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Aviation Blog

Parrott: Pilot in command – Aspen Daily News

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I live in the Aspen Airport Business Center — perhaps the quietest and most chic neighborhood — situated almost literally inside an airport in the world and home to private jets. But the real gems include Louis Swiss, Francesca’s Empanadas, Mawa’s Kitchen and Steeps. As someone who has a healthy fear of heights, I am daily amused by how much of my life (and the lives of my closest friends and family) has been spent in and around airplanes, whether it’s flying them, jumping out of them, or needing to take a Klonopin plus King Yoga to survive 18 minutes of “severe turbulence” to Denver.
It is with great amusement that I noticed Aspen-Pitkin County Airport made Page Six this week (Feb. 21, 2022) when a private jet skidded off the tarmac (thankfully there were no injuries). The New York Post article is chock-full of amusing irony at how outsiders view our town, complete with allusions to the “tony resort where a popular activity is a $5,000 mountaintop ‘experience.’” The Snow Beach concept to which the column refers is fodder for another column, but suffice to say I prefer my beaches to be (a) real, (b) in Central America and (c) I’d rather give my $5,000 to Mawa for the French toast (worth it). I digress.
One of the first things I did upon turning 18 was complete a tandem skydive at Mile-Hi Skydiving Center in Longmont. Over the next 19 years, I did several tandems and two solo jumps with outfits ranging from Mile-Hi to Skydive San Diego to the U.S. Navy Parachute Team, aka the “Leap Frogs,” comprised of active duty SEALs.
I don’t know where I got this urge — I’m afraid of heights. I refused to ride a rollercoaster until high school graduation (once embarrassingly exiting a car during a middle-school birthday party, streaming tears and panic); and easily vomit in the Teacups (still). Yet for soul-level reasons I do not fully understand, I think humans are inherently drawn to flight, the way some are drawn to mountains and others to the ocean, and I am a passionate advocate for adventure, edgework and character-building competency development.
Learning to fly is quite the adventure. And as Tom Petty aptly notes, “Coming down is the hardest thing.” When most people think about jumping out of an airplane, they focus almost entirely on the “jump.” This is errant for several reasons. First, the “jump” is more like an awkward duck waddle, after which you reach terminal velocity in 5-10 seconds, so there’s also not an elevator-shaft moment of freefall. Second, most people focus on the 60 seconds of the “jump” and don’t spend enough time considering the five minutes they are under canopy, responsible for their own parachute and landing. The only way to learn how to fly a parachute is to … fly a parachute. The six hours of safety videos on the myriad line entanglements and potential “cutaway” scenarios (to the reserve chute) do not instill much confidence. Then, you are issued a “one-way ticket” to your first solo flight. Bon chance!
Patrick Gire taught me how to skydive. Patrick was my kind of teacher: smart, sarcastic, highly skilled (6,500-plus jumps). He did not mince words or suffer fools, he never downplayed the risk or consequence of the sport, he was a wealth of tactical knowledge and he was someone whose respect I wanted to earn. Ten seconds before my first solo exit from a plane, Patrick and I stood in the open doorway at 12,000 feet, the rural grid of northern Colorado yawning below our feet as I fixed my eyes on the horizon and enjoyed the mountainous panorama, cool air rushing by as the plane engines roared. Patrick grabbed my shoulder and yelled, “You’re pilot in command, Parrott — don’t F this up.”
Those were the last heartwarming, encouraging, optimistic words I heard before I leapt from an airplane to deploy and pilot my own chute for the first time. I understand Patrick’s pep talk may not be everyone’s learning style, but I have always appreciated this method of dry delivery. In that moment, I knew I was fully responsible for my own life and needed to perform — and I really, really enjoy that feeling. Maybe I’m not as scared of heights as I think.
Driving home earlier this week, I looked at the plane in the field, generally intact, and realized the occupants likely exited terrified but unscathed, which news reports later confirmed. I observed cars trying to cause accidents by swerving off Highway 82 to gawk and take photos for their Insta feeds and Page Six — people’s lives snapshotted and mocked as examples of “Aspen excess” or the hazards of our airport, which is consistently rated the most dangerous airport in the U.S. I have never appreciated rubbernecking of this nature, or those who do it. I thought of the people behind the photos.
I thought of Patrick Gire, who died in 2019 at 40 years old from complications following a skydiving accident. I thought of my friend Jason Kortz, who died in a skydiving accident in March 2015 at age 29, having recently married his best friend and realized his dream of becoming a Navy SEAL. I thought of my stepson, who is now piloting his own aircraft on multihour solo flights. I thought of my mentor Jeffrey, who in his late 50s picked up skydiving (at my suggestion) and quickly progressed to wingsuiting (this having completed his “endurance triathlon” of swimming the English Channel, running the Leadville 100, and cycling Paris-Brest-Paris, then bemoaning the fact that he was aging and didn’t know what to do to keep busy. #protip — don’t ask me for advice). I thought of Jeffrey’s son, who has sponsorships for his own canopy expertise with Ozone Speed Wings and Smith Optics. I thought of Third Edge Heli.
I thought of the absolute privilege, the worthy challenge, the inexhaustible gift (to both self and others), the mindful responsibility, the real consequences and the steep cost of living life authentically as a pilot in command, in any arena(s) one consciously chooses.
Don’t F it up.
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