The Toughest Gig in Skydiving

Monday, May 23, 2016

This article was published in the April issue of Blue Skies Magazine.

Do you know who I admire most? Those who can do something for a very long time and still be passionate about it. In skydiving, that person is the DZ owner who’s been at it for longer than ten years. If your DZO is actively trying to improve their DZ, shake their hand because the rewards of running a DZ aren’t nearly as great as the financial, physical, and emotional cost of the job.

I have a certain soft spot for DZOs. It’s a really tough gig and I think the majority of DZOs are really misunderstood. There are definitely some owners with “challenging personalities” out there who earn their reputation, but the majority of them don’t get the respect they deserve. The reason is the majority of skydivers can’t empathize with what it’s like to be at the helm of a non-traditional business like owning a drop zone.


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The disconnect starts with perception. Many jumpers who arrive at a busy DZ turning load after load think the DZO must be in the back counting their money. Let’s clear that up right now…very few are. If you look at the progress of lift ticket pricing in the US over the last decade, these prices should be higher… much higher.  Every DZO will tell you this, but none want to raise their rates in fear of losing their customer base to the DZ down the road. This applies to the price of tandems as well. With an influx of DZs in the market today, many try to capture or maintain market share by offering prices that make no sense at all when considering the cost of maintenance. The DZs charging $220 for a tandem (a recognized acceptable price) should be charging more. When considering the cost of equipment (gear prices have steadily been increasing while tandem rates have only gone down) and what it costs to properly maintain aircraft, there’s a huge disconnect between what DZs charge and what they should be charging. Add the variable of weather and how much operators lose when they’re grounded (especially on a busy weekend day of fun jumpers and students), it’s gut wrenching. Are you catching my drift here? Ask a DZO what it costs to replace anything on an airplane… you’ll be in for a shock.

Now let’s add the aspect of stress when someone gets hurt or killed and then having to deal with the media who descend on their business, seemingly uninterested in the real details of what happened. A DZO better have a thick skin to deal with that kind of scrutiny.

To be a DZO is fraught with worry the majority of the time.  To put it in perspective, I have a client who has run a DZ for the better part of 15 years. He’s dreamed of taking his DZ from a Cessna operation to turbine. He finally took the leap and he’s scared to death. As he put it best to me, “I’m one major mechanical failure away from bankruptcy.” Ask your DZO what a hot section costs. It’s frightening.


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I’m going to share a truth with you. Many DZOs feel under appreciated because their operations are being compared to the one down the street that “has this or that” or “does it this way or that way.” In other words, DZO’s often feel that no matter what they do, it’s never good enough. If they were to verbalize this, they’d be accused of being cry babies. Many sport jumpers are critical of the decisions DZOs make without ever knowing the financial situation behind closed doors that may have driven the decision.

I have another client who started a DZ because he was fed up with how his home DZ was run and the decisions that were being made there. As a credit to him, he put his words into action and started his own operation. A couple of years in and the realities have hit home. The unexpected twists and turns, emotional highs and lows have turned a harsh critic into an owner with empathy. Like explaining skydiving to someone who’s never jumped before, you can’t really explain the experience until you actually do it yourself.

Running a DZ is a tough gig. It’s tons of long hours, often thankless, where the DZO wears multiple hats to make ends meet (many are riggers, A&P’s, instructors, and even receptionists) all because they love the sport. Is it any wonder that after years of holding everything together, their passion for the sport and the business can wane?

So here’s where I’m going with this. Skydivers: Love your DZ and your DZO. If your DZO is crusty, try to have some empathy – you never know what’s going on behind the scenes. If you have a DZO who has been in the game for any length of time and is still passionate about the sport and their business, make sure you take the time to shake their hand and thank them. They damn well deserve it.

8 Comments

  1. It’s about time a third person wrote about the love we should share with our DZO.

    For every fatality I do shed a tear not only for the family and friends but also for the DZO that has to continually pick up the many pieces whilst still getting on with business.

  2. I am resident across the pond in the U.K and have heard about the excellent reputation of an outfit called Skydive Alabama, run by an Ex-para nutter named Paul Rossouw. The DZO has to be pretty special for there name to be heard this far out.

    1. That Paul guy… yeah, he’s kind of a big deal around here too! ;-) Seriously, Paul runs a great operation!

  3. Coach,

    Thanks for writing this great article. You being my GM for so many years gave you the insight from behind the scenes that you wrote about. You know my story and why I am still in this business after 30 years. It is truly a love for the sport. Thanks again for writing a story that I wish every skydiver would read. Danny

    1. Coach, it was an honor to work for you. You taught me so much and I’m indebted to you for all you’ve done for me and the sport.

  4. Being a DZO is all of those things for sure. But there are some perks you forgot to mention. Looking across the floor and seeing your happy staff working like a well oiled machine. Seeing the joy in the faces of first time students. Having a beer at the fire with a jumper friend that’s been at your dz as a loyal customer for 20 years. These things can be enjoyed by anyone at the drop zone, but as a dzo, it goes deeper. It really makes all the flack worthwhile.

    1. Cheers Heather! Without question, there are pros and cons to every single job out there. I thought it was time to spotlight the pain points of DZO life as I don’t think many people realize what a challenging business it can be.

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