Back to the Sky In Style: Michael Thomas’ Story

Photo credit (above): Lori Eyler

At Skydive Perris, we’re lucky to have a pretty darned amazing community. You probably already know that lots of household-names-in-skydiving call Perris home. Today, though, we want to introduce you to one of our favorite local sport jumpers: Michael Thomas, a gentlesir with a simply amazing life story who rejoined the sport after a forty-year absence. The best part: if you’re thinking about making a skydive for the first time, he has an invitation for you!

…But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Here’s Michael’s story, in his own words. (Get ready to be amazed!)

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Michael Thomas in the 1970s right after landing from a skydiveI did my first jump in November of 1973. I was a student back then, going to what was called Southwest Texas State University at the time. (It’s Texas State University now.) There was a dropzone nearby in the town of San Marcos. Some buddies of mine and I decided that we wanted to go check it out. I did a static line jump. I really took to it.

When my dad found out that I was skydiving, he wasn’t too thrilled about it, since he was paying for my education. He told me, “Son, if you’re going to be doing that, then you’re on your own.”

I told the dropzone owner, an active-duty First Sergeant who had retired from the Golden Knights, what was going on. To solve my problem, I told him I was going to enlist in the Air Force. He thought I was out of my mind, but he told me about this Dental Laboratory Prosthetic Technician school that he knew about at Fort Sam. The Army was going to be discontinuing the program, but they had two slots left, and he wanted me to have one.  

He gave me some inside information. He told me that the recruiters there would try to get me to go to combat arms or fill some other slot, and that when they did, I needed to say, ‘No, thank you very much,’ to which they’d reply, ‘Well, we can’t help you then.’ He told me not to get upset — just to bide my time. He told me that, a couple days later, they’d call me back to tell me that a slot had suddenly opened. And that’s exactly what happened. I made a pretty decent career out of it.

I put on my wishlist where I wanted to get transferred after I got out of school. I put down California solely because of the skydiving. I’d been watching what they were doing in Perris even back then — pouring over Parachutist magazine — and I wanted to be part of it. I knew about Perris from day one. Perris had a reputation. It was a mecca back in the ’70s when I first started jumping. The military is notorious for not honoring your wish list, but somehow, I got lucky. I got my first pick on the list: California.  

Michael Thomas pulls on toggles under skydiving canopy in 70sThen I got married. My girlfriend then — now my wife; we’re still married — was supportive. When we were dating, she would go to dropzones with me. She even saw my first malfunction — in an airshow, no less. But life got in the way. Skydiving was an expensive hobby. My priorities changed and I kinda drifted away from the sport.

Skydivers tend to have a higher stimulation level, I think. We need to be in the mix — doing something. My professional life suited that part of my personality. First, I was a Vocational Training Instructor at the Federal Penitentiary in Lompoc. I’ve got a book’s worth of stories from when I was there. I was on the Special Operations Response Team. We had a lot of high profile inmates there. I got to meet Manuel Noriega.

I was in the National Guard, too. I was deployed to Iraq in 2003. We got ambushed on November 2nd of that year, outside of Baghdad. We got blown up pretty good. I was slammed against a truck and cracked a vertebra in my neck. I wound up getting my spine fused all the way from C2 to C7. It sounds bad, but I’m okay. I have close to full mobility and I don’t have any pain. After that injury, I was awarded 100% disability.

At any rate, I was out of the sport of skydiving for about 40 years. I always wanted to get back in it, but I could never really find the time or the money.

I’d lived close to Perris for so many years. I missed jumping every time we went down the 215 to San Diego, which was a lot. I’d be driving along and see canopies, which would instantly make me start daydreaming, which would mean my wife would have to yell, ‘Get your eyes on the road!’ to wake me up. Every single time, I’d get excited and want to go to the DZ.

Fast forward to two years ago, when I fully retired from the Fed. I started to get bored. I garden; I have a woodshop in my garage, where I make reproduction antique furniture — I’m busy. But one day, I was sitting at the table reading the paper, and on the front page, they were talking about a 202-point formation that they were going to be doing out at Perris. I couldn’t resist. I decided I was finally going to go out there and take a look.

So I went down to Perris on the day they were scheduled to attempt the record. The dropzone was closed for sport jumping, but the energy — the electricity in the air from all those people — I was really getting excited, you know.

And then — as I’m standing there, basking in it — Melanie Conatser gets on the PA system. She says, “Listen, we’re going to need some help here. I see that we have some local people here with pickup trucks. I’d appreciate it if you’d come to the manifest and make yourselves known so we can pick up all these jumpers.” They had designated landing areas all over the dropzone because of the number of jumpers that would be landing all at once. I volunteered. I’ve been a fixture on the Perris DZ ever since.

present day Michael Thomas flying under canopy at Skydive PerrisNot long afterward, my wife mentioned that she wanted to go to Nebraska to visit our daughter and grandchildren and son-in-law. I saw an opportunity. I figured it would be easier to ask for forgiveness instead of asking for permission. So while she was gone, I went and did the AFF course at Perris. Before I did my AFF at Perris, I’d never jumped a square before, but it went fine. And, as it turns out, my wife was cool with it. She was a little bit concerned about my neck — a legitimate concern, considering all those fused vertebrae. But it hasn’t slowed me down. I even stress-tested my neck on a downwind landing. No problem.

I feel like it was fate that we had the 40-year anniversary of Perris the year I came back to the sport. Right when I returned to skydiving, I got to meet a lot of the legends I’d been starstruck by even when I started in the 70’s.

People are sometimes a little surprised when I talk about the fact that skydiving is a therapeutic activity. There’s a mode that you get into: when you start to gear up, you dirt dive, and then after that, once that process starts, there is nothing else going on in your life except that moment. From the time you get on the plane until the time you land, that’s all you can feel. That’s your universe. I’d have to say that’s one of the biggest reasons why I jump.

It’s an unnatural activity to be purposely, deliberately jumping out of an airplane. You don’t know what’s going to happen with complete certainty. That’s what causes most of the fear, I think.  But once you’ve made a resolution that you’re going to face this, and that you can do this, the reward at the end is incredible.  

It’s not just me, either. When I see tandem jumpers who are walking back from their very first parachute landing, I make a deliberate effort to go over and ask them how they liked it. Every one of them gives the same answer: ”It was the most fantastic, exhilarating experience of my life. I can’t believe I did that, and I don’t know what I was afraid of.” And they’re all just glowing, with this euphoric look on their faces. And a lot of them come back to do it again — and to get their solo skydiving license. Which, really, is phenomenal.

It doesn’t hurt that, safety-wise, Perris has the best tandem masters, the best equipment, the best pilots, the best of everything. And, being that Perris is a world-class drop zone, the odds are definitely in your favor that, if you jump there, you’re going to survive. So enjoy it!

There’s another thing that’s cool about Perris: They preach that old-school philosophy that establishes the sport of skydiving as a brotherhood. We look after each other, here. We treat each other with respect and kindness. We make everybody feel welcome out here, no matter who you are. Speaking of which, here’s an invitation: When you graduate with your license, come and find me! I’ll be happy to jump with you.

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