Doing the 50—The Very Elite Group That’s Landed in Every State
By Doug Garr
Nicole Smith Ludvik, D-32007, reached a goal very few skydivers ever imagine, let alone achieve: jumping at least once in all 50 states. Until she did it, her logbook was conventional. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t just because of the complicated logistics. Ludvik had a rocky start in the sport. She made her first jump, a tandem, at Skydive the Farm in Rockmart, Georgia in 2007. She didn’t make her second one until two years later. Explaining that she didn’t have “the courage or enough money” for AFF, she booked three more tandems while in Hawaii. The following year, her husband died. She had no interest in skydiving right away, but a year later, she decided to enroll in AFF ground school at the Farm, where she started four years earlier. But her jump plans were thwarted after a car accident left her with severe injuries. Worse, her first serious relationship since being widowed ended.
By early 2012, Ludvik—now a licensed skydiver—realized there was only one way to recover from the lingering depression caused by broken bones and a broken heart. She decided that she’d start in Alabama and skydive her way to Alaska. She sold her sporty Camaro and bought a practical four-door Chevy Cruze sedan and packed her gear and her life in the trunk. She had fewer than 100 jumps.
“The quest to do all 50 kept me alive,” Ludvik said. She used Skydive Chicago in Ottawa, Illinois, as her home base because it was somewhat centrally located. As the least experienced jumper to ever “do the 50,” she conquered the lower 48 in less than half a year. She started on St. Patrick’s Day and finished up in Kansas at the end of August.
An Exclusive Group
The 50-staters are indeed an exclusive group, and each has a unique story peppered with meeting dozens of new people while traveling thousands of miles across the continent. Almost all the DZs and airport managers were willing or even enthusiastic accomplices, offering couches in their homes or cots in bunk houses, finding aircraft and pilots and helping with plans. Some jumps were freebies and others cost … well, don’t even ask. There were common refrains about the “hardest state to make a jump.” New Hampshire, which doesn’t have an active DZ, was the consensus. So how did they conquer the Live Free or Die state? Skydive Pepperell in northeastern Massachusetts is located a stone’s throw from the New Hampshire border. The longtime DZO Fran Strimenos has assumed the unofficial title of godmother to the 50-staters. Whenever a skydiver passes through her DZ and mentions that they “need New Hampshire,” she lends a hand.
As the golden cliché goes, the journey itself proved to be as rewarding as the destination, sometimes more. Annette O’Neil, D-33263, did it to raise money for a cause, combining the spirit of adventure with something bigger than herself. About the “mad project” that she and Brit Joel Strickland blitzed through in six months, she wrote in Parachutist, “From the start, this effort had presented a way to use our immense privilege to do something meaningful. After all, we didn’t want the trip to be just about the simple act of jumping. We wanted it to be about finding common ground in a fractured world, illustrating how diverse micro-communities like that of skydiving can foster the kind of inclusiveness, mutual respect and healthy discourse that the world needs right now. After some thought, we decided to dedicate the trip to Operation Enduring Warrior’s skydiving program.” (For details, see “Down for 50,” January 2019 Parachutist.)
This is not an assignment for the timid, the passive, the non-creative. The 50-state achievers frequently found themselves stymied by weather holds, especially when there was a narrow window because of work, limited vacation time, family emergencies or other unforeseen obligations. Some states where DZs were shuttered or non-existent proved to be tricky, as well as finding available aircraft, pilots and safe landing areas. Sometimes they had to scout for a hot-air balloon or a seaplane or push open the door of an aircraft unaccustomed to hauling skydivers. And aircraft breakdowns were just part of the nuisance quotient, just like the weather holds we all endure.
Thousands of Climb-Outs
For most, it took thousands of climb-outs and many years—a lifetime of leaping. The most famous of the lot—Lew Sanborn, D-1—started in 1949 and didn’t complete the circuit until 2017, more than 7,500 jumps later. Hawaii had proved to be elusive for many years, even though he had been there before. (“I saved the best state for last,” he said.) The journey of another well-known jumper, Rich Piccirilli, D-2155, ultimately spanned 44 years and 4,452 jumps, but he knocked off his last 20 states in just a week in 2011. It took a phenomenal stretch run, and he couldn’t have done it that quickly without his own Cessna 182. Three married couples made the grade, too, including Satomi and Atsushi Yamanaka (D-16665 and D-13966, respectively) from Japan, who traveled to the United States just to complete the circuit. Only 20 skydivers—13 men and seven women—are known to have landed in all 50 states and documented it in their logbooks.
USPA doesn’t formally recognize this exploit or keep records of the states where its individual members jump, but one obsessive skydiver, Harry Moore, D-19570; and his wife, Betty, D-19569, have recorded those who’ve done it. They were the first American couple to complete the circuit and second in the world (the Yamanakas were the first). In the process they’ve heard most of the wacky anecdotes and have met a number of the other 50-staters.
The Moores started jumping via the static-line method in Pennsylvania in 1996, when Dave DeWolf threw them out of a Cessna. In 1999, they found themselves in Alaska and jumped at a DZ in Wasilla then owned by Bill and Carol Jones. After Alaska, they spent four months in Idaho, working together in a retail construction business that took them all over the country. “It was around then we had our first thoughts of jumping all the states,” recalled Harry. “We had 19 at that time and still considered ourselves low-experience, so we began asking folks we looked up to what they thought of trying it. A lot said Alaska would be the toughest to get, and since we already had Alaska, we really began thinking about it seriously.”
Once they passed the it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time threshold, Harry said, “We were always working on the next state, and every one had something special about it. Wyoming took four visits. We jumped into the Pine Haven/Keyhole Airport near Devil’s Tower. When the 182 landed, it was scraped by an antelope. We helped scrape the antelope bits off the plane. Iowa was a night jump; Michigan was a hot-air balloon jump. Nebraska and Arkansas gave us free jumps when they found out we were 50-staters. Finishing was easily the greatest accomplishment of our lives.”
You Can’t Make This Up
Justin Baker, C-44491, the 15th skydiver to complete the marathon, almost didn’t even get to make his first jump. He had the urge ever since he joined the military after graduating from high school. He signed up for airborne school at Ft. Bragg, but he broke his foot during the last week of basic training. As a soldier, he never saw the open door of a plane. When he retired from the service, he tried again but was too hefty—six feet, 300 pounds, which was over the limit for five or six DZs he visited. Finally, Baker got to begin skydiving at a DZ in Plymouth, Indiana. When that operation closed, he moved to Florida but blew out his knee on a bad landing. After recovering, he went to Skydive San Marcos in Fentress, Texas, and passed his first level of AFF training. He finally earned his A license at Skydive Spaceland–Houston in Rosharon, Texas.
Lamenting that he had “no real home DZ,” Baker set a goal to visit 100 DZs in a two-year period. That changed, however. “When I totaled up 25 states, I thought, ‘I’m already halfway there, so I might as well go to all 50,’” he said. By the time he reached 350 jumps or so, he found himself making Hawaii the last stop.
Baker rhapsodized about his journey, which included tracking down a helicopter in Tennessee and a hot-air balloon in New Mexico. South Dakota and Mississippi had no DZs at the time he was doing the 50, but Baker persisted. He said, “People who hear about it want to help and be part of it.” In Nebraska, a DZ owner opened on his day off and wouldn’t take any money for the skydive. However, one jump cost $300: He had to rent a King Air and pay the ferrying fee when the helicopter he had booked broke down.
By the time he got to Wyoming he discovered there were no DZs operating there. So he asked the DZ operator at Rocky Mountain Skydive if he could charter his plane to fly to the nearby Wyoming border. “I had previously scouted the landing area and knew it was a safe place to land,” said Baker.
There was a wide-open area with a parking lot, a smoke shop and a bunch of empty buildings. It wasn’t until he and his buddy, Pete, made the jump that the building they thought was abandoned wasn’t. He said, “When we were under canopy, one of the women arriving for work saw us and ran inside to get the owner. Other ladies came out, and they were in their underwear. I’m pretty sure this is the only time in history a strip club owner not only asked the customers to take pictures of the girls but also bought them beers. Oh, and Pete packed his parachute on the stage. You can’t make this up.”
Baker finished the 50 in the summer of 2017, and he pointed out that the next day Louise and Scotty Gallan (D-10089 and D-3584, respectively) logged their last state. Their quest was somewhat different.
Have Rig, Will Travel
The Gallans used every conveyance at their disposal: their motor home, cars, two Harleys and so on. At some point in their jumping careers—they didn’t recall exactly when—they realized that they had 40 and 38 states logged. The idea was to finish it up and continue to combine skydiving with touring. Have rig, will travel. (They also packed their scuba gear.) “If you decide to do it, then you should plan your schedule around visiting national parks and music festivals,” advised Louise. “I was the navigator on a lot of our trips. I used dropzone.com to plan our itineraries.” Scotty added that since they were retired, they were never in a hurry, and they never exhausted their patience quota. In Idaho, they had to abort a jump and come down because of the weather. When the clouds finally cleared, it was too windy. Finally, they got to 7,500 feet and did a 2-way. They visited Idaho twice, because Scotty had already jumped there but Louise hadn’t. The first time they were there, she was recovering from a broken ankle she sustained at the annual Lost Prairie Boogie in Montana.
They echoed others in remembering that the cost of the jumps ranged from “free to outrageous” (but for a long trip like this, likely priceless). In Wyoming, they paid to ferry a Cessna 172 to where they were camping, and they jumped it with the door still on. Tab: $229. They constantly waxed about the beauty of the American countryside, and, of course, some venues were special. Alaska wowed them during the Summer Solstice Boogie at Alaska Skydiving Center in Palmer. They exited between two glaciers with a gorgeous lake nearby. The landing area wasn’t where they boarded the Twin Otter. Since the runway was only about 1,000-feet long, the pilot couldn’t take a chance on a full load (it took only nine skydivers at a time). There was no cell-phone service, and everyone was required to carry a credit card in case they landed off and had to be helicoptered out.
In the end, the Gallans visited 96 different DZs. “Every drop zone was like family,” recalled Scotty. “No matter where you go skydiving, it’s home,” added Louise.
50 Before 50
While they didn’t have the leisure schedule and resources that the Gallans had, Sarah and Matt Nuckols were another 50-state couple that completed the quest after a fairly slow start. (It took Sarah a year just to get her A license.) She timed the journey so it finished on her 1,000th jump, which she made in 2016, just over 12 years after her first tandem. (The Nuckols did actually have a rush where they jumped half the states in a single year.) Her goal was to achieve 50 states before her 50th birthday—50 before 50. She just made it, bailing out of a hot-air balloon in Casper, Wyoming, for the final state. She kept a blog–Silly Sky Girl—of their exploits, and Matt posted an 11-minute video that contained footage from each state. Every step (off a flying object) was carefully documented with still photos, as well. “It was such a relief to finish; it was exhilarating,” Sarah said. “I also feel like I could be mapmaker now.”
“For my husband and me, it was kind of a romantic trip,” Sarah continued. “When we got married in 2010, the only thing I promised him was ‘unlimited torture.’ We had a lot of fights in the car. But in the end, it was about seeing the country for both of us.” With their home base in Glen Allen, Virginia, they both had busy professional lives—she is an accountant—and they didn’t have the luxury of unlimited resources or time off. They crossed the Mississippi River countless times and drove some 28,000 miles in all. “We’d take off from work on a Thursday or Friday, and just drive 1,000 miles,” Sarah said. They jumped in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois on the same day.
The Nuckols flew to Seattle, however, to tackle the West Coast leg (including a BASE jump in Idaho). When they arrived in Oregon, the plane they expected to skydive from broke down. The DZO called in a plane from another DZ while they wilted in 102-degree heat. When they finally jumped and landed, Sarah asked how much they owed. Sarah said that the DZO’s suggested payment was “the shirt off my back” (namely a sweaty Sisters in Skydiving T-shirt she had on). She politely declined and sent him a freshly laundered Pink Mafia one instead.
A Varied Career
Rich Piccirilli said he hadn’t been thinking about doing the 50-state marathon until he had checked off 30 about five years ago. Piccirilli is an old-timer with a lot of history, an early employee of Jacques Istel at the legendary Parachutes Incorporated, the first commercial DZ in the U.S. He’s a pilot and has had a varied career in the air. He was in the world’s first 24-way formation in 1972 (and subsequently appeared on the “I’ve Got a Secret” TV show with the other skydivers), and he once parachuted from a hang glider in Yosemite National Park. In 2003, he was on the commemorative load that jumped into Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of powered flight. He landed in front of a bunch of luminaries including President George H.W. Bush, John Travolta and Jimmy Buffet. He was on the 10-way team that won a gold medal at the USPA Nationals in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 1972.
“I keep meticulous logbooks,” Piccirilli said. So, when he began rifling through them beginning with his first skydive at Lakewood, New Jersey, in 1967, it occurred to him he could knock off the remaining 20 states fairly quickly. All he had to do was find a pilot to fly his plane, and then plot the trip. He used Google Maps extensively to find safe landing areas, and when he wasn’t skydiving into a DZ, he religiously filed a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) with the Federal Aviation Administration for every jump. (Other 50-staters reported resorting to the same thing.) Piccirilli was jumping close to state lines, just to save fuel.
He eventually compiled a spreadsheet with all the qualifying jumps, including as much detail as would fit in the one-line comment section that was standard in first-generation logbooks. He blitzed through the last 20 states, and he labeled his last jump as the most exciting. It was also somewhat hairy (and he may have rethought previously bragging about not having a single weather hold on this last push). He needed only New Mexico, and he decided to land in Cortez, which is at the Four Corners (where Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico abut). This part of the country is up in the mountains, and on the day he did it the winds were really honking, well over 20 mph. “I actually dropped a wind drift indicator [a weighted crepe paper streamer that descends at roughly the same rate as a skydiver],” he recalled. “I had a two-mile long spot at two grand. When I was landing, I was backing up.” The end of his logbook entry reads, “Had to cut the main away on landing. Whew!”
DZs, demos, big planes, small planes, balloons, choppers, day or night, whatever it took. Regardless of the difficulties involved, almost every skydiver talked about seeing the country from a perspective that few people will appreciate or ever know.
About the Author
Doug Garr, D-2791, is an author, journalist and regular contributor to Parachutist magazine. He made his first jump in 1969 and has made more than 1,800 skydives after taking a 25-year hiatus from the sport. He has jumped in only three countries and 14 states, but he logged the elusive New Hampshire accidentally in the 1970s, when a bad spot at Skydive Pepperell in Massachusetts led to him landing his Para-Commander in a garbage dump in the neighboring state.