Free Falling


The sensation of flight has intrigued humans since the Greek tale of Icarus, who escaped Crete with wings made of wax that failed him when he flew too close to the sun.

Submitted photos: Skydivers Emily Cano, Steven Stoffan, Laura Stiles and Chris Wendel take flight above the Skydive New Mexico drop zone in Belen.

This human desire to fly has given birth to many inventions, among them skydiving.

According to, the roots of modern skydiving can be traced back to Joseph Montgolfier of France, who in the late 18th century, “first gave significant meaning to the modern use of the parachute by testing his device while jumping out of a hot air balloon.”

After the invention of the airplane by Orville and Wilbur Wright, Grant Morton, an American, jumped from a Wright Model B airplane over Venice Beach, Calif., in 1911, using a silk parachute, making him one of the very first skydivers in history.

The act then caught on with the military, which made use of parachutes during World War II with the introduction of paratroopers. After the war, there was a surplus of parachutes no longer needed by the military and former-paratroopers began parachuting from planes for the sheer pleasure of it, thus creating skydiving as a recreational sport.

New Mexico is home to three skydiving locations — or drop zones. One in Hobbs, one in White Sands and one right here in Valencia County.

Located on Belen’s West Mesa at the Belen Alexander Municipal Airport, Skydive New Mexico is more than just a drop zone, it is a school for first time and novice skydivers, as well as a place for the seasoned skydiver to hone their skills or share their years of wisdom, such as Rudi Krenz, an instructor from Albuquerque who recently celebrated his 80th birthday.

To commemorate his landmark birthday, Krenz made eight consecutive jumps at Skydive New Mexico with friends and family.

“Rudi is a legend at our drop zone,” says Emily Cano, a United States Parachute Association coach and secretary of Skydive New Mexico board of directors.

Cano said she relishes the chance to learn from Krenz and his lifetime’s worth of skydiving knowledge.

For Cano, skydiving was a bullet point on her bucket list seven years ago when she went on her first tandem jump at the Belen drop zone.

“As soon as I exited the plane I knew I wanted to do it again,” she said, and true to her statement, she “hasn’t stopped since.”

She enrolled in Skydive New Mexico’s Accelerated Free Fall progression program to get her license to skydive solo, which took about four months and 35 jumps. Today, she has logged 375 jumps, a small number, she says, compared to people who have logged thousands or those who have even lost track.

Her goal? To continue to jump as long as physically possible, just like her hero, Krenz.

For Cano, as with many other skydivers, the feeling of flight is indescribable, as there is nothing on earth, literally, to compare it to. She says she has a paralyzing fear of heights, and yet jumping from a plane at 10,500 feet is not like looking off the edge of a roof or falling out of a tree.

It is a sensation all its own, and one that has the power to lure humans to it in droves.

For thousands, skydiving is a way of life. According to their website, the USPA boasts 34,000 members, who, along with first-time jump students, make nearly three million jumps per year at more than 220 USPA-affiliated drop zones nationwide.

“There’s something in the sky that draws me back to it,” Cano says. “You never look at the sky the same again without wanting to get back up there.”

Cano has “enjoyed the sky” at Moab, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Washington state, and takes her equipment with her anytime she travels, but says Skydive New Mexico is her home drop zone and “playground.”

At Skydive New Mexico, Cano says the focus is on education and safety. The drop zone offers tandem jumps, in which first time or unlicensed individuals jump while connected to a licensed skydiver who essentially flies their body.

With tandem flights, Cano says, you are able to take in the experience, which includes 45 seconds of free fall and a 3-4 minute parachute ride.

Some of the things to take in while flying, besides the physical sensation itself, is the way the Earth looks from a high altitude and the horizon, where you can literally see the curvature of the Earth.

Skydive New Mexico also offers the Accelerated Free Fall program for individuals to get their license to jump on their own, and the Instructor Assisted Deployment program in which an instructor initiates deployment of an individual’s parachute when they jump from the plane.

At Skydive New Mexico on a recent weekend, all hands were on deck, packing parachutes, checking and re-checking equipment and educating new jumpers on the art of flying.

Michael Hotchkiss, an instructor at the drop zone, says he became an instructor to help introduce others to the incredible feeling of flight.

“I skydive because I love it,” Hotchkiss said. “Once you experience it, you’ve got to do it again and again.”

At the drop zone, close relationships are built out of a common love of the sport as well as necessity for each other’s safety.

“We all get together every weekend and we have a vast number of students, instructors and coaches,” says Cano’s niece, Caitlin, who works in manifest at the drop zone. “With everyone that comes here every weekend, it turns into a big family.”

She doesn’t skydive herself, but says in observing the skydivers that come to the drop zone, it’s the thrill and rush of adrenaline that makes them want to keep doing it, as well as the relationships that are formed.

Jennifer Forest, of Albuquerque, and Kaiyla Shaiy Isbell, of Alabama, were among the students preparing for their first tandem jump.

“I’ve always wanted to try it and my friend was coming out so he asked me to go,” said Forest, who admitted to feeling “a bit nervous.” Isbell, who also came with a friend, was all smiles and said she was excited and “ready to fly.”

The drop zone is open on weekends. The price list includes tandem jumps at $315 or $395 to include a video; $325 for the AFF program; and $250 for the IAD program.

All student jumps include gear rental, packing, instructor fees and airlift. For members, high jumps are $28, and low jumps are $22.

For more information and a complete price list, visit Skydive New Mexico online at, or call 864-7942.

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