Published: April 26, 2017
It's safe to say that skydiving has been deeply embedded in Chris Hall's DNA. It was no surprise to anyone that Chris would make a career in skydiving--and clear to see why Chris strives to maintain one of the best skydiving centers in America. He's passionate about the sport and has made a career and commitment to growing the sport (and his business, besides).
This story starts--as many of the great skydiving stories do--back in the days of disco. Chris's dad was a skydiver in the 70s. Back then it was pretty unregulated (and, it's safe to say, a pretty rare hobby). The elder Hall didn't jump a lot--maybe 200 jumps over a 15-year-or-so period--but young Chris was exposed to skydiving enough to have it in his blood from an early age.
Fast forward to 1990, when Chris was a junior in high school. He had spent some time at a local dropzone where his dad was jumping and gotten to know the owner.
"The guy pulled me aside and told me," Chris remembers, "'Look, I know your parents don't want you jumping, but when you turn 18, come on out. We'll put you in a static line class and let you get this under your belt.'" Well, my parents told me pretty much the day I turned 18 that I wasn't skydiving as long as I lived with them. I think my mom just didn't want two family members participating in what was seen as a crazy, dangerous sport at the time. I said okay, but about a month after I turned 18, I snuck out, went ahead and did my first jump--a static line. I told them I was waterskiing. I hid my logbook, certificate, pictures...all the stuff."
Even though that first dropzone was a small Cessna operation, Chris went very quickly through the progression, learned fast and picked up all his ratings. At some point, Chris's family finally realized there was no stopping him; their son was at it every weekend. To fund his obsession, Chris learned to pack parachutes.
Then, as fate would have it, Chris picked up freefall photography and videography. It was then that things really clicked. Soon, Chris was getting all kinds of offers for skydiving videography. His photos were published in Parachutist magazine.
"I was getting lots of other opportunities to go and do various cool high-level assignments," Chris recalls. "I did a lot of video at the World Freefall Convention for the big-name organizers. I was only three years into the sport at the time. I had a lot of fun, and I was well on my way."
Then in 1995, Chris's home dropzone suddenly closed. It went from "awesome" to "history" literally overnight, when the airport management threw them out after an incident. At a loss, Chris suddenly had to scramble to figure out where he was going to go.
A call from Roger Nelson, the legendary owner of Skydive Chicago, provided the answer Chris was looking for. He'd done some video work there earlier that summer--an all-girl 100-way record--that turned out good enough to catch Roger's discerning eye. Roger offered Chris the chance to come up to the much-larger Skydive Chicago facility and manage the dropzone's busy video concession. At the time of the offer, Chris had never even left home.
"I was just a Midwest kid, jumping in a little Cessna dropzone, and now I was being asked to move to a different state and live on a huge dropzone and work 7 days a week with one of the biggest names in skydiving. Of course I went for it," Chris laughs. When Chris arrived at Skydive Chicago's park-like private airfield in his beat-up Buick, he didn't know a soul. When he left two years later, he was an X-Games competitor, a renowned freefall cinematographer and one of the nation's premier skysurfers.
Chris never lost sight of home, though; every winter season, he would return to the Kansas City area and work on starting his own dropzone. He found a place--a municipal airport, just 20 miles south of his first home dropzone. Things were starting to come together.
"But as time went on," Chris muses, "More and more of the people that I thought were going to be part of this kind of fell off. They got out of the sport and put their gear away, sold it, picked up new hobbies. So by the time 1998 rolled around, and this dream was becoming a very quick reality, I realized most of the people that I thought were going to, kind of getting the band back together, were no longer going to be part of it. I ended up starting this dropzone with just me and my dad."
The Halls' dropzone got started in 1998. At the time, they had a single Cessna, a single tandem rig and two student rigs. Chris did the tandems; his dad taught the static line class. In the entire first year, the dropzone had just 32 students.
"How we stayed in business, I don't know," Chris laughs. "I had moved back in with my parents, so my rent was cheap. I got my family members to invest because no freelance videographer is going to convince a bank to loan them money to start a business. In eight years, I had gone from dreaming about skydiving one day to being a dropzone owner at the age of 26."
It was bound to be an uphill battle. The word on the street back then was that Kansas City was a "black hole for skydiving," as Chris puts it. "There was constant turmoil and drama and inter-dropzone wars. Whenever anything new got started, the local skydivers would look at it like it was doomed. Is it going to make it? How's it going to do? Is it going to be safe? And the Internet was really just coming about, so unless you had a phone book advertisement, your phone didn't ring."
Luckily, Chris had a mentor in his former Skydive Chicago boss, Roger Nelson--who was, at the time, one of the world's top-level dropzone owners.
"I remember having some talks with Roger about it," Chris remembers. "I got to know him very well and really respected him. He did a tremendous amount of things for our sport. He told me straight-up, 'Look, this is a really hard business. Running a skydiving center is very difficult.' I thought he might be saying that because nobody wants more competition. But holy cow, I don't think he could have been any more accurate.'
Though growth was slow, it was steady. Skydive KC got into the phone book--and, eventually got a website. They did all the things that a small, weekend operation can do to bring in business: buy more equipment, grow and train additional staff and outreach to the local fun jumpers, who eventually formed the backbone of the still-strong Skydive KC community.
For Chris, the next step was to learn how to fly and work on the aircraft. For two years, he dedicated himself to going to aircraft mechanics' school full-time as well as running the dropzone's daily operations. He graduated at the top of his class--with excellent attendance, to boot--and earned his commercial pilots' license soon after. In 2007, Chris also became manager of the airport upon which Skydive KC is located.
At that point--with its owner holding pretty much every certification and rating known to dropzone-dwelling man--Skydive KC was ready to level up yet again. On a wing and a prayer, Chris and his business partner brought their first full-time King Air aircraft online. The King Air is one of skydiving's limousine-class vehicles, with a blink-and-you'll-miss it ride to altitude and a comfortable, commodious interior; before Chris brought it on, local skydivers had to travel far and wide to see the likes of it on a skydive.
"Nobody thought it was real," Chris laughs. "Everybody was scratching their heads, going, 'No way; you've got to go to a boogie to jump a turbine.' It took from about 2011 to about 2014-- about three full seasons operating the King Air--for the fun jumpers of KC to finally go wow."
The gamble paid off. Skydive KC has never in its history seen so much jumping.
"2016 was a great year, a record year," Chris notes. "Every year I would say since 2011, we've grown substantially."
Chris purchased additional land, less than a mile from the airport, to support the social scene that skydiving happily brings with it. After a full renovation, the land now houses 15 full RV slots with water and 30-amp electric hookups, as well as tent sites galore, for visiting jumpers. He refitted an existing building on the property as an event venue (with the requisite beer fridge, DJ system, screening area, shower block, bonfire pit and massive grill). Still in the offing is an ornamental pond and tiki bar. With the new facilities, Skydive KC has cemented itself as the skydiving destination in the region--a fact of which Chris is very proud.
"A lot of people come through from all around the country," Chris smiles, "Because we've really got a nice vibe here. It is chill. The feedback is always really good. It's satisfying to hear that your hard work is being recognized by visitors that are used to going to probably much larger dropzones."
"The student program is really doing well, and we are retaining students. We are teaching skydivers now at a phenomenal rate compared to what we were doing four years ago," Chris adds. "Where they used to just make a few jumps and fall off, we are seeing them become skilled skydivers. I think us just continuing to put on events and continue to raise the bar for good customer service, professional, clean facilities, equipment, and aircraft.
"I don't ever want to be a big drop zone," Chris concludes, smiling. "I really don't. I want to be that perfectly middle-sized dropzone that gives you all the personal attention and thoughtful details that I think big dropzones lose with volume. I know what it's like to be at a big dropzone--and I think they're great, for many reasons--but I am more attracted to cool, mid-sized drop zones that have modern, clean amenities and just don't feel corporate. It feels like yesterday when we were celebrating our 10-year anniversary, and this year, we're looking at 20; we'll continue to reshape this thing, and continue to grow and improve."