By Renee Lorenz Special to Published Sep 20, 2012 at 8:59 AM

"Ready ... set ... go."

That was it. No fancy red light/green light over the door, no adrenaline-fueled dive out of the plane (which, in retrospect, would have been pretty hard to do strapped to my tandem instructor). Just three little words, a tip forward and I was a skydiver.

My very first jump was scheduled at the tail end of the East Troy club's fifth annual Cheese Boogie, a gathering for experienced skydivers to converge, hang out and – most importantly – jump out of planes as much as possible. With their boogie wrapping up and my skydiving adventure just beginning, I got a unique look at both sides of what Sky Knights/ Skydive Milwaukee is all about.

The Sky Knights Sports Parachute Club was formed in 1963 and operated out of airport hangars until it moved to its current home in the 1980s. The club's skydiving school, Skydive Milwaukee, is how I and many other novices get to experience the thrill of skydiving. Coincidentally, it's also what keeps the Sky Knights up and running (or jumping, as it were) year-round.

"The majority of the business would be tandem jumps. That's what flies the airplanes and keeps the lights on," said web marketing director Todd Zimmerman. "Sky Knights, or Skydive Milwaukee, is a little different. We're a club. We exist to create skydivers – to get more people involved in the sport and to have more friends to jump with."

Jumpers can enroll in the Sky Knights/ Skydive Milwaukee student program in order to earn their A License, which grants them access to jump with fellow skydivers without the help of instructors, as well as clearance to earn more advanced licenses. One-time thrill-seekers like me, on the other hand, can book an appointment for either a tandem or solo accelerated freefall jump. Both offer a 45-second freefall and five to seven minutes enjoying a bird's-eye view of the southeastern Wisconsin landscape as you parachute down.

"You go from 13,500 to 6,500 feet," said Zimmerman. "You open at 65. That's higher than most sport jumpers, but the idea is to give the full experience – the freefall and the nice, scenic canopy ride. We tend to open lower because we're in a hurry to get on the ground, pack up and get on the next flight."

Sure enough, the experienced skydivers on-site that afternoon wasted no time using the clear, sunny weather to execute a list of feats, which included setting new state records for POPS (Parachutists Over Phorty Society) canopy and 13-way wingsuit formations. Even as I sat waiting my turn, casually converting the 13,500-foot drop into miles in my head (two and a half, by the way), it was hard to connect that plunge with the leisurely parachutes drifting back to the open field below them.

After a while I met Amy Gralewski, Skydive Milwaukee's other marketing director. She asked me if I was nervous. I said no. After waiting a little while longer I got called back to suit up and met my tandem instructor, Tim Shue. He asked me if I was nervous. I said no again. A little while later, I moved to the skydiver waiting area. As I was chatting with some of the skydiving regulars, they asked me if I was nervous. One more time, I said no.

If they wanted a "yes," they should have asked if I was excited. I was about to cross off one of my top bucket list items, and there wasn't a single negative – or even neutral – vibe in the place. If anything, I wanted to get things moving. I wanted to jump. But, there are a lot of moving parts that work together for a successful skydive, and I didn't mind waiting to make sure they were all aligned.

"Up through last year, our most common complaint was the wait time because people just didn't understand why we were behind," said Zimmerman, who cited the biggest variable – the weather – among many others that can change how the day's schedule runs. "There's so many things that can complicate it – the plane might have a flat tire that takes 90 minutes to change, and that pushes everything back all day.

"We got super efficient about it this year, (but) we're dialing it back a little to give people the chance to absorb what's going on. We're on our fourth year running on record numbers in just about every area, so it's paying off."

The beauty of waiting, however, is the chance to talk to all of the people involved in Skydive Milwaukee. Some of the skydivers at the club have been there for decades, and even those who just come to jump are welcomed in seamlessly.

"There's just a real broad mixture of people from all different backgrounds. From roofers to surgeons, mailmen to executives. Everything. You name it," said Zimmerman. "A lot of people don't know what people do outside of skydiving. That's not the first point of conversation. It's, 'Hi, what do you do?' 'I free-fly,' or 'I'm a tandem instructor.' It is pretty interesting. It's an equalizing atmosphere."

The closer I got to jumping, the clearer this camaraderie became. The instructors chatted with the parachute packers in the tent next to the plane boarding area. Independent jumpers swapped stories with another group going up in our plane. Everything was laid-back and comfortable, which was good considering once the plane arrived we were packed in so close we were practically in each other's laps. A true people-mover, the plane had no seats and was only tall enough to kneel in.

I'll admit, once the plane was up and I was looking out the window at the ground sinking below us, the thought that the only way back was a 2.5-mile drop did send a couple butterflies to my stomach. But, I was still grinning like an idiot. Shue hooked our harnesses together and shouted some important last-minute reminders (arms across your chest as we leave the plane, smile for the camera) and we shuffled to the door.

Planes have a tendency to convey the illusion that they're firm ground because they have a floor. Here, with the garage-style door rolled up, it suddenly seemed more like a tin can that happened to be traveling at 90 miles per hour. This, for some inexplicable reason, was the only thought that crossed my mind other than "That's really high up." I heard Shue shout "Ready," and rock us forward. "Set," and we rocked back. "Go," and the plane was gone.

Once you get past the fact that you just voluntarily jumped out of a plane, skydiving is a breeze (pun intended). Actually, due to the sheer volume of air rushing at your face and past your ears, it's chaotically windy. Thankfully, goggles were included with the gear I got set up with on the ground. The harder task was remembering to breathe. I was told this on the ground and laughed initially, but now, hurtling through the wind face-first, the advice was immediately useful.

The 45-second fall time was perfect. The 7,000-foot decent was a little surreal, since the altitude doesn't provide much change visually. Contrary to many people's belief, you don't actually see the ground getting any closer at that height. Also, even though we were accelerating I had reached a physical equilibrium with the motion, and toward the end I got a little sick of being air-pummeled. The parachute ride down made for a much more face-friendly experience. The view was spectacular, and I also got a quick tutorial in steering with the parachute's control handles.

Landing was gentle but unceremonious (tandems have to land seated because of the linked harnesses). A golf cart shuttled us back, I took off my jumpsuit and that was that. I kind of wished I was one of those people gathering up their stuff and quickly getting prepped for another jump, but at the same time, I was still wrapping my head around what had just happened. My brain was probably just taking a little longer to return to terra firma.

Skydiving will likely make a repeat appearance on the bucket list – solo this time – but I think I'll save crossing it off for later. I can understand how easy it is to get swept up, though.

"We'll have students out every day, we'll have experienced jumpers coming out every day just to do fun stuff," said Zimmerman. "It's a second home to a lot of people out there. There's no owner who's making a living out of it; it's just us. It's our place. We helped build it to what it is today.

"I think of it like some families have a lake house or something they go to on weekends. Well, I don't have a lake house, but I have a house on an airport that I share with a bunch of crazy people," he laughed. "That's where I spend the weekends, whether it's jumping, or mowing the lawn, or doing whatever needs to be done."

Renee Lorenz Special to

Contrary to her natural state of being, Renee Lorenz is a total optimist when it comes to Milwaukee. Since beginning her career with, her occasional forays into the awesomeness that is the Brew City have turned into an overwhelming desire to discover anything and everything that's new, fun or just ... "different."

Expect her random musings to cover both the new and "new-to-her" aspects of Miltown goings-on, in addition to periodically straying completely off-topic, which usually manifests itself in the form of an obscure movie reference.