Lebanon artisan has made close to 2,000 parachute jumps
Rick Wittrig has fallen to the ground more times than he can count.
Unlike most landlubbers who occasionally take a stumble and skin a knee or worse, Wittrig drops to terra firma intentionally from 10,000 or more feet above this third rock from the sun, gets up, dusts himself off and walks away without a scratch.
Well, OK, there was one time when he was new to the sport and broke off his heel bone while showing of for some college girls.
The intrepid skydiver, 62, has bailed out 1,879 times according to his logbook, which is incomplete. Among his hundreds of plunges to the ground, he has leapt from the highest uninterrupted waterfalls in the world, jumped to the North Pole, dropped to a Nashville movie theater parking lot dressed as Elvis Presley and celebrated his 50th birthday by making 50 falls in six hours.
"I have not jumped for a while but did rack up nearly 2,000 (jumps) over time. Without a doubt skydives are some of the most memorable events of my life, and I have had quite a few," said the artisan behind Fire Pit Art, a Lebanon-based business that makes artistic steel fire pits.
His first freefall
Wittrig first jumped from a plane in 1976 at the age of 22 after a small club of skydivers rented some property near the Mennonite village of Hopedale, Illinois, where he was raised.
"When I heard that someone would allow me to jump out of an airplane, I was all in. That was all I had to hear. What an adventure and so close to my home," he recalls with glee. "The first time was great. Huge anticipation, excitement, exhilaration and fear all wrapped up into one experience.
"The first jump was easier to do because it was all new. The second was harder. I knew what was gonna happen and what was expected of my performance. Truth be told, I was not a very good student but just kept jumping until I had world-class skills."
Eventually he obtained an expert skydiver license plus instructor and tandem instructor ratings as well as becoming an FAA certificated senior parachute rigger (the person who packs a jumper's last-chance reserve parachute).
Back in the day Wittrig and his peers used surplus military gear using military-training style with a static line. That meant a novice jumper falls the first 20 feet, and the lanyard would pull the pin out and deploy a round parachute so the skydiver would float to the ground with limited steering.
"Today's high-performance elliptical-shaped parachutes are flying wings that require a lot of skill to land well," he notes. "The jumpmaster taught you until you were stable enough to let you pull (the ripcord) on your own, then allowed you to make longer freefalls, eventually flying with other parachutists to make formations."
He went from five seconds to 10 seconds to 30 seconds before pulling the ripcord, until he hit the gold standard of the era, a 60-second freefall from about 12,000 feet.
Why does he do it?
"I can't explain why it is appealing, it just is. It's exhilarating, it is focused activity, it makes life interesting. I have raced in motocross and done rappelling and underwater cave diving. I hope to drive a rail dragster this June going from zero to 150 miles per hour in eight seconds," he said.
"When people ask me why I love skydiving my first thought is, 'Why don't you want to skydive?' It's fun. I never need to explain my desire to anyone that enjoys an adventure sport. When I first started skydiving I tried to recruit everyone I met to the sport but soon found out not everyone shares my enthusiasm."
"People ask, 'Do you have a death wish?' No, he wants to live life to the fullest," said Wittrig's wife Donna. "You can look at it as a negative or positive, and it's a positive."
"Two things when you jump," Wittrig points out. "You're not worrying about your mortgage or anything. You just go out the door, and you're skydiving with your friends."
Of course, there is skydiving and then there's extreme skydiving, like the day in 2001 when he jumped off the 3,212-feet high Angel Falls in Venezuela. No plane was necessary for this plunge, although it took several airplanes and a helicopter to reach the destination.
"We took three or four planes. We're in the jungle, bathing in the river, flocks of green parrots flying overhead. It was magical," recalled Donna, an eyewitness to the feat.
"I've been concerned a lot about the really dangerous skydives," she said.
"A few people had done it before," Wittrig said of the fall off the waterfalls. "You meet some interesting characters (skydiving). A photographer from California made a living from adventure films. He was really good and was willing to take people down there. We were lucky that a 'National Geographic' producer and camera crew were coming along and made a TV special from the footage.
"We flew in on a DC-3 with a flight attendant in Venezuela. Then we flew on a small plane and then took a truck to a motorized dugout canoe and then walked in to base camp. When the weather cleared, we were able to take a helicopter up to the top."
Jumping from waterfalls into a tree
Making the earth to earth jump with about 10 other skydivers, he recollected his thoughts before he flung himself over the edge.
"Walking up to the edge you are so high that the trees, which are 150-feet tall in the valley below, look like smooth grass from the top. You are focused on what you're gonna do. Your exit has to be just so. You don't want to tumble. You want to glide away from the rock face as far as possible before your open your parachute. You want to open at an acceptable altitude. I just enjoyed the view and stepped out into space.
"As I fell, there's no sound at first, but the rushing sounds picks up with speed. When it came time to open, I said, 'What have you gotten yourself into' and was far more concerned than when I stepped off the rock, because you've got to land now in that tiny landing area at the base of the falls.
"The key to these adventure sports is to stay alive. You don't panic. You don't get the opportunity to freak out. Stay focused and deal with whatever you is presented to you," he said.
"My concern was that the landing area was a 20-by-30 space at mostly uphill with big rocks and with small trees. We got a wind report before we left, and it was blowing really hard. I saw I would miss the landing area so I picked a really big tree (one of those 150-foot-tall ones) and flew into it, grabbed onto the branches and climbed down. Later our guides, part of the indigenous tribespeople, climbed the tree and brought down my gear. I was really glad as there are poisonous snakes and bad things in those trees."
Falling to the North Pole
Seven years previously in May 1994, Wittrig jumped into a vastly different climate as he fell to the North Pole.
"We went to Russia just after the Berlin Wall tumbled down. It was like the Wild West," he remembered. "We flew across Russia in the largest plane in the world, an IL-76, and jumped out of that same plane.
"We flew across Siberia to the last land mass, a reindeer herder village, and waited for the weather to die down on the North Pole. We flew to 11,000 feet. The outside temp was minus 70 degrees, and the ground temperature was minus 40.
"We jumped. It was just amazing. When the drop gate at the back of the plane opened at 11,000 feet, all we could see was brilliant white ice from horizon to horizon and a smokepot where we were supposed to land.
"It was incredible to know you were standing on the very top of the whole world, and from that point all directions are South. Some of the Russians got hurt, but no one died, which is always good."
The trip to get there took Wittrig a week, but the fall only took 60 seconds.
He has jumped from as high as 30,000 feet (nearly six miles high) using pressure-breathing oxygen equipment in what is known as a HALO (high altitude, low opening) jump, in which he did a 2½-minute freefall before opening chute. That's a long time in skydiver time.
He also has flown in hundreds of formations, including one in tandem with 300 skydivers.
"That's really an amazing, highly-choreographed event. Everyone has a specific time and place to be in those formations within 90 seconds. Gravity does work and you need to respect it," he said, describing the feat. "Try organizing 300 of your best friends in a parking lot and see if you can create this intricate formation in a minute-and-a-half.
"We're jumping out of multiple airplanes going 180 miles per hour in freefall and making that formation in 90 seconds. To do that really you're flying your body. This is world-class skydiving, and all the skydivers on these jumps are well vetted by multiple individuals and chosen from around the planet."
Fatal jumps prove rare
Wittrig shares the fact that he has been a member in three large formations where three people died.
"Training, gear and big-formation experience has made large skydives safer, and over the past few years incidents do not happen on the world-record dives," he reported.
(In 2014, the United States Parachuting Association recorded 24 fatal skydiving accidents in the U.S. out of roughly 3.2 million jumps. That's 0.0075 fatalities per 1,000 jumps. In the 1970s, the sport averaged 42.5 skydiving fatalities per year.)
Donna, a native of Hustburg, Tennessee, has made eight jumps and says, "It was wonderful, pretty exhilarating. It's amazing how quiet it is."
She dropped out of skydiving because of a vision issue that hampered her depth perception, an extremely important factor necessary for the sport.
Incidentally, the two have run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.
They met after Rick placed an ad in "It Takes Two," a section of the "Nashville Scene" newspaper at that time. After dating for two years, they married in 1996 in Australia.
"I came to Nashville in 1985 for a weekend and never left," Wittrig said of his migration south. "I got a job at Union Station Hotel as a server in fine dining and was the food and beverage director when I left."
He later worked for Bridgestone-Firestone making tires in McMinnville and then became an automotive wholesaler. It mere happenstance, followed by frustration that led him to his most successful venture.
Turning fire-pit maker
"In 2007 we bought a fire pit one day at a big-box store for our daughter Isabella and her friends, and it soon fell apart and caught the yard on fire. I told Donna, 'I can make a better one.'
"I had looked for something well-made that I could buy on the Internet and could only find the usual piece of junk from China. In agriculture class during high school I had learned to weld and use fabrication tools, so I made a sturdy one," said Wittrig.
Fire Pit artist
For info on Rick Wittrig's Fire Pit Art, go online to firepitart.com.
"People that came to house would say, 'Where do you get that?' It seemed I was on to something, and at the height of the Great Recession car sales were really slow. So I started preselling them locally and then going home and making them. A friend that saw my work as art suggested I get on the art-show circuit so I applied and was accepted to juried art shows.
"I did a lot of traveling, but I never saw my family as I was working to make the fire pits during the week and selling them on the weekends. So I called companies that sold them, and we started selling through them. Now we have a huge distributorship network with a big presence in Canada and a worldwide footprint for sales."
It didn't hurt when he created a globe fire pit called Third Rock for the Athletes Village for the 2010 Olympics.
The success allowed Donna to leave her corporate job, and today she handles their company's marketing and oversees the accounting.
The couple has a daughter, Isabella, a seventh-grader at Friendship Christian School, and she intends to make a tandem jump when she turns 18, saying "Because it sounds like a lot of fun."
The four flying Elvises
Returning to Wittrig's high-flying adventures, he recalled that his most dangerous jump came after he made a pitch to the Carmike Nippers Corner theater manager in 1992 in conjunction with the film, "Honeymoon in Las Vegas," in which Nicolas Cage's character bails out of a plane with the "Flying Elvises," a skydiving team of Elvis impersonators.
"There was a tiny landing area, and a storm was brewing. Everything near there could kill you: tall, very high-power tension lines, houses, buildings, telephone lines, streets filled with cars that would not see you land from above. Lots of things that could hurt you, break you or impale you," he said.
"That would have been a good time to stay in the plane. We decided to go for it. We got pushed back by that approaching storm over all those things that could end your life. The wind let up, and we landed safely.
"This was at night with four of us all dressed up like Elvis with bright white, lighted suits, wigs and sunglasses. We almost became dead Elvises. We were all highly-skilled parachutists, but luck helped us as well. We should have stayed on the plane. Performance pressure and ego can be a deadly combination."
In 2003 to celebrate his 50th birthday, the skydiver decided he would make 50 jumps.
"I was terrified on that day," Donna said, but all went well.
"It took six hours, an average of a jump every 5½ minutes. It was really great," said Wittrig. "I had six rigs and professional packers. It was way fun. It was sort of like the movie, 'Groundhog Day,' when the same event happens over and over, again and again. My friends would remove my rig when I landed and put on another. Then I would receive a gear check, give myself a gear check and get into the plane for the ride to altitude."
One more memorable adventure came for Wittrig as he was one of the first to jump off the New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia which stands 876 feet above the river below.
"It was an illegal jump at that time as are most BASE jumps," he said, explaining this type of jump is not from an aircraft. The letters in this acronym stand for building, antenna, span and earth, thus this was a span jump from a bridge to the ground.
"This one was from the four-lane highway that crosses the gorge. We jumped off this thing, and no one got hurt. If we had been caught, police would have put us in jail," he said.
In recent years the West Virginia bridge has become the site of an annual Bridge Day event that attracts thousands of tourists, and skydivers are allowed to jump legally.
"A few years afterward, the governor sent me a proclamation making me an honorary citizen of West Virginia," says Wittrig with a grin.
The man with nearly 2,000 skydives behind his belt made his last long leap from a plane about 10 years ago. He had to lay aside the sport he loves after a doctor discovered a bone spur in his neck and deduced that if Wittrig were to hit the ground the wrong way the impact could paralyze or kill him.
"I'm thinking about it (jumping again)," he reports. "I'm waiting for the technology to catch up. They can remove the spur, and I can jump and return to martial arts."
Does he miss falling to the ground?
"Oh, yeah, all the time, and the camaraderie," says the skydiver who awaits the day when he can once again take a walk through the heavens.
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at email@example.com.