 p.m. Sunday," Spurgeon said. "You have to pass each level before you can go on to the next level, and I was able to pass all of them on the first try."
Spurgeon has already totaled 33 jumps, but his goal is to reach 500 jumps, which will allow him to tandem jump with new skydivers. A tandem skydiver earns $40 to $45 per jump, according to Spurgeon.
"You can probably get in 15 jumps a day (as a tandem instructor)," said Spurgeon, who works at Rock Mart every weekend. "Right now I pack parachutes for $5 per pack, and I can make $100 a day, plus tips."
To ensure safety, a skydiver should wear a helmet, goggles and a backpack that contains a parachute and a reserve parachute. Spurgeon said skydiving suits are optional, but reserve chutes are required in case the primary chute doesn't operate properly and must be packed by an FAA-certified parachute rigger.
"Reserve chutes have to be re-packed every 120 days by a rigger, who gets paid $50 per chute," Spurgeon said. "I pack sport chutes or the bigger tandem chutes, which has a 365-square foot canopy, for $10."
The United States Parachute Association is the largest skydiving organization in the U.S. with 31,000 members. The USPA promotes safety and has compiled accident statistics since 1992. The highest rate reported in the past 15 years was 44 accidents in 1998, and the lowest rate was 21 (2004 and 2006). Instead of parachute failure, most skydiving accidents occur from the failure to properly land.
"The statistics for skydiving are better than any other sport – out of 2 million jumps, the average for accidents is only 29 people a year," Spurgeon said.
After graduation, Spurgeon plans to earn his welding certification and continue skydiving on weekends.
"I love skydiving because I think it's awesome to fly," Spurgeon said. "Your hands are free, and you can do anything you want to do."