Just a few weeks after giving this interview, on December 29, beloved skydiving mentor and big-way organizer Tom Jenkins, D-7707, died from the complications of Parkinson’s disease. During the interview, Jenkins—who knew his health was failing—stated his wish to pass away as a world-record holder. He achieved this wish three-fold, at the time of his death holding the 400-way Fédération Aéronautique Internationale World Record for Largest Formation Skydive (set in 2006), as well as the two-point 219-way and three-point 217-way FAI World Records (set in October, when he was suffering from the ill effects of his disease but was still able to jump at the highest level). From the moment of his first jump in 1978 through the more than 22,000 jumps he made afterward, Jenkins kept up a love for skydiving that never faded. His loss has left a big hole in the skydiving community, but the lessons he taught will help guide the sport for years to come.
Birthplace: Morristown, New Jersey
Marital Status: Single
Education: Bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University, 1978
Pet Peeves: The cost of jumping these days
Pre-Jump Superstitions: Every thousand jumps or so I look out the window of the plane and wonder what the f*** I am doing up here. But it goes away as soon as I exit.
Life Philosophy: Be as friendly as possible and try to give back as much as you can.
Jump Philosophy: Keep the young jumpers excited, then they will ask you to jump when you are 60.
Team Name: Airspeed 16
Sponsors: Advanced Aerospace Designs, Aerodyne Research, Bev Suits, Square One
Container: Aerodyne Icon
Main Canopies: Aerodyne 150s
Reserve Canopies: Aerodyne Smart Reserve 150s
AAD: Advanced Aerospace Designs Vigil
Discipline: Formation skydiving
Home Drop Zone: Skydive Spaceland–Houston in Rosharon, Texas
First Jump: 1978. Static line. Had to make 200 round jumps before I could jump a square.
Licenses and Ratings: A-6527, B-11254, C-15090, D-7707; national formation skydiving, canopy formation skydiving, style and accuracy judge
Medals and Records: Fifteen world records. Competed in 35 USPA Nationals and medaled in half of them. Especially with Airspeed 16 … we have won for the last five or six years. Have beaten the Golden Knights and lost to them, as well.
Total Number of Jumps: 22,000-plus FS: 17,500
CF: 1,500 Tandem: 1,500 AFF: 1,500 Balloon: 12
Largest Completed Formation: 400-way FAI World Record for Largest Formation Skydive
Total Number of Cutaways: Thirty to 40, not too many considering I’ve made 22,000 jumps. Many were from doing CRW [canopy relative work, aka canopy formation skydiving].
Are you a neat packer or a trash packer?
I have not packed in 15 years.
Would you rather swoop or land on an accuracy tuffet?
Neither, just land on my feet or my ass.
Most people don't know this about me:
I am a really good country dancer.
What do you consider your most significant life achievement?
Just living every day, as I am now battling Parkinson’s disease.
Of all of your skydives, does one stand out most?
The 400-way in 2006 in Thailand. Jumping into the king’s palace was incredible.
What do you like most about the sport?
The friendships and the smiles when we get down from good—or even bad—jumps. The community of the sport worldwide is hard to explain but so important.
What do you like least about the sport?
The cost. Seeing people who cannot afford to jump.
Who have been your skydiving mentors?
All my P3 (Perris Performance Plus) teammates: Kate Cooper-Jensen, Larry Henderson, Dan BC [Brodsky-Chenfeld], Doug Forth, Chris Farina, Josh Hall.
What safety item do you think is most often neglected?
Gear checks. You should do them every time you jump, regardless.
How did you become interested in skydiving?
Watching a TV show in the early ’70s called “Sky King.” Jumping was always something I wanted to do.
Do you have any suggestions for students?
Hang out at the drop zone and talk to the experienced jumpers. Come early, stay late. Enjoy every jump and be super careful.
What's the most bad-ass thing you can do in the air?
Leave 40th out of a DC-3 and make it to the formation.
If you could do a fantasy 2-way with anybody, whom would it be with and where would it take place?
With my first mentor, Burt Griffey. It would take place over Texas A&M where we made our first jumps together in 1978.
Were you a hard child to raise?
I was terrible to raise. [My parents] left when I was really young, and I have been on my own since age 11. I had lots of support from school and my teachers while growing up.
If you could make everyone do something to make earth a better place, what would it be?
Learn how to skydive.
What has been your most embarrassing moment while in freefall or at a drop zone?
Pulling too low and not having an explanation for it.
The toughest thing to do in the sport of skydiving is:
To keep your head on straight and never forget how important safety is.
What kind of skydiving student were you?
I did OK through most of my first jumps. I had really good instructors at Spring Creek Skydiving Center in North Houston, Texas.
What was your best moment at a USPA Nationals?
In 1978, I competed in style and accuracy. There were 170-plus competitors, and I finished second to last. It was my best USPA Nationals moment because I didn’t come in last!
What has been your greatest competition moment?
Being asked to be on Airspeed 16.
What has been your worst skydiving moment?
In 1992, Roger Pickins and I collided under canopy. We went in from 1,000 feet. I was seriously injured but lived. Sadly, Roger died.
What has been your weirdest skydiving moment?
Trying to fly base for a head-down jump with Trent [Alkek] and Stevie Boy [Boyd] and couldn’t manage it. My gyroscope only works in one direction now!
What drives your competitive spirit?
My teammates, mostly, and the love of being in the door on the first round of a competition.
What has been your motivation for making more than 22,000 jumps?
The love for competition, the love for big-ways and seeing people enjoying themselves.
What are your skydiving goals?
I want to pass away as a current world record holder.
What is the best thing about being a big-way organizer?
What I can give to new jumpers. I love teaching what I have learned.
How did you become interested in big-way jumps?
We started at Spaceland many, many years ago doing 30-, 40- and 50-ways. It became a habit, and I simply fell in love with it.
What bit of advice do you have for future generations of big-way organizers?
Never forget that your customers or students want to learn from you as much as they can.
Explain Tom Jenkins in just a few words:
Understanding, appreciative. I miss old friends and love the new ones.
What is your perfect day like?
Any day with sunshine.