Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Tom Aussem, skydiving instructor.
“I never use my last name professionally in the sport. I just go by Tom. Because try living up to: ‘I’m Mr. Awesome, professional skydiver.’
“How did I get into skydiving? I just kind of fell into it. Thank you, thank you. Well, actually, I started flying airplanes at age eight. My parents lived across the street from the old Ottawa, Illinois, airport, and it had a pop machine and a candy machine, which are magnets for an eight-year-old with a bicycle. I was there one day, and a guy said, ‘If you clean all the bugs off my plane’s wings, I’ll take you up for a little spin.’ That was all it took. I was at that airport every day till I got out of high school.
“When I was 21, Skydive Chicago opened up at the Ottawa airport. I said ‘What the heck, let’s give it a whirl.’ That was my first skydive: May 1, 1992. Since my parents lived across the street, I’d be up there practicing, looking down and seeing my aunt and uncle arrive at my parents’ house, and I’d think, ‘It’s almost dinnertime. I’ll just land in their backyard and eat dinner.
“I currently work at Skydive Milwaukee, and most of my students do the tandem skydive. I wear a parachute on my back, and you’re attached to the front of me, belly to earth. Over the past 24 years, I’ve pretty much seen everything that somebody could do to me in free fall. I have been pooped on, peed on, had people pass out. It’s very lonely under the parachute when that happens. When we’re being videoed, I like to play it up a little bit, so I always open my mouth really big and give a great big ‘Yahoo!’ Well, one time my mouth comes open for the ‘Yahoo!,’ and a great big booger comes flying out of the other guy’s nose and into my mouth.
“I was jumping in Colorado for a while, in an area with lots of colleges. All these college girls would come, and in every group there were one or two who refused to get out of the plane. It was like trying to flush a cat down the toilet. Now, as the sport has progressed and liability has changed, if somebody doesn’t want to leave the airplane, you can try to reassure them, but there’s not nearly as much coaxing and pushing as there used to be. I will say that of all the times I have ever coaxed someone out, they’ve never regretted it.
“Modern parachutes are designed so that you come to nearly a complete stop right at the moment you touch down. It’s akin to just stepping down a regular step in your house. And with tandems, we’ll have the student raise their feet up in the air as high as they can for the landing. I’m only five-foot-five, so if they were to stand up, I’d be dangling off their back like a monkey.
“I don’t particularly get an adrenaline rush from jumping. I just get a feeling of: ‘I just did something cool that’ll probably change someone’s life forever.’ It takes a lot for some people to get to the point where they can jump out of an airplane, and I understand that, and I’m very proud of them for doing it just once. It really is something I think everybody should do. If you make even one skydive, you put yourself into a vastly smaller pool of people.”