Thrill-seekers have been coming to Skydive Toledo for the ultimate adventure since 1973. In fact, it’s one of the longest continuously running parachute centers. Founded by Mike Martin, the business is now owned by Heather Whittaker, who started in the business 20 years ago.
There’s been a great deal of change in that time. The center moved from a little hangar to a big three-bay hangar. They also purchased 20 acres where jumpers land and updated aircraft and gear.
Skydive Toledo is nonstop fun. The group makes jumps while camping out in RVs and barbecuing over bonfires. “It’s not just a business,” says Heather. “It’s unique and how it was originally intended in the 70s. We kept true to that.”
During what Heather calls “adult summer camp,” people roll in on Friday night and stay until Sunday night or Monday. Skydivers visit from all over the world and the center hosts huge parties with jumping, dancing, eating and laughing. “That togetherness is key,” says Heather. “We’re passionate about the sky and those who are like-minded.”
The atmosphere at Skydive Toledo is student-centered. “We care about our students,” shares Heather. “It’s all about personal experiences. It’s a passion for the people that work there.”
Skydive Toledo offers Tandem Skydiving, Static line Skydiving Instruction, and Accelerated Free Fall Skydiving Instruction to help propagate the sport. You can also pick up the top gear.
The core group of experienced instructors is Tim Piteck, Jeff Peterson and Tyler Gammel. “They’re so amazing and an incredibly talented group of people,” Heather says. “They have thousands and thousands of jumps apiece.”
These instructors really enjoy taking newcomers on their first jumps. “They love to share the experience of letting go of what’s going on on the ground and finding yourself in the sky,” says Heather. When the group isn’t teaching, they’re out with their own parachutes, enjoying the sport with friends.
Jumping with Skydive Toledo offers a chance to see seven or even eight volcanoes from the air. At 12,000 or 13,000 feet, the view is spectacular. On the clearest day, the entire Cascade Mountain chain is visible from Mount Baker to Mount Shasta. Jumpers also recognize the Columbia River spilling into the ocean.
There’s always something fun happening at Skydive Toledo. They offer air weddings and often see proposals complete with a big “Will you marry me?” banner and champagne toast on the ground. “It’s really fun and exciting,” says Heather. “Everyone has said yes!”
One particularly memorable jump was a unique gender-reveal for an expectant couple. The soon-to-be parents learned they were having a boy when they saw blue smoke billowing out of the jumpers parachutes. The 30 or so family members in attendance all wore team boy or girl shirts. “It’s really special, those bigger moments we get to celebrate with them,” says Heather.
A more somber event is when people want to release a loved one’s ashes over the mountains. Heather has experience with her own heartwarming memorial jump. When Gary Reed, one of her first instructors, was diagnosed with brain cancer, the group took him on his last tandem jump. When he passed, his ashes were spread over the drop zone from the air. “He instructed me,” Heather says. “To take him for his last jump and then to spread his ashes was a full circle for me. You really get to see the vitality of life when spreading ashes. It gets my heart when I think about it.”
Heather and her team love watching people come down from a first jump. “Their hair is sticking up everywhere and they’re jumping up and down excited,” shares Heather. “The best things are, sometimes I’ll get a letter – maybe even a year later – saying ‘I was trying to get off drugs and that jump helped me get perspective.’
“People are always afraid,” Heather says. “It’s a level playing field. They all make the same face – terror at the door. And then they jump and it’s pure wonder for 5 to 10 seconds. And then, sheer bliss. Everything is exciting and fun and when they land, they’re different people. They put life into perspective by smiling at death. It changes you and all the petty stuff disappears.”
For those struggling with fear, “I always tell people, evaluate your risks. It is an extreme sport,” says Heather. “I feel that the risk is worth the reward. It’s one of those things you will never forget.”
The Toledo community has been very supportive. “We have the most amazing neighbors,” she says. “The people are so nice.”
When a jump misses the drop zone, people sometimes land in backyards. Often community members offer jumpers a ride back, or even a burger and a beer if they’re having a barbecue. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, for making our experience that much better by being good friends,” Heather says.
Heather loves to share her passion with anyone who’s brave enough, along with her team, her daughter Samantha, and her daughter’s brother, Jarrett Martin. “When you come here, you’re my family and an honored guest,” says Heather. “We want you to have fun, be excited and to send you away with a big smile.”