How Skydiving Changed My Life
By William Mitchell
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My adventures in skydiving began in 1968 while visiting my aunt and uncle, Pat and Ches Judy. On the mantel was a photo of Uncle Ches, D-1281, skydiving. Unknown to me at that time, that photo would dictate my life. I would ask for my parents’ permission to skydive when I turned 16. Their answer: “Are you out of your mind? You’ll kill yourself.”
The fall of my senior year of high school, I turned 18. As I no longer needed my parents’ permission, I signed up for a first-jump course. On January 2, 1979, I made my first jump, and it was everything I thought it would be. But I wanted more. I wanted to be able to fly with other, more experienced jumpers. Gary Kilpatrick’s passionate love of RW [relative work, now called formation skydiving] hooked me from day one.
My choice of colleges was directed by where I could skydive. I chose to go to Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, and not necessarily for an education or the beach. I jumped at Skydive DeLand for the next four years while struggling to get an education. I didn’t get a degree, but I did make about 300 jumps and get to work for Bill Booth one summer at the Relative Workshop [now United Parachute Technologies].
After failing at college, I joined the Army and, once again, skydiving dictated my life. I was stationed in Germany and got to see most of Europe for free as a member of the V-Corps Sport Parachute Club Demo Team. I also met Byron Dormire, D-8933, who introduced me to CRW [canopy relative work, now called canopy formation skydiving].
Two years later, I became a member of the 101st Airborne Division Command Demonstration Parachute team. I was making 30 to 40 jumps a month, and I was in heaven. The problem was I was not working in my job field and couldn’t get promoted.
A few years later, while stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, I was approached by someone from the Army who said he came to Hawaii specifically for me. He had a job opportunity for me. I respectfully declined because I was set with what I already had. But his last-ditch selling point was: “You can have any school you want.” Can I get HALO?” His answer: “HALO will be the first school you go to if you make it.”
I traded two years of my life to make one jump: a 25,000-foot HALO graduation jump in December of 1992. Once on the dark side, my time became totally committed to my unit, the Army and the United States. Skydiving took a back seat as my life was dictated by precision military freefall.
Fast forward to 2008, when a young girl pulled her car out in front of my motorcycle. After 980 jumps and six years in combat with nothing more than scratches, I got taken out by a high school student late to school on the way back from lunch. I didn’t see that one coming.
Between 2010 and 2019, I spent my time retired and struggling to find my place in a civilian world. I tried work, golf, fishing, hunting, sailing, music and even motorcycles again. But I got no fulfillment. Enter Billy Colwell, D-8509, my buddy from Ft. Campbell. Billy had gotten out of the military earlier and had been floundering as I was.
“Bro, you need to start skydiving again. It brought me back to life,” he said.
On May 15, 2020, I found myself at Skydive Tullahoma in Tennessee. Billy basically set up the whole weekend for me. “I’ve got a line on some gear for you, and Carey Mills is flying in to jump with us.” I was scared to death. I hadn’t jumped in 12 years since my motorcycle accident, but I wouldn’t wuss out. I made my currency jump with an AFF instructor and Billy. After demonstrating the necessary skills, we then turned about eight points. Under canopy, I had tears in my eyes. All was right with the world. I made two more jumps that weekend: a six-point 6-way and a 12-point 3-way. I could still skydive, and I got my life back.
I am immensely grateful for the unbelievable adventures that I’ve had because of skydiving and for the confidence it gave me to say yes when asked to participate in any adventure, no matter the difficulty or danger. More than that is the amazing lifelong friendships I’ve made with people along the way.
William Mitchell | D-10434