Responding to the Pandemic—Skydivers Step Up
By Doug Garr
Middletown, Ohio, Mayor Nicole Condrey, a member of Team Fastax, flies the American flag into the Atrium Medical Center to honor medical personnel and first responders. Photo by Beth Hayes.
On a beautiful, cloudless Saturday afternoon last April, Team Fastrax, a professional exhibition team based at Start Skydiving in Middletown, Ohio, boarded their Caravan to make a demo like no other before. Three skydivers trailed purple smoke, the local high school’s color (with white), and the fourth and last to land was Fastrax member and the city’s mayor, Nicole Condrey, who flew the American flag. The pro bono skydive commemorated the delivery of the first batch of face shields they made for the hospital staff at the Atrium Medical Center. All the jumpers wore masks under their helmets and sat as far as possible from each other during the climbout. Unusually for Fastrax, whose teams do 300 demos a year, they weren’t jumping into a packed stadium in front of sports fans watching a halftime show. Just a handful of thankful locals, none standing near each other. Condrey said, “The demo jump was just as important as the masks because, in many ways, the mental toll is even greater than the physical toll.” (Since the pandemic began, nearly half of Americans have reported that it has affected their mental health.)
It has been just over four months since the coronavirus scourge has shaken us and nearly the entire world’s population has endured some kind of partial or total shut down. Before spring, we hadn’t yet known what N95 or PPE stood for, and we hadn’t started using phrases like “sheltering in place” or “social distancing” or begun debating the meaning of “essential services.” Skydiving, of course, was deemed an unnecessary business almost everywhere, like the movies and hair salons and Disney World, and most DZs have been idle since mid-March. (A few have been open with health and safety precautions and disinfecting protocols.)
Following a demo jump into the Atrium Medical Center, (from left) John Hart, Alex Hart, Tim O’Sullivan, Kevin Dubas and Nicole Condrey of Team Fastrax deliver face shields that the team, local jumpers and Start Skydiving created and donated. Photo by Beth Hayes.
But while most of us have been grounded by a force other than the weather, our community has been anything but idle. The parachuting industry—drop zones, individuals in rigging lofts and gear and jumpsuit manufacturers—has responded by pooling resources, gathering volunteers and using novel ways to innovate when raw materials went wanting. To respond to the health crisis, sewing machines from California to New York have been humming day and night—stations spaced at least six feet apart—mainly to make cloth masks. Performance Designs, the Florida canopy manufacturer, has shipped masks to dozens of venues in the U.S. and, in a single week, to six countries in Europe.
Sharing Ideas and Resources
This story has its roots in dozens of locales and businesses. Team Fastrax and Start Skydiving responded when Tim O’Sullivan, a Wounded Warrior who does 3-D printing with a commercial-level machine, called up John Hart, a co-founder of the demo team and partner in the DZ. O’Sullivan said he could probably fabricate the plastic face shields needed by the local hospital, perhaps 20 a day. He found someone online who shared the software for the piece that holds the shield on the user’s head. Meanwhile, Hart scrounged some medical-grade carbon material, and he took $2,000 out of the DZ’s coffers to buy polymer sheets from a company in Cincinnati. Condrey kicked in her first-quarter city salary of $2,250 to aid in the effort. Thanks to the help of 35 volunteers, they have now delivered more than 800 shields. Around 50 went to the local Board of Elections so they could hold a March vote. Hart said, “It was therapeutic for Tim,” as he toiled away at the printer. “It meant a lot to him, contributing like that. And his shields were just out of this world.”
Nurse Kathy Wilcox (center), who inspired the Ranch Pro Shop to begin making masks, poses for a selfie with her colleagues.
The sharing of ideas and resources amid parachuting enclaves has been nothing short of astonishing. One of the prime examples was at Skydive the Ranch, a long-running DZ in the town of Gardiner, an hour and a half north of New York City. Kamuran “Sonic” Bayrasli and his wife, Donna, run the Pro Shop there. She explained that even before the last day of skydiving there on March 8, about a week before the national shutdown, she knew instinctively that there was going to be a need for masks. Ten days later, the shop was closed except for appointments. Donna admitted that she was a natural “germ-a-phobe”—not a fanatic, just overly careful—keeping sanitizer around the shop well before anyone knew what COVID-19 meant.
“I’m not trying to boast here, but we started way sooner than most others. We have a lot of nurses who jump,” Donna said, “and one of them, Kathy Wilcox, immediately reached out to one of our riggers, John Kieran.” Let’s make masks, they suggested. Donna and Sonic scoured their loft for material and ran out right away, so Wilcox dropped off more. There was also a mini-research-and-development challenge as the nurses’ feedback rolled in. The masks had to be comfortable enough to wear for at least a complete shift, hours on end. They needed filters, because early shortages meant the medical staff needed to re-use them after sanitizing. They had to fit; getting the right size was an issue. Donna began emailing back and forth to Julio Ruiz, the owner of Liquid Sky Sports, whose shop is in a Los Angeles suburb. He sent patterns back that the nurses liked better. They were using filters that normally went into air-conditioners and furnaces. Donna continued, “We got some sheets from Lowe’s, and then we got some donations. I did the cutting and the boys did the sewing. The first ones went to Vassar Hospital in Poughkeepsie.” Then they donated to several other hospitals, fire departments, police departments and nursing homes.
The elastic tie downs normally found on N95 and other masks were not ideal for those on the front lines. The masks were chafing the nurse’s ears. Kathy Wilcox sent ribbon to the Pro Shop but when they exhausted that supply, Donna looked around the loft and thought, why not try pull-up cords? “Believe it or not, pull up cords ended up making the best ties,” she said. Pull-up cords were the right length and could be folded over and pulled down, and they could be tied around the head and not around the ears the way most smaller nose-to-chin masks attach. It wasn’t long before they ran short on raw material. “We were literally out of supplies,” Donna said, “and we couldn’t get anything.” She called Performance Designs in Florida, which responded by sending a spool. Then Donna began hot-knifing them to the right lengths for masks.
As the masks started rolling off their makeshift assembly line, Christine Kelley, a local skydiver who co-owns a beverage company named Freefall Sangria, started a Facebook group called “Mask Makers of the Gunks,” after the legendary climbing area next to the DZ. Kelley said, “I put out a message on Facebook and people responded in droves. For the first several weeks, I led the initiative from my front porch, but the traffic became too much. The entire community was overflowing the porch with fabric, elastic, pipe cleaners, thread, you name it. A company donated two pallets of filters for the masks. Everyone just wanted to help.” Once they took care of all the frontline workers and hospitals, they started supplying Gardiner residents, because so many couldn’t find masks. It was a testament to ground support on the local level.
Jennifer Morris wears a My Little Pony mask, one of hundreds of masks Meredith Ottery made for friends and healthcare workers.
At the same time, some 1,200 miles south of the Ranch, another skydiver had similar thoughts. Meredith Ottery, a senior rigger who has worked for four and a half years at harness-and-container manufacturer United Parachute Technologies in Florida, was inspired early on, as well. She had been following the pandemic closely. Early on, UPT shut down public contact and closed its building.
Ottery, whose father lives in Illinois and mother lives in Missouri, said, “I had seen someone making masks, and I’d heard Chicago, and Illinois itself, got hit hard at the beginning of March. We didn’t know how bad it was going to be in Florida, but I was getting updates from my parents. Since I worked in a two-person department, I wasn’t as worried about myself as others.” She continued, “My mom is a nurse and a lung cancer survivor with only one lung, so I started with masks for her, my family and friends. The risk of infection was fairly high and deadly serious for our family.” (Her mother is currently working right now as a nursing supervisor on the front lines.)
Ottery knew a lot of skydivers who knew people with heart disease and others with high-risk medical issues. So she sent out her mask pattern to several contacts late in March. She said, “As with many people, the feeling of helplessness can be overwhelming in our current situation. I can’t race to the ER and tell them that I can help save a life because I stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night. What I can do is sew masks to supplement PPE for the people nearest and dearest. At this point, I’m trying to help as many people as I can.”
She found a like-minded group, Cloth Masks for the Frontline, based in Daytona. Their team of volunteers source, prep, sew, pick up materials and deliver finished masks to any health care facility that requests them. To date they have delivered nearly 600 masks.
When rigger Rory Corrigan heard that the textile industry lacked skilled workers to make masks, he contacted a local company, Gourmet Table Linens and Skirts, who was making them, and he and a few other riggers from Skydive Spaceland-Houston in Rosharon, Texas, sewed about 800 masks over the course of two-and-a-half weeks. These masks, which are awaiting trimming, are some of their results. Photo by Rory Corrigan.
Around 1,500 miles west of central Florida, Option Studios in Albuquerque found itself at the epicenter of the mask-tie effort. It’s hard to overestimate the significance of this firm during the pandemic. Adam Buckner’s company, which makes jerseys, windblades, banners and the like, is by far the largest supplier of pull-up cords in the world. The next time you close your main container, the chances are that you’ll be using one of his pull-up cords. Option Studios didn’t have the resources to sew masks, but everyone there felt they had to do something. “You think of it like Apollo 13,” Buckner said, recalling the aborted moon mission, where the astronauts used duct tape to jerry-rig the spare CO2 scrubbers. “You have a finite amount of material, and you use what’s available.”
When someone making masks called, he told them Option would send as many pull-up cords as necessary. Buckner added, “We thought about the people who were in far deeper trouble than in New Mexico. We knew that major metropolitan areas needed the most help, so we jumped in with both feet.” The first 2,000 pull-up cords went to the neediest area: New York. Shortly thereafter, they sent a box to Perris, California. He supplied more than 5,000 pull-up cords nationally.
In May, after thinking about how many pull-up cords went on masks instead of closing mains and reserves on packing mats and in rigging lofts, Buckner said, “We skate on the other side of the ice anyway, our community. It’s a village. And why not promote that? For the general populace that knows nothing about skydiving, the only thing we can produce for them is good video. This is a different way to contribute. In a heartbeat, I’d do it again tomorrow. A lot of people don’t realize what our community is about. We’re not just skydivers.” Option Studios is now discounting anything they sell to people who are in need.
The spirit of Apollo 13 was more widespread and alive than you might think. At Skydive Sussex in New Jersey, Eastern Regional Director Shauna Finley, a Federal Aviation Administration Master Rigger was also wondering how to contribute. She had been scheduled to fly down to a skydiving symposium in Florida for the first week in March, just when the coronavirus mayhem reached critical mass. The event was canceled, and she closed the DZ’s rigging loft for business. However, a couple of riggers stayed to make masks. (It irked her a little when some locals saw cars in the parking lot and thought the DZ was still open and skydivers were jumping irresponsibly.)
She scoured her inventory and found the unlikeliest remnants for a rigger. “Ten years ago … I became an obsessive quilter,” Finley recalled. “I wasn’t doing it anymore, but I had a lot of leftover material.” DZO Rich Winstock and his daughter helped her set up high-speed sewing machines, and she did a quick tutorial so even novice volunteers could fabricate masks. When she ran out of material, she mentioned the shortage on Facebook and a woman—a quilter, as well—dropped off a “a ton more.” Finley said, “Together we made about 150 masks, and then I did another 150 on my own sitting at home.
Finley’s ingenuity also was put to the test when they needed mask ties. “We ended up using reserve safety stows, which are made with eighth-inch bungee cord,” she said. “A couple of riggers looked at them and thought, ‘These could become our elastic ties.’ What a very cool idea.”
An employee of jumpsuit manufacturer Vertical Suits poses with one of thousands of medical gowns the company shifted gears to begin making in response to the pandemic.
Innovation in skydiving isn’t just confined within U.S. borders, so it wasn’t surprising to discover that Vertical Suits, the freefly jumpsuit maker in Vancouver, Canada, decided to quickly reshape its manufacturing line to lend aid to those fighting on the pandemic front. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a plea for companies to think about retooling their facilities to make PPE. Trudeau was likely prompted by World War II history, when U.S. car makers quickly began rolling tanks and planes off their assembly lines.
Vertical Suits Marketing Director Sandra Dussault said, “We make everything ourselves; we have all the equipment. Our first idea was to make hospital gowns. So we made a prototype.” By the end of March, they thought the gown was pandemic-ready. But then they learned that any gowns they produced had to comply with Canada’s health and safety regulations and be certified for use in the nation’s hospitals. The bureaucratic time clock would slow down distribution, and the process would also be costly. They’d have to invest thousands of dollars in new equipment to make the gowns hospital-ready.
Dussault said, “We partnered with a life-jacket company that already had national certification. They were able to shuttle through the paperwork. They had a government contract, and we were the subcontractor. We made the gowns, and they washed and sterilized them. They inspect, label and ship them.” For six months, Vertical Suits is supplying 2,000 to 3,000 gowns a month. They have the small satisfaction of knowing doctors, nurses and other personnel are walking around with gowns made by a skydiving jumpsuit company, not to mention the delicious irony of partnering with a life-jacket manufacturer.
After some research, Vertical Suits also began making cloth masks. “We don’t have the filters on hand, but people have been creative and using all sorts of different material for filters,” Dussault said. “If you have N95 inserts, you can use them. If you don’t, I’ve read all sorts of stuff. You can use the blue paper that they use in auto shops. Some people are using furnace filters; you can even stuff a third layer of cotton in there.” The company is selling the masks in pairs; if a buyer needs only one, the company will donate the other to a person in need.
Beating the Giant
Vertical Suits isn’t the only jumpsuit manufacturer that stepped up. A main competitor, the Burbank, California-based Liquid Sky, switched gears, as well, and early on became one of the busiest mask-making companies. In fact, you might say that Liquid Sky’s owner, Jose Ruiz, is the king of the mask makers within the skydiving community.
Kevin Gibson of Rahlmo’s Rigging and other jumpers at Skydive Orange in Virginia worked on making masks that they donated, primarily to the staff of the University of Virginia Medical Center, who used them over their N95 masks to keep them clean.
This wasn’t Ruiz first experience in crisis response and management. He thought right away about how Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. Back then, he leaned on the skydiving community for help, and after they pitched in, he had gathered 3,000 pounds of food and medical supplies that he targeted to the island’s various relief agencies. He even persuaded Delta Airlines to ship the packages for free.
By March 23, just as the nation was coping with the reality of a mass shutdown, Ruiz knew what to do. “I didn’t just come up with a mask,” he said. “Anyone can make a mask. I wanted to make the mask. I worked with an engineer. Many locations require safety equipment, and he told me how the fit should work and the precautions we had to take, what kind of filters I should use. I have friends in laboratories, so we asked them to test our first ones. A company that makes filters for hospitals reached out to me. They offered me certified filters, and now I can offer a certified filter.”
Because many people in skydiving work on the front lines, Ruiz earmarked the first ones that came off his line for them, as well as first responders. Initial packages of 25 and 50 masks went to the Los Angeles Police Department. He discovered there were shortages in Massachusetts, so a box went to the Boston suburb of Watertown’s Police Department. And if a senior citizen shows up at their door and needs a mask, they don’t pay. A nurse needed several masks and took out her checkbook. Ruiz refused to take her money. He hasn’t been able to calculate how many masks he produced for those who couldn’t pay. “We had to have a separate production line just for donations,” he said.
But Ruiz also had to run a business that produced revenues and avoided laying off his small staff. When he posted the first masks for sale on Facebook, the avalanche immediately began. “Ten seconds after the Facebook post went up, I had orders coming in,” Ruiz said. “In one day, we had a new web site. Everything went ballistic; the site crashed.” Normally he has 8 to 10 employees producing jumpsuits; now he has 25. He’s had to change sewing machines from the heavy ones used to produce jumpsuits (not so practical for masks) to light, so he rented several new ones. His staff works with appropriate distancing. Several employees are using machines at home, where they’re rushing to fulfill orders. When KTLA News, a local TV station, aired a story about Liquid Sky they received 2,000 orders in one day. In what appears to be a tradition, if you buy one mask, the company donates one to someone in need.
Liquid Sky Sports made more than 40,000 of these masks prior to returning to producing jumpsuits in May.
In early May, Liquid Sky returned to producing jumpsuits, which were on back order. Ruiz said, “We’ve made over 40,000 masks at this point. We’ve been working seven days a week; it’s crazy here. But we are beating the giant, day by day.”
And that is what so many in the skydiving family do when they can’t go skydiving.
As this issue went to press, the smartest people in the room were still in limbo as to when this pandemic will burn itself out. Nobody really knows. We don’t know for certain whether infected people who have recovered are now immune. We do not know when an effective vaccine will become widely available. We don’t know if the virus will mutate to a new strain and attack again. One newspaper reporter aptly described COVID-19 as “ferociously capricious.” More than six months into this plague there are still too many unanswered questions.
Until this thing ends, skydivers will be doing what Julio Ruiz does: beating the beast.
Camille Ruper, the operations manager for Option Studios, has been working in the skydiving community for four and a half years. She has labored in several other businesses—restaurants and the trucking industry, to name two—and she said that whenever there was a crisis the people in their little enclaves banded together to lend support to help each other in times of need. There is always a sense of camaraderie in dire events because that is how good people with big hearts respond. As her working career winds down, Ruper said, “But never have I ever seen people come together the way skydivers do.”
About the Author
Doug Garr, D-2791, has not jumped since March 8 and is getting desperate. He and his wife are quarantining at their home in New York City, where they are both recovering from the coronavirus.