OSAGE CITY — Jen Sharp, owner of Skydive Kansas, made an emotional decision last October when she announced the business would be closing early this year.
Around the end of last year, Sharp’s part-time work with the United States Parachute Association began to turn into a full-time position. It became clear to Sharp that she would no longer have the time necessary to run the business.
“There’s no way I could have a full-time job, travel to do courses, and give this place the attention it needs,” Sharp said.
She had leaked her plans to staff, but made a formal announcement during a boogie, an event where the three skydiving locations in Kansas, known as drop zones, came together.
“It was sunset load,” Sharp said, the last jump of the day. “We had a hanger full of people, and I’m on the microphone announcing it, just bawling. It was hard.”
She made a wider announcement by email the next Monday, but wanted to tell those closest to her in person.
In the coming months, Sharp prepared for the transition, hoping to sell the business intact.
“I looked into it,” Sharp said. “There have been some offers that were really close, that I thought were going to happen.”
However, the right combination of time, financial, and everything else it takes to run the business never came through.
“It takes a different person,” Sharp said. “It takes someone in a niche position in their life.”
Sharp’s first exposure to skydiving came when she was 16 years old, watching divers jump at the Kansas Shrine Bowl that year.
“That’s where it put into my mind I wanted to try it,” Sharp said.
When she was 18, she saw an advertisement in the paper and made her first jump.
“I made two jumps the same day,” Sharp said. “I was sitting there and someone said, ‘Do you want to go again?’”
Sharp joined the Kansas State University Parachute Club, in Wamego, when she was in college, and would go on to become vice president of the club.
Her opportunity to jump into the business came after the drop zone in Garnett closed in the mid 90s.
“There was a need in the area, for someplace,” Sharp said. “There were several people thinking about it.”
Sharp opened up shop at the Pomona-Lyndon Airport on U.S. 75 in October 1995.
“We started with the airplane and one tandem ring,” Sharp said.
The business moved into the county’s primary airport soon after, when a hanger opened up at the Osage City Airport.
“We jumped on the chance,” Sharp said. “This area was perfect, it was ideal. It’s far enough away from air traffic, but it’s close enough to cities, driving distance. It’s centrally located between Topeka, Emporia and Lawrence, and not that far from Kansas City. It made sense for where I lived. It’s also a very good airport.”
After brief negotiations with the city, Skydive Kansas had found its home.
“The city was really great,” Sharp said. “They asked a lot of questions, but they were willing to take a chance on a business that had started seven months prior.”
Skydive Kansas began its 21-year tenure in Osage City in the summer of 1996.
“I was only 24,” Sharp said. “I had like 300 jumps and a rigger’s ticket. Not a lot of ratings either. Some experience doing it.”
She loved it.
Making a home
Over the years, Skydive Kansas became as much a community as a business, introducing hundreds to the sport annually, averaging 700 first jumps per year. As many as one in five of those jumpers returned for a second jump.
“I’ve not heard of any drop zone having a higher return rate than us,” Sharp said. “The national average is one percent - we would hover around 13 percent. We had 19 percent one year.
“We’d have people come back year after year,” Sharp said. “They’d always bring people back for their birthday.”
One of the last birthdays at the drop zone was that of her oldest child, who took her first tandem jump with her mother last month. She was two weeks old when she first visited the hangar. Sharp said she has moved a couple of times since her daughter, Janelle, 18, and son, John, 15, were born, but the hangar remained a consistent home.
“They’ve been out here all their lives,” Sharp said. “They’ve grown up with this sense that people are cool.”
Sharp describes the adventurous kind of folk that would be willing to jump out of a perfectly good airplane.
“People who walk around that corner are not the average person,” Sharp said. “They’re the kind of people that are not afraid to get off the couch and do something. They’re okay with being uncomfortable. It’s the people who do what they say they’re going to do.”
She recalled regularly hearing from people making their first jumps.
“You hear these amazing, cool stories,” Sharp said. “We just get to hear from so many amazing people. You would not believe the things people tell me under canopy.
“My kids get to grow up with that, too,” Sharp said. “It was good for them, for sure.”
“Ironically, having such a successful drop zone is what put me in the position I am now,” Sharp said.
The practices she developed through owning and operating Skydive Kansas, and the conversion of the drop zone into a training ground, created a lot of ideas, which Sharp wrote down and published.
“I wanted everyone to be safe,” she said. “I wanted good safety and education. But we also had to get in a plane. I had to find that balance between being efficient with our training techniques, and making it experimental for the student.”
Sharp began writing more and more articles. Then she became an examiner, traveling to other drop zones and attending national board meetings.
“It kind of grew from there,” Sharp said. “I never intended to be visible nationally, but people could see what we were doing. They liked the ideas.”
Sharp put those ideas to paper, or computer, when she developed an online ground school in 2004.
“I wanted consistent information out there,” Sharp said. “It saved us a lot of time. It put information in the hands of people when they weren’t out here. They could be studying before they came out. When it’s good weather, nobody wants to be sitting in a classroom.”
That ground school was later developed into a program for the USPA.
“They saw the value in it,” Sharp said. “They also saw value in me, as a resource for technology stuff. Over the years, I’ve done a few projects with them. A year and a half ago, I was contracted with them more on a regular basis.”
Which then built up to the beginnings of a job offer last August.
“They started talking about bringing me on full time,” Sharp said. “That’s when I started thinking about what I want to do.”
The offer came before her anticipated goal of running the business for 25 years, after her children had both graduated from high school.
“It’s a nice number,” Sharp said. “I’m a little ahead of where I was envisioning.”
But the job was too good for Sharp to say no.
“It’s such a great opportunity,” she said. “I get to stay in Kansas. My kids get to stay at Ottawa High School.”
Working for USPA also allows her to be at the top of her sport.
“I know the organization really well,” Sharp said. “They’re a hard working group of people. They’ve never had a director of technology before. I don’t have any shoes to fill, but there’s so much to do.
“I feel like I’m going to make a big difference there, on a national level,” Sharp said. “It’s really exciting.”
It’s a bittersweet feeling for her.
“My focus got more national, but it was because how wonderful this place was,” Sharp said. “The whole reason I’m moving on is because how successful this place was.”
The final load at Skydive Kansas was a tandem jump Sharp took with her daughter Janell on there 18th birthday.
Skydive Kansas 45,347 total jumps through its lifetime. During that time, the drop zone became a regular stop for many jumpers, and saw its share of the sport’s elite.
“We’ve had several world record holders, the president of USPA board of directors, USPA staff,” Sharp said.
The site has been featured in a jump of all 50 states by Nicole Smith, and was twice home to the state record for most jumps in a day in 2007 and 2010, set by Jeremy Struemph, Overland Park, a regular who died in his sleep August 2010.
Clay Stevens, U.S. Army Golden Knight, earned his initial skydiving license in Osage City, as did NASA scientist Laura Stiles.
Sharp also noted visits from Bill Morrissey, who developed the tandem jumping, a core part of Skydive Kansas’ training program.
“The rest of the country does if for an amusement park ride,” Sharp said. “We really held to the original intent of what tandem was. That’s why he really liked what we did here.”
Sharp also counts her employees among the great jumpers to call Skydive Kansas home.
“We’ve had a great staff, great people,” Sharp said. “Some drop zones are not as lucky as we are. I feel like people in the Midwest are just hard working, salt of the earth, good people.”
Part of that home also came with the close camaraderie of Kansas’ other drop zones at KSU and Wichita. She felt it was more important to work together as institutions than see each other as competition.
“It’s a small sport,” Sharp said. “That’s what I feel like you should do.”
Those clubs made regular visits to each other’s drop zones. Skydive Kansas was a place where that camaraderie seemed like a natural part of the sport.
“A lot of it’s the culture at the drop zone,” said Bill Hubbell, Skydive Kansas staff member. “Jen’s created a culture where everybody has been helping each other and getting along.”
The drop zone also had regular visits from spectators around the area.
“A lot of people liked just watching,” Sharp said. “We’d have people line up on this road, and wait for us to pull out. People would race us in their cars.”
The familiar sight of canopies above Osage City will be absent this summer, visible only at the state’s two remaining drop zones.
“There’s going to be a void here,” Sharp said. “Geographically. There’s going to be a void for jumping. Something’s going to take it. I don’t know if it’ll be here. I just feel like something’s going to come in and fill that void.”
For now, Sharp spends rare free days cleaning out the hangar, selling everything from parachutes to the company plane, The Shark, which will take six passengers to 10,000 feet.
She has a few more odds and ends to complete before leaving the place at the end of this month, and despite letting the insurance lapse and her plane being grounded, still looks regularly to the sky.
“Today would have been a great day to jump,” Sharp said, as she closed the hangar door.