It’s only natural to have a fear of falling, but if you have enough time and know what you’re doing, it’s possible to do some pretty incredible things on the way down.
Just ask Tom Baker, a Norwood Young American native who recently joined a select group of skydivers from around the world to help set a new vertical skydiving record in Ottawa, Ill.
Baker and his companions, 137 of them, made history when they exited from six different planes at 18,500 feet, maneuvered themselves while in a free fall to a single point, and linked up in a very specific snowflake-like formation — all in about 55 seconds while falling at speeds up to 220 miles per hour.
That feat was finally accomplished after 15 jumps spread over three days. The skydivers set a new state record for Illinois on their sixth jump when 142 divers linked up, but the formation did not quite match what was needed for the Guinness Book of World Records.
The participating divers were requested by invitation to assemble in Ottawa to try to break the previous record of 108 skydivers set in 2009, and Baker was approved for the jump after several tryouts.
“There were people from all over the world: Europe, the U.S., Canada, Russia, Asia. People from all over the world just came to Ottawa, Ill., this cool little town surrounded by cornfields and soybeans just like Norwood, and gathered there to try to link up and set this record,” said Baker.
“We exited the planes according to a specific order. Once we exited the planes we all tried to go toward the center and everybody had a specific place to go. Those were made out according to flyer’s size, skill, flying abilities. Once the center started building then people started coming in and building these little pods, these round formations. They link up and hold hands. It was fun.”
By any measure, the record-setting event was extraordinary. But Baker’s involvement was one that neither he nor his parents could have foreseen when he left Norwood Young America in 2008.
After spending his senior year of high school doing post-secondary motorcycle mechanic work at Hennepin Technical College, Baker departed the area for Orlando, Fla. to attend the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute. Skydiving was not even a thought in his mind, but during one visit his father Mark convinced him to try out an indoor skydiving wind tunnel.
“At first I was like, ‘I don’t know, it sounds kind of expensive.’ He was like ‘No, let’s go,’” Baker remembered. “So he took me there for the first time. Once I went into the tunnel it was super cool. I immediately grabbed a job application and started bugging them, calling them every single day. Finally they said, ‘Shut up and start training.’ From then on I became a wind tunnel instructor. Once I became an instructor and started showing people how to fly their bodies, it was pretty hard not to start skydiving.”
Even after becoming proficient in the wind tunnel, which simulates a free fall by blowing air upward at about 150 miles per hour, Baker said it was a whole different feel when it came time for his first jump.
“It was scary, intimidating. I don’t care who you are. Some people act all macho, like ‘I wasn’t scared my first jump.’ Absolutely, man. You’re jumping out of an airplane the first time,” he said. “It’s something you just have to do. I could spend five hours describing one single skydive, one 35-second skydive. I could spend five hours describing it, or you could just go do it.”
Making a career
What began as a chance visit to a wind tunnel has become a career for Baker. As memorable as his own first jump was, Baker now spends his days recording those exhilarating moments for other first-time jumpers. Those individuals do a tandem dive with an experienced “canopy pilot,” and Baker, as an expert flyer, jumps alongside and then maneuvers to take video and photos from above, below and all sides.
“It’s so cool getting to see people’s reactions their first time. I do every cool angle and cool photograph I can think of in that short period of time. This is all I do. I skydive and do tandem videos seven days a week, every single day. And I fly in the wind tunnel doing private coaching five nights a week,” he said. “A lot of skydivers come in and they train to learn how to fly their body in the tunnel as opposed to practicing in the sky where you only get 35 to 55 seconds depending on how high you jump. In the tunnel you can gain a lot more free fall experience, a lot more body flight experience.”
Baker said he typically makes two or three jumps on week days, and seven or eight per day on the weekends.
“It is a very extreme sport, but it’s not nearly as dangerous as people think. It’s way safer than driving or any of that stuff,” he said. “It is a whole lot of wear and tear on your body, just the fatigue. It’s hard on your joints. The landing is up to the actual person. You can have a soft, squishy landing like you’re walking down the stairs, or you can come in and bounce on the ground like you jumped out the bed of a truck. That’s completely up to the canopy pilot.”
As an experienced diver, Baker said he uses a high performance canopy that allows faster descents and turns, though other canopies allow for softer landings. He compared the difference to driving a minivan versus a sports car.
“It takes years of training and hundreds if not thousands of skydives to almost think you know what you’re doing,” he said.
While the work schedule is rigorous and the number of jumps increases the odds of a mishap, Baker said he has never experienced any particularly frightening moments other than watching one landing where his friend broke a femur.
“In this sport you just kind of accept the fact that accidents and injuries are going to happen,” he said, adding that other than tweaking a knee on landing, he has so far been unscathed.
Other than helping to set state and world skydiving records (he also helped set the Florida state record of 42 linked divers in just one attempt), Baker intends to compete in a variety of disciplines at a national competition this fall.
For the foreseeable future, at least, his focus is on full-time skydiving.
“I still work on bikes and I still play with a lot of motorcycles and stuff, but skydiving just became a much bigger part of my life than motorcycles,” he said. “It’s not something most people get bored with. There’s always something different. There’s always something changing. There’s new gear out there, there’s a new way of flying, so there’s always something more to learn. [I’ll continue] as long as my body can handle it.”
Baker, along with his parents, Mark of Hamburg and Pat of NYA, still finds himself occasionally marveling at how he reached this point.
“It’s nothing I ever anticipated coming down to Florida,” he said.