Around 3,000 feet from the deck, Nick Huber realized there was something wrong with his parachute. He looked up—the lines were twisted. His canopy was “kind of flying in reverse.”
“Oh, I can’t land this,” he thought.
So, he made the decision every skydiver hopes they won’t have to: to cut away his chute. As it drifted into a nearby woods (he found it two days later), he deployed his reserve, which billowed into the sky properly and set him softly on the ground below.
Rather than discourage him from skydiving, the near miss had the opposite effect.
“It was kind of exhilarating,” he said. “I was like, ‘That wasn’t so bad. It all worked out.’”
The search for that feeling—exhilaration—was what brought Nick and his wife, Susanne, out to the private airport in Baldwin, Wisconsin, where Skydive Twin Cities is based. Three years ago, they started jumping on a lark. Susanne, who is 57, had wanted to skydive since her 20s. Then one day in 2019, they were planning a weekend motorcycle getaway in Wisconsin.
“We’re going to be driving right by Baldwin,” she told Nick. “We’ll get off. We’ll jump. Then we’ll get back on our bikes. It’s going to be so James Bond!”
“Yeah,” Nick said. “Let’s do it.”
They rode across the St. Croix River and arrived at the grass field also known as the drop zone. They checked in. They watched a video. They signed a waiver that said, among other things, “I understand that…it is impossible for an instructor to determine with any degree of certainty that I have been properly trained,” and, “I understand and acknowledge that Parachuting Activities have inherent dangers that no amount of care, caution, instruction or expertise can eliminate.”
They got rigged and they climbed aboard a plane with a giant exhaust pipe sticking out of the bottom (for the 900 horsepower motor that had replaced the 600 horsepower one). When they got a little over a mile up, Susanne looked out the window.
“We are getting really high,” she said. “Are we going soon?”
Nick’s instructor responded: “We’re only halfway there.”
One of her arms started shaking uncontrollably. She didn’t notice.
“Susanne,” Nick said. “Your arm is shaking.”
“Whoa!” she said. “It is.”
When they reached 13,000 feet, the door slid open. They jumped. They dropped more than two miles. They landed.
“We were just blown away,” says Susanne. “I was like, ‘Honey, I have got to get back up there. That was absolutely amazing. I want to come out here and jump again next weekend.’”
“Pretty much as soon as we landed,” says Nick, “I was like, ‘Yeah, I think this is going to be our new thing.’”
At nearly $300 a jump, however, it wasn’t something the hairstylist and the German auto mechanic could easily afford. To be regular jumpers, they would have to learn how to jump alone. Within a week, Susanne got a text from Nick saying that he’d signed them up for the AFF (Accelerated Freefall) course to get their skydiving licenses. Three weeks after their first jump, they were sitting in the class.
Since then, they’ve spent nearly every weekend of the summer at the Baldwin Airport. In winter, they travel to Arizona and Florida to jump. They talk endearingly about their “sky family” who also spend as much time as possible in the drop zone.
“I think it’s because you’re all sharing such a—maybe not necessarily danger—but this extreme adrenaline together. It really creates a bond.”
It’s been 30 years since the two first met on the set of KSTP’s talk show Good Company, with Steve Edelman and Sharon Anderson. It was 1992, and Nick, 18, was there with his then girlfriend, who was modeling “spring trends” for the show. Susanne was stylist for the models. She was a glamorous 27-year-old (and also married) who made a big impression on the high schooler.
Some years later, when Nick was 24 and Susanne was 33, they ran into each other at a Fourth of July celebration at St. Anthony Main. Susanne was just divorced. They talked a little. He asked for her number, which she gave him. The two were supposed to get coffee.
“He was this cute guy with a motorcycle,” Susanne recalls. “We talked, and afterward we talked on the phone a little. But I was like, ‘Oh man, I’m still licking my wounds. I better not even have coffee with him.’”
“I asked her out,” says Nick, “and was denied.”
The two kept running into each other at festivals around town until finally, when Nick was 30 and Susanne was 39, they saw each other at the Bastille Day celebration. This time, when Nick asked her to coffee, she said yes. On the phone, they started reviewing their timeline and realized how many times their paths had crossed. Nick suggested they skip coffee and move straight to dinner. Three months later, he proposed.
Their recent discovery of skydiving aside, the couple are no strangers to adrenaline. Nick, who is now 48, is a pilot. For fun, he flies “taildraggers” and tows gliders up into the sky. He also does vintage motocross racing, and the two go on long motorcycle trips together. Susanne rides a Triumph. Nick prefers rarer European bikes—Ducati, Moto Guzzi, Norton.
Of course, to them, none of that would compare to jumping out of an airplane.
On a Sunday afternoon in May, I drive out to the Baldwin Airport to see the Hubers in their new natural habitat, the drop zone, which is an alternative reality where it’s normal to look up at the sky and wish you were falling through it. It’s also a place where you’re one mistake away from getting pancaked into a cornfield.
By the time I arrive, the couple has already jumped several times, and they’re busy packing their chutes with some other “fun jumpers” in the packing floor.
“I can pack my rig in about eight minutes,” says Nick.
“I’m about 15 to 18 minutes,” says Susanne, who flies a bigger canopy. “It’s like trying to stuff a beach ball into a coin purse.”
Nick and Susanne, at roughly 860 and 460 jumps respectively, are still considered fairly new jumpers.
“How many times have you guys jumped?” I ask someone else hanging around in the packing area.
“I’ve got 9,000,” responds Karl Lips.
“I’m at 7,000,” adds Joel Davies. “Not nearly enough. I still have a TV and a car.”
Davies is joking about the expensive and addictive nature of the sport. It can become something you think about all the time, something you can’t wait to get back to. (Davies is a firefighter in real life, which apparently doesn’t provide enough excitement.)
Even if you buy your own equipment and can avoid the $249-per-jump fee ($229 on weekdays), there’s a hefty amount of expenses. The license certification course starts around $2,500. Buying a new parachute and all the necessary equipment can run up to $10,000. And even then, going up as a “fun jumper” (as opposed to a “working jumper” or a “camera jumper”) costs $28 per ride up, which adds up when you’re jumping up to 12 times a day.
“When my friends found out we bought a [camper] trailer to stay in here, they were like, ‘Who are you and what have you done with Susanne?’ But it’s just this amazing sense of community. You’re bound to everyone here almost immediately because we’ve all experienced this same thing, and it’s ageless. I’m in my 50s, and I’ve never had that my whole life,” says Susanne.
“The camaraderie out here,” says Nick, “it’s this really tight, close-knit group of people. I think it’s because you’re all sharing such a—maybe not necessarily danger—but this extreme adrenaline together. It really creates a bond. It binds you with everyone who does it. And they all become your family. And that adrenaline, you just want more. I crave it every week. If I go a week or two without jumping, I get a little like, ‘Oh, I need to jump.’”
The wind is picking up. There are big white clouds in the sky. The sky family calls them “puffers.”
“You’re not supposed to jump through clouds,” says Nick, “but when you go past clouds like that, they call it ‘kicking a Care Bear.’ Those are the best clouds to jump around. You go through these big canyons of clouds and get a real sense of speed.”
More puffers move in. The wind gusts are up into the 20s. Nick and Susanne have jumped already and are uneasy with the turbulence.
“Right now, all the fun jumpers are on weather hold,” says Nick. “If you start seeing everyone take themselves off the manifest, you should too. No one wants to femur.”
“To femur?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says, taking a pull on his Red Bull. “Last year, we had a lot of broken ankles and femurs. One girl, a new jumper, broke both ankles…but that’s rare. There are thousands and thousands of jumps. We haven’t been injured doing this.”
“I blew out a knee last year,” Susanne chimes in.
“Oh, that’s right,” says Nick.
“And I tore off a ligament in my finger when I landed.”
She held up her pinky, which was bent at an odd angle.
“It was going to be like $8,000 to fix, so we just said, ‘Nah,’” Nick chimes in.
“Now I just use it as a drink holder,” Susanne says.
Outside the drop zone, these might sound like injuries. Inside it, they barely count.
Neither of the Hubers board the next plane, but I ride along anyway. My shotgun seat is next to the pilot, facing backward, so I have a good view of the crew—first-timers strapped to their instructors. The tandem jumpers are heavy enough to jump in the higher winds.
The Cessna bumps across the field, then arcs up at a steep angle. The altimeter on the instructor’s wrist reads 3,000…6,000…11,000 feet. When we reach jumping altitude, the pilot throttles back. The plane goes quiet. A light turns red, and an instructor in back slides the door open. The light turns green, and one by one, the jumpers leap out into the blue with muffled screams.
When the last jumper is gone, the pilot drops the nose toward the ground and races back to earth. In my backward seat, I stare at the blue sky. We are down in no time—before the last of the jumpers. (As the waiver says, “I understand…that if I land near a taxiing aircraft my parachute may be caught by the aircraft or I may be struck by the aircraft.”
But it all works out.
Back at the drop zone, lawn chairs are arranged in a circle, and the sky family sits chatting under a sunny sky. There is another load of tandems going up, but Nick and Susanne stay off. So, we watch the plane climb. It takes about 15 minutes for the plane to ascend and another 10 minutes for the jumpers to descend. I look up and wait for them to appear. One by one, they materialize like strange birds and circle down to the drop zone—all except for one yellow chute.
“She should turn,” Susanne says, alarm growing in her voice. “She’s not going to make it.”
The woman is trying to get back to the drop zone, but the wind proves too strong—gusting up to 25 miles per hour. Everyone watches as she draws closer to the ground but farther from the airport. I think about the trees, fences, power lines, and buildings all around us.
When she does land, it’s on a high school track half a mile away. We can see her chute hung up on the high fence.
“Someone is down, and they might be hurt,” Susanne yells and runs to tell the desk.
“I’m medical,” one woman responds. “I’ll go.”
Several people pile into cars and speed over to the track.
A few minutes later, they come back. The jumper is fine—a little scraped up, but she didn’t femur. Her canopy is another story: The fence tore some expensive holes in it.
It is unusual for that to happen, but no one seems all that shaken up about it. After all, jumping out of the sky is not a usual pastime, and these are not usual people. They are people for whom the normal speed of life is not enough. They are people who want to live life like an ’80s guitar solo. People for whom risk, no matter how well you manage it, is just part of the thrill.
“It’s so intense,” says Susanne. “It’s like…you just feel alive.”