Skydiving in New Zealand is something that everyone should do at least once. It’s an experience like no other, an unforgettable combination of fear, excitement, and accomplishment. But what drives someone to skydive for a job? To throw themselves out of planes and free fall 16,500 feet back down to earth over and over again? Meet Skydive Abel Tasman tandem master, Dan McKimm. He’s done more than 6000 skydives and reckons he’s got the most exciting job in the world. We asked him to share his backstory and give us a behind the scenes look at a day in the life of a tandem jumpmaster.
The making of a ‘master
Dan’s first skydive, in his hometown of Dannevirke, was an 18th birthday present. It was a thrill, for sure, but he wasn’t hooked right away. A few years later, he was in Melbourne and decided to do a skydive with friends. The instructor said that he could pay $50 more to do a day of training and skydive solo. Dan was in. “That’s what got me hooked,” he says.
He continued to jump solo for a year before deciding he wanted to make a career out of skydiving. In 2012, he trained at the New Zealand Skydiving School and did a work placement at Skydive Abel Tasman. Dan was invited back to the skydiving school to complete all his ratings (kinda like vehicle licenses for skydivers) and then returned to Skydive Abel Tasman in 2014 to do his tandem training.
Dan remembers his first jump as a tandem master as “one of the most nervous days of my life”. Over the past four years, he’s jumped with thousands of people from all around the world. He says it’s a privilege to do something so exciting for a job every day in such a beautiful part of New Zealand.
“You get a bit of everything here. We’ve got great staff. We’ll look after you and go the extra mile. You get the mountains, the national parks, the ocean. Most other drop zones either just have the ocean, or just the hills. Here you get a real nice view. It’s one of the prettiest drop zones I’ve ever jumped at.”
A day in the life
This is Dan’s typical routine on a work day during the high season.
6am – Wake up. Breakfast is a bowl of Weetbix with brown sugar and warm milk, washed down with a coffee.
7am – Dan bikes down to the Skydive Abel Tasman base in Motueka. He checks (and double checks) all his skydive gear and makes sure his camera rig is turned on to capture the day’s action. He then does 15-20 minutes of yoga.
“You’ve got to keep yourself fit and flexible,” Dan says. “Skydiving takes a bit out of your body. Yoga’s just good for fitness and wakes you up in the morning.”
8am – Dan and the rest of the tandem masters chill out and drink coffee on the deck chairs waiting for the first customers. It’s usually a casual catch up, but it’s also a chance to bring up any issues or concerns.
8.30am – In the summer, the first customers come through as soon as it’s light. Dan says he can tell immediately if a person is scared or not.
“If a person’s nervous I just talk to them, ask them where they’re from, what they do – just try to put them at ease.”
The customer changes into a skydive suit and Dan fits them with a harness. All the while he’s trying to keep the mood relaxed and take the customer’s mind off what they’re about to do.
9am – Dan and the customer – usually a first-time skydiver – get into the plane and take off from Motueka Airport. Most customers enjoy the short flight and take in the spectacular view. But if Dan can sense they’re nervous, which is only natural, he’ll keep talking to them. On the flight up, Dan attaches the customer’s harness to his and tells them what to do and what to expect when the door opens.
9.15am – Once the plane has reached the right altitude (at Skydive Abel Tasman you can jump from 9000, 13,300, or 16,500 feet), the door opens. Dan and the customer shuffle forward to the exit.
“I like saying to them, ‘I’ve got you, I’ve got your back’,” Dan says.
He tells them to hold onto their harness, take one deep breath, arch their back “like a banana”, and then they launch out the door into a free fall. For the customer, this is often the most exhilarating experience they’ve ever had. Dan says he doesn’t really feel an adrenaline rush on tandem jumps anymore, but it’s always fun.
“You’re definitely excited, but I don’t think my heart rate would highly zip up like a customer’s would.”
After free falling for a few seconds to about 5000 feet, Dan opens the main parachute. This transforms the experience from sensory overload to a gentle floating feeling. If the customer’s up for it, Dan does a few spins before landing back at the airfield.
9.45am – On a busy day, Dan gets a short break before taking his next customer up in the plane. He says he has to eat constantly because skydiving is surprisingly draining. He will usually do up to 15 jumps. The most he’s ever done in one day is 21.
He says he feels lucky that his day job is most people’s ‘once in a lifetime’.
“It’s heaps of fun I’ll never get bored of it. I don’t think there’s any job that really could compare to it. Being a fireman would be pretty crazy, but I’m sure a fireman doesn’t have a big goofy smile on his face when he runs into a burning building.”
“If I couldn’t do skydiving and I wanted the same kind of buzz, I don’t know what I’d do. I can’t think of anything.”
12.30pm – Dan eats lunch whenever he gets a chance. There’s a bit of competition between the tandem masters as to who can make the most elaborate sandwich. So if you see Dan pull a whopper sandwich out mid-flight, that’s what’s going on there.
6pm – Dan bikes back home, cooks dinner, and likes to unwind by playing video games. He says everyone assumes that skydivers are massive adrenaline junkies, but he’s “just a nerd”. He’s learning computer programming in his spare time and while he enjoys skydiving with friends, he enjoys chilling out just as much.
“When you get to have so much fun at work, you don’t really need to do a lot of other crazy stuff.”
So there you have it, a taste of what life’s like as a tandem jumpmaster. If reading this makes you feel like jumping out of a plane, head on over to our booking page and lock in your skydive in New Zealand’s best piece of sky today.