Skydiving in the Zone
June 20th, 2018 by Pamela A. Keene

Above, a skydiver comes in for a landing against a setting sun in DeLand. Right, tandem jumpers make the adrenaline-producing leap from the plane.
Photos by Gabrielle Merritt, for Skydive DeLand and West Volusia Tourism

Former hobbyist makes a career of parachuting, positioning Skydive DeLand as a jumping destination

Bob Hallett gets a thrill jumping out of airplanes. As owner of Skydive DeLand—the busiest skydive center in the world—Bob spends more time these days helping others jump than jumping himself.

Bob’s love of adventure and heights started when he was a kid growing up in Neoga, Illinois.

“When I was 8 years old, my dad was putting up a television antenna on our roof and he left the ladder leaning against the house,” 67-year-old Bob says with a mischievous smile. “I think I had seen a cartoon or something that showed someone floating down under an umbrella, so I ran in the house, got an umbrella, climbed right up and jumped off. It was my first taste of what it felt like to free fall.”

Although it did not work out as planned, thankfully, he was not hurt.

When Bob graduated from high school, he joined the Army, with an eye on paying for college with the GI Bill.

After a little more than two years in Vietnam, he came home and enrolled at Eastern Illinois University.

He joined a parachute club and began skydiving in earnest. His hobby connected him with other clubs and top-name competitive skydivers.

In the early 1980s, Bob and his team competed in a world meet in Zephyrhills. While there, Bob says he found “a little obscure, not very active parachute center in DeLand.”

He decided to take over lease of the property and start a drop zone there.

“It was a chance to have some fun and maybe make a little money at the same time,” he says.

DeLand was already on the radar for innovation in skydiving and parachuting. Skydiving pioneer Bill Booth had opened United Parachute Technologies there in 1972.

Bill was instrumental in developing the equipment used in tandem jumps. His inventions increased the safety and technology of the sport.

United Parachute Technologies employs nearly 600 people in DeLand. It is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of parachuting gear and equipment.

“When I came here, my role was to develop a parachuting program in DeLand,” Bob says. “DeLand began to attract other innovators who came here to test out their ideas, but it was Bill who set the stage for DeLand to be one of the foremost skydiving locations on the globe.”

The center offers two first-jump options: a tandem jump where the novice is harnessed to an experienced jumper and the freefall training program.

The facility has four planes and numerous full- and part-time instructors. Some of the staff belong to competitive teams and travel around the world for their sport.

The best in skydiving also comes to DeLand. For more than a dozen years, Skydive DeLand has hosted formation skydiving competitions.

Through the years, people have flocked to central Florida to attempt to set world records for various aspects of parachuting. Lake Wales was the site of the largest canopy formation of 100 parachutes in 2008, according to Guinness.

In November 2013, parachutists set a new record in sequential large formation skydiving at Skydive DeLand. It involved 110 jumpers and several days of waiting until the weather was suitable and safe, and a half-dozen attempts during a three-day weekend.

“DeLand is now going for more complex, smaller record-setting formations because we outgrew our own aircraft several years ago,” says Bob. “When the formations got above 150 people, we didn’t have the equipment. Now the world record for the most parachutists in a single formation was set in Thailand, with 400.”

Each spring, the facility hosts the Shamrock Showdown, which attracts parachutists from around the world. It is the start of the global competition year.

Skydive DeLand draws a mix of people—from those who want to try tandem skydiving to those who sign up for the seven-lesson package and jump to become certified.

“The folks that come here for tandem jumps probably won’t come back for another jump,” Bob says. “For them, it’s another milestone to check off their bucket list. But we’ve also turned novices into competent, experienced and safe jumpers who keep coming back.”

Most experienced skydivers go there to train for several weeks at a time.

“The thing about skydiving is you’re not concerned about your mortgage, your bank account or what your future will look like,” Bob says. “You’re totally living in the moment.”

In addition to skydiving, Skydive DeLand offers airplane rides, a kids’ playground and a full-service restaurant and bar. For more information, visit www.skydivedeland.com.