Free fallin’: The story of Stuart Bean, jumpmaster, pilot, family man, Skydive Abel Tasman founder
It was March 25, 1979, when Stuart Bean first threw himself out of an aeroplane at 3000 feet.
The parachute on his back was known as a “cheapo” – a big, round, cumbersome piece of material that was deployed via a cord attached to the plane.
Stuart was just 19. Skydiving was a relatively new sport in New Zealand and there wasn’t much consideration given to health and safety.
“I remember being shit scared in the aeroplane and then just this blur of wind and noise as I rolled out the door,” Stuart says.
“Then all of a sudden I was in the quiet and the stillness under this big round parachute wondering what the hell I was doing.”
He was free falling over the Opaki Racecourse, near Masterton, roughly aiming for the wide, open field.
However, the old parachute was difficult to steer and Stuart ended up landing on the grandstand roof.
“It was more of an effort getting off that roof than it was getting out of the aeroplane.”
The wild days
Stuart says he wasn’t instantly hooked on skydiving, but he was attracted to the community.
He had moved from Nelson to Wellington, joined the local parachute club, and enjoyed hanging out with the people that were drawn to skydiving.
“It was the sort of thing that attracted a very eclectic group of people.
“That really appealed to me because it was a really colourful, social environment.”
At the time, Stuart was working for Ford Motor Company. He had two bank accounts – one for living expenses, the other for skydiving.
“I put as much money in my jump account as I could.”
On Friday evenings, club members would pile into a Bedford van and drive to an airport to hire a small plane to jump out of.
“They were wild days because there wasn’t much in the way of equipment. It was all old military equipment. There wasn’t much in terms of safety management and technique. It was all on a wing and prayer really.”
It took about eight months for Stuart to notch up 15 jumps. And by that point, he was hooked.
“I really loved the freefall and the sensation of flying like a bird through the sky. That’s what bit me.
“There’s just nothing else in the world that you can do like that, especially in those days when you were never quite sure whether the parachute was going to open or not.”
Jumping around the world
Stuart’s appetite for adventure led to him moving to Melbourne where he was introduced to the world of competitive skydiving in the early 1980s.
Competitive skydiving involved creating as many formations with other jumpers as possible in an allocated time.
Stuart formed a four-man team called United Flight, which competed at a national level in Australia.
He quickly notched up 1000 jumps before moving back to Auckland and joining the Auckland Skydiving Club.
He started training for the World Skydiving Championships and, in 1986, travelled to Florida for a training camp before competing in the world champs in Spain.
After travelling the world with skydiving, Stuart returned home to Nelson to manage his dad’s car business.
It was around this time that tandem skydiving arrived in New Zealand.
Stuart said his friend Marcus Ryan brought the first tandem rig into the country and started experimenting with this new style of skydiving.
“Ultimately, I ended up getting involved with that and we were among the first people to explore commercial tandem skydiving in New Zealand.”
Business is born
In 1991, Stuart and his friend Anthony Oakly started leasing aeroplanes and taking people skydiving during weekends.
They leased the aircraft from pilot Bill Arnold, who taught Stuart how to fly and helped him to get his pilot license the following year.
The skydive service was popular and before long Stuart had to tell his dad that he didn’t want to continue working in the family business. He was starting a skydive business.
He and Anthony started Skydive Nelson in 1992, based at Nelson Airport.
It was the early days of adventure tourism in New Zealand and Stuart linked up with tour company Kiwi Experience.
The big, green tour bus would pull up at the airport each morning and Stuart and Anthony would take tourists up two at a time all day, often jumping 15 to 20 times.
A few years later, demand was so high that they decided to continue into the night so that no one would miss out – sometimes until midnight.
If the tour bus had to leave before everyone had jumped, Stuart said they would tail the bus through the sky.
They would land in Brightwater or Wakefield, the bus would pick up the two passengers and Stuart and Anthony would take two more up in the plane and follow the bus to the next town.
They would sometimes chase the bus all the way to the West Coast.
“That was really exciting. It was good fun doing those night jumps.”
However, health and safety started to catch up with the industry and, after 18 months, the powers-that-be put an end to night jumping.
The wild days were over.
Love at first flight
It was around this time, during the late 1990s, that a young woman took Stuart’s eye.
She was part of a group that had shown up to skydive. Stuart says he chose to jump with her and they shared a “connection” in the aeroplane.
In those days, customers were given a camera film of photos that they had to take to get developed.
Later that day, Stuart bumped into the young woman again and she showed him the photos of the skydive. That turned into lunch, which turned into dinner.
“We had this policy that you weren’t allowed to fraternise with the customers, but sometimes it was unavoidable,” Stuart says.
“We ended up getting married.”
Stuart and Johanna have been together ever since that fateful first flight.
They have two children, Elliot, 19, and Gracie, 17, who both did their first skydives when they were nine years old.
Skydive Abel Tasman
After years of taking of using Nelson Airport as a base, Stuart and Anthony were told they could no longer land parachutes on the airport grounds. It was time to find a new home.
In 2000, they bought a building at Motueka Airport and started operating from there in 2001, rebranding as Skydive Abel Tasman.
It was a smart marketing move. Abel Tasman National Park is one of the South Island’s greatest tourist attractions, bringing hundreds of thousands of people to the region each year.
Stuart had long been providing tourists with adrenaline-fuelled experiences, and now he was doing it over one of the most stunning parts of the country.
“Our location is magnificent. We have snow-capped mountains, golden beaches, beautiful blue ocean, you can see the North Island and the South Island, coast-to-coast.
“It’s the best place to skydive in New Zealand.”
Soon after moving to Motueka, Stuart bought Anthony out of the business and became the sole owner operator of Skydive Abel Tasman.
The ‘incognito’ boss
It’s been said that if you were to walk into the Skydive Abel Tasman premises and Stuart was around, you’d have no idea that he was the boss. And that’s the way he likes it.
“I’m just part of the team,” Stuart says. “We’re all as important as each other. I prefer to be incognito.”
Stuart continues to strap himself to customers as a jumpmaster, some days he pilots the plane, and on other days you might find him kicking around in the office or the hangar.
He’s notched up more than 17,000 jumps around the world and Skydive Abel Tasman has more than 100,000 happy customers in 25 years of business.
He puts the success of Skydive Abel Tasman largely down to the culture that he has worked to create.
Stuart says the skydiving industry has a reputation for attracting people with large egos. But ego has no place at Skydive Abel Tasman.
“You’re providing a service for the customer, it’s not about you.
“We really do care about our customers, we really do want our customers to have a good time. To me, that’s the number one rule.”
The other factors that set Skydive Abel Tasman apart from other operators are Stuart’s unbridled passion for the sport and that the business is 100% locally owned and operated.
Contribution to aviation
Stuart has been chairman of the New Zealand Parachute Industry Association since 2002 and has been heavily involved in the political side of the industry, fighting for the sport in the face of constant compliance and regulation requirements.
On a personal level, he most enjoys travelling around the world and taking part in large skydive formations. He has been involved in several world record jumps, including a 140-person formation, and a 111-person sequential formation in Chicago in 2017.
He was recently invited to take part in a 125-person formation at AirVenture Oshkosh, a major aviation show in Wisconsin, which Stuart says was “a bloody privilege”.
He also started the annual Good Vibes skydiving boogie in Motueka for sport skydivers, which has been running for 15 years.
In 2015, Stuart was recognised by the International Federation Aeronautique for his contribution to the skydiving and aviation industries.
The organisation said Stuart “has continually promoted sport skydiving” and “has remained passionate about the sport and over the years committed a lot of time, money and energy to the cause”.
Stuart says the sport and the industry has “changed massively” since he first jumped out of that aeroplane over the Opaki Racecourse.
“Back then it was seen as dangerous and crazy. Now it’s gone the other way. It’s a minefield of compliance now.”
While compliance can be tough and expensive for an owner-operator businesses like Skydive Abel Tasman, Stuart has always remained proactive on safety.
He says the future is bright for Skydive Abel Tasman and as long as people continue to be born, there will always be people who want to jump out of aeroplanes.
“There’s always going to be tandem skydiving. There’s nothing else that you can do that’s like it,” he says.
“You can’t beat stepping out of the door of an aeroplane at 16,500 feet and having that experience of free fall.
“I just see Skydive Abel Tasman rocking on. Business changes and you change with it. As long as we’re giving our customers the best possible time and keeping them safe, then I’m happy.”