Albert Berchtold, a member of the USPA Board of Directors since 2012 and its treasurer since 2013, takes over this month as executive director. He replaces the outgoing Ed Scott, who leaves USPA after 24 years of service.
Berchtold, a longtime member of the U.S. Canopy Piloting Team, is an accomplished skydiver with more than 6,000 jumps to his credit. He began skydiving in 1999 while traveling for work as a compliance auditor, his early skydiving taking place at several drop zones across the Mideastern and Northeastern U.S. After falling in love with the sport, he settled in to call Skydive Cross Keys in Williamstown, New Jersey, his home DZ for a couple of years before relocating to DeLand, Florida, in 2006 to take a position with canopy manufacturer Performance Designs.
After more than a decade spent passionately working in the marketing department at Performance Designs, as well as directing the Florida Canopy Piloting Association, Berchtold brings a new perspective and diverse skillset to USPA Headquarters.
Could you tell us how you got started in skydiving?
In 1999, I was working as a compliance auditor after graduating from Goldey-Beacom College in Wilmington, Delaware. The job required me to work for weeks or even months on location before relocating somewhere else in the country. My first assignment was for three months in Ohio, and I realized I needed a weekend hobby. I made my first jump at Aerohio, which was then in Rittman, with [USPA Vice President] Sherry Butcher and loved it enough to come back and finish AFF before work pulled me away. I continued to jump wherever my job took me, and by the time I had my A License I had jumped at six or seven drop zones.
Most student skydivers complete their A licenses at one drop zone. How were you influenced by having a much different experience?
I learned early on that I need to take responsibility for my own skydiving. There were a variety of people and ideas that I was exposed to, and it was on me to make good decisions for myself. However, it became apparent to me—more quickly than it would have were I sticking to one drop zone—how many people were looking out for me. And not just the instructors; I was helped in so many ways I didn’t even realize by everyone from manifest to the pilots to the packers. I’ve tried to carry that forward in my own jumping. Now I pay attention to the new guy who shows up and is looking lost. I remember that look, because I wore it a lot in my early skydiving career.
How did you continue to progress in the sport?
For the first few years, I would spend the work week looking forward to jumping and the weekend dreading Monday. I know there are many familiar with the feeling. Then in 2003, I quit my job and moved out of Manhattan and into my family trailer parked in the woods beside the hangar at Cross Keys. Thanks to Mary Farwell, I started working as assistant manager at Square 3, the drop zone’s gear store. After that, if I wasn’t working in the store, I was jumping. Skydiving was my life seven days a week. I spent a lot of time as a videographer for 4-way teams in between Cross Keys and the Ranch [Skydive the Ranch in Gardiner, New York], because it was a way to get canopy time, and that crowd tended to be a lot of fun. Cross Keys is where I started getting into canopy piloting, which turned into my biggest focus—especially once I moved down to Florida.
What took you to Florida?
While working in the gear store at Cross Keys, I got to know the ins and outs of the gear, as well as many of the manufacturers, including Performance Designs. In 2006, they offered me a four-month position as a tour rep for them and afterward brought me on to a permanent position in their marketing department. Moving to DeLand opened up a lot of opportunities for me.
In 2007, I qualified for the first time for the U.S. Canopy Piloting Team in the World Cup of Canopy Piloting, which was held that year in Picton, Australia. Since then, I’ve continued to participate as part of the team, as a competitor or—in the years I haven’t qualified or been injured—team manager or head of delegation. I also took over running the Florida Canopy Piloting Association, which essentially happened because I nagged the league organizer, Chris Hayes, for the upcoming 2008 schedule so much that he just turned the responsibility over to me. The FLCPA became a baby of mine, and it helps grow the discipline with newer jumpers. There’s a free exchange of information—world-class canopy pilots standing next to a swoop pond, giving advice to skydivers brand new to the discipline.
Describe your general skydiving philosophy.
What keeps me engaged in this sport is that there’s no pinnacle to reach. It’s not a race to the top of any one discipline. Take the time to enjoy learning to do things well and don’t hesitate to expand your horizons and switch things up.
Will you keep jumping as Executive Director?
Tell us about your previous experience with USPA.
My first substantive memory of USPA, outside of ratings and licenses, was wishing I could make it down to [former USPA Executive Director] Bill Ottley’s memorial event in Virginia in 2006. A lot of people from Cross Keys made the trip, and I knew he meant a lot to the sport. In 2012, I was elected to the vacant Southeast Regional Director position, and succeeded Lee Schlichtemeier as Treasurer in 2013. Our USPA is what we make of it. I saw things I wanted to change, and I truly believe that the world is run by people who show up. So that’s what I did. I’ve been able to contribute helping our board make some wise decisions in various areas, especially helping guide our organization into continued financial stability.
Ed Scott and Albert Berchtold.
What do you bring to the Executive Director position?
First of all, Ed has done an amazing job. The staff here at HQ is strong and the engine behind all of USPA. I get to bring some different strengths and a new perspective to the team. I’ve jumped on six continents with expert skydivers from all over the world, and I’ve seen firsthand that just because we’ve been running things a certain way, that doesn’t mean it’s the only way. It’s taught me to take the time to understand the views and opinions of others in order to reach the wisest outcome.
How has your background, skydiving and otherwise, prepared you?
Being a member of the U.S. Parachute Team has given me a great respect for the sport. You meet a lot of people that account for a lot of skydiving history. It also became apparent to me that leaders—whether they’re local skygods or those in elected positions—are role models to those around them, whether they like it or not. I do my best to hold myself to that high standard. I also spent the last couple of years earning my Master’s of Business Administration in Executive studies, graduating from the University of North Alabama in 2020. It was difficult to balance that with two young kids at home, simultaneously earning a Certification of Aviation Management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the job at Performance Designs, but I’m better prepared because of it. There were definitely days when I needed more than the regular 24 hours to get everything done.
What is your vision for the USPA Board and HQ staff moving forward?
The role of the board is to create a vision for our sport, and my job is to help them. Having a board that is made up of a diverse group of people—weekend warriors, DZOs, older and younger jumpers—allows for all aspects of our sport to be represented in USPA. Once that big picture guidance is there, it’s the staff’s job to execute it, work out the nuts and bolts and keep the board apprised.
What are your three main priorities as Executive Director?
My three main priorities are USPA’s three main priorities: to ensure skydiving’s rightful place on airports and in the airspace system, the promotion of safe skydiving through training, licensing and instructor-qualification programs, and the promotion of competition and record-setting programs. Within those three priorities, there is a lot going on.
Can you elaborate?
Our main priorities may not change drastically over time, but how we execute them does. We’ve got to continuously move both our sport and our organization forward. Relying on what has worked in the past doesn’t cut it. Our environment changes and so must we. We’ve got to look at every opportunity for skydiving with fresh eyes, thoroughly vet those opportunities and be sure to choose the right direction for our organization. We’ve got to stay ahead of the curve. There’s a lot we can do moving into this new year to help pursue and forward our main priorities as an organization. I am really looking forward to helping the board and staff initiate and execute. There’s a bright future ahead.