The Air up There: skydiving Lost Prairie

Posted on 12 March 2016

Lost Prairie Boogie a Montana skydive tradition

Skydive Lost Prairie a Montana tradition

Story and photos by DAVE REESE

    The smell of burning aviation gas filled the cabin of the DeHavilland Twin Otter.
    Grasshoppers scattered in clouds out of the plane's way, as pilot Scott Larsen guided the Twin Otter down the dirt airstrip at Lost Prairie, a high-mountain airstrip about 40 miles west of Kalispell. In seconds, the lumbering plane was off the ground, followed by whoops and hollers from the 20 skydivers huddled inside the thin shell of an airplane. The jumpers had arrived for Skydive Lost Prairie's annual meet, a boogie that attracts hundreds of skydivers every summer. 
    Sitting on a long bench seat next to the cargo-bay door, we watched Lost Prairie fall slowly away. Inside the cabin of the plane, the skydivers chatted and made final plans for the formations they'd make when they jumped out of the plane at 13,000 feet above the ground. Van Halen's Jump and Ozzie Osborne's Mama I'm Comin' Home blared over the loudspeakers. 
    As the plane reached about 10,000 feet, a hush seemed to fall over the group; they retreated into themselves, and a calm came over them as the moment of truth drew near. One woman leaned on her husband's back, her eyes closed beneath her goggles. The others in this group, mostly men, now sat in a trance. 
    You ever jumped? one girl sitting across the aisle from me shouted as I fiddled with the controls on my camera. 
    Yeah right! I said with a smile. You're all nuts!
     Sitting next to the minivan-sized exit door, I had not just one seat belt on, but I'd wrapped another seat belt around me and held on tightly to another. The officials at Skydive Lost Prairie had given me a parachute to wear in case the plane had problems, but I wasn't too confident in its " or my " abilities to land safely. The Army-green chute looked as if it had been used in World War II and had been bought at a garage sale. If this plane went down, by all rights I was likely going with it.
    The plane leveled off, one by one a row of lights at the rear of the plane flashed: first red, yellow, then green. At this signal the skydivers, in pairs, unclipped their seatbelts and ambled to the rear of the plane.
They held onto an iron bar over the door, their backs to the rushing wind.
Soon they were gone, falling into the wild blue yonder over Lost Prairie. 


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Coming in on final approach to Skydive Lost Prairie in Marion, Montana. Dave Reese photo

skydive plane

Airplanes line up along the dirt airstrip at Lost Prairie.

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Two high school students high five each other after a successful first dive.

skydiver door

A skydiver looks out the airplane door while ascending to elevation before diving back to Lost Prairie.

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Two women prepare their dive

    The last of the divers gone, and I sat alone in the rear of the now-empty plane, which dived toward earth. Outside the big bay door, the horizon, which I'd generally expected to be a horizontal line, was now strangely vertical. I looked out the cockpit window and saw only earth; I thought then this is what it must feel like if a plane were going down. The elevation that took 18 minutes to climb took only three

minutes to descend. We touched down at about the same time as the skydivers.

    That ride was probably as close as I'd ever get to skydiving. Some people, though, just have to experience that thrill. Tomi Hammen, 64, has wanted for years to try it.

    The smile you see on the faces of those people is like a smile that lets you see all the way through to their souls, she told me as we sat on the fender of her motor home parked near a row of planes at Lost Prairie.

    Hammen, a spry woman with short, wiry gray hair, came to Skydive Lost Prairie for the drop zone's annual boogie, but she mistakenly arrived a day early. That gave her the chance to witness a skydiving accuracy competition and to meet some of the instructors. She began her training for a tandem jump and took the leap of faith herself. 

    Hammen, who is from Tucson, would like to jump again, but she has to get back on the road. She's traveling through all the states that she and her husband, who died on Father's Day, never got to see in their 39 years of marriage and road-tripping together.

    With her tandem jump, Hammen finally got to experience the feeling that bonds all skydivers.

    I felt the smile, she said. It was unbelievable.

     As for her husband, who never got to see her jump, Hammen said, He's probably shouting somewhere, ˜way to go Tomi!'



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