Chattanooga Skydiving Company — "We Make Smiles"
They pay us to strap to humans, jump from airplanes and make smiles all day. When you see them come down, EVERYBODY is smiling and laughing.” This is the way Justin Silvia, owner and founder of the Chattanooga Skydiving Company in Jasper, describes his typical day on the job.
Silvia and his son, Joe, are the owners and founders of the skydiving company in Jasper and a jumpsite in Texas, run by the younger Silvia. The 61-year family tradition of skydiving, however, began with Vin Silvia, Justin’s father, a World War II-era skydiver with the Army 82nd Airborne Division who took up sport parachuting in 1960.
“I come from a skydiving family,” said Silvia. “We grew up around it. My children represent the third generation of skydivers. I have completed over 11,000 jumps since my first in 1984 — 37 years ago. I have been a tandem instructor for 30 years and currently hold a D license.
“I grew up in Massachusetts but moved to North Carolina to work at a hang-gliding school running their skydiving school. In 1999, I moved to Lookout Mountain to work at the hang-gliding school at Lookout Mountain Flight Park, flying the tow plane. I towed over there for a season and went back to skydiving.
“Then I found this airport in Jasper. I came over one day, looked around and said, ‘This will be my next skydiving business.’ This is an aviation-friendly area. You’ve got hang gliding at Lookout Mountain and in Dunlap and paragliders in Whitwell. Skydiving just adds to the mix. This is great for tourism, and we are all friends.
“I knew this would be the perfect spot because it is very scenic. It is right on the Tennessee River Gorge, located in the beautiful Sequatchie Valley, near Nickajack Lake and just two hours from several major cities — Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville, Birmingham, Huntsville — and just 30 minutes from Chattanooga. Another plus is our easy access right off the interstate. A lot of my competitors don’t have that advantage. Atlanta is our biggest market, then Nashville and Knoxville with a lot of tourism coming out of Chattanooga as well. There are other places to skydive, but we have the best view.
“Another draw to our company is our commitment to safety and the fact that we have invested in top-quality planes and equipment. Our big, new plane is a 2010 model PAC 750 XL, the newest, safest skydiving plane in the industry. And we do everything by the book. Our planes are well maintained — that is an important thing — I mean, I’m on these planes. My children are on these planes. I also buy the newest, safest equipment and invest in well trained, highly skilled, experienced pilots and instructors — the best in the industry. I spend a lot of money to make sure everything is safe, but that is one of the main reasons people choose this company over our competitors.
“In a normal year, we usually have about 5,000 people making tandem jumps. In 2020, with the COVID restrictions, we had only about 3,000. This year we are back up to about 4,000 with a couple more months to go in the season, so we haven’t done too badly.
“Not only has business been good for me, it has also been good for the local economy. Think about it: If we have 5,000 day visitors that spend $100 to $150 in the county on a tank of gas, food, etc., and about 2,500 overnight visitors who are spending even more, that is some serious money fl owing into the community. That’s not even counting what they are spending with us. We also employ about 17 people, so we are bringing jobs to the community.
“In addition to tandem jumps, which are the majority of our business, we offer full skydiving training all the way to the instructor level. Anyone 18 or older can come out for a tandem jump, students can learn to skydive, and licensed divers can dive solo and train to become instructors. We have people come here from all over the world to skydive and get instructional training, but it is primarily the tandem jumps — jumping, strapped to a trained, licensed instructor — that brings people in.
“We have all kinds of people come out to make tandem jumps — ages 18 to 60 or 70. Dads, moms, sons and daughters — whole families come out together.
“The average person who comes out to jump is pretty excited. They usually have a preconceived notion of what it is like to jump, but it is not anything that you can really explain in words. You have to actually experience it. Our motto is ‘We make smiles,’ and that is what we do. I’ve had people get really emotional after a jump. There was a woman who had been taking care of an invalid mother for 10 years who said, ‘I haven’t been out of the house in years,’ and she just started crying as soon as we opened the parachute. Once you face the fear that is trying to get the better of you and make that jump, things will never be the same again — in a positive way. You owe that to yourself.
“We also do lots of events and group activities, even for large groups. We can accommodate 12 people an hour. People celebrate birthdays here. Some have proposed while jumping or have even gotten married while jumping or held the wedding in the hangar after jumping. We love weddings and proposals. They are our favorite of the special group activities and our specialty.
“ALL The Tandem jumps performed here include a free “reality” video filmed by the instructor with a wrist-mounted camera and shared through our YouTube channel for free. We offer the full edited version of the reality product as an editing upgrade, or the customer can add pictures from the wrist cam view.
“Our best video product is our Ultimate Video Package. We send a camera flyer equipped with both video and still cameras mounted on a helmet. We combine the footage from all angles with our best editing service and send the customer a link from our server to a fi le that can be downloaded, viewed and shared. This video is also shared through our YouTube channel and can be viewed and shared to social media.
“We are getting to that time of the year when the scenery is just amazing: the clear, bright blue skies where you can see for miles. Then the first two weeks of November when leaves change and the color is amazing. It is prime time for jumping. It is also time for thinking about Christmas gifts. We offer gift certificates on our website that you can purchase and print.
“November is about the end of the season. We still jump, but it is mostly on weekends. In January and February, we are lucky to get two weekends a month — ones with nice weather — 60 degrees or above. When it is below 40 degrees, it is not fun skydiving. Then we pick back up in March. Winter is our rest time.
“There have always been skydiving businesses around, but most of them were more a hobby for entrepreneurs. The advent of tandem skydiving is what made the business commercially viable. We didn’t open until 2012, so it took a while to get it off the ground, but here I am, 20 years after I declared my intentions with a successful skydiving business at the Marion County Airport.
“Before I started this business, I worked with other companies. I worked in the hang gliding industry. I’m also a machinist, a quality inspector, and a mechanical inspector. Since I’ve started this business, I haven’t had to go back to a ‘real’ job. People will say, ‘I’m afraid of heights.’ I tell them, ‘I’m afraid of lengths. When you open up a tape measure, it reminds me of work. Put that tape measure away!’
“The best thing about this job is just to see the smiles on the faces of the people when they come down. That’s the thing about skydiving. That’s all you are thinking about. You are not thinking about the office or problems or anything else but the dive. It grabs your attention. Takes all your attention for those few minutes you are diving.”