How to Train Your Dragons

April 29, 2019 8:23 pm Published by

How the Perris Student Skydiving Program Creates Great Jumpers & Lasting Bonds

Ward Hessig, the Marketing Operations Director at Skydive Perris, has been in the sport for a long time. He’s seen a lot of student programs, all around the country, and he always felt there was something missing. Here at Perris, he finally figured it out — and he has designed the best student skydiving program in the country around his realization.

Over Ward’s many years in the dual trenches of marketing and skydiving, he noted the power of the free ground school to attract interested adventurists from the neighboring communities and put them in a situation to really start to understand the magnetic pull — and surprising accessibility — of learning to skydive. After four to six hours of learning a lot of novel information (and thoroughly debunking pervasive myths about skydiving equipment and skydiving malfunction procedures), most of these folks went cheerfully on to accept the challenge of AFF.

“It just makes sense once they learn it’s not as dangerous as they thought,” he muses. “All the unknown and the scary is taken away. The boogieman is gone.”

At the time, Ward was working at a dropzone in the midwest, and he worked to host several such (large) ground schools each year. The effort was so successful, in fact, that the United States Parachute Association borrowed Ward’s template; now, many USPA dropzones host similar events on their own stomping grounds.

“I always had a vision of it going further,” Ward notes. “I wanted to increase retention rates even further. I remember how it felt when I fell in love with the sport; with the sky family, with the atmosphere, with the vibe. I wanted to build a path from that ground school straight to a place where these guys were as invested in skydiving as I am. I want to impart that love, camaraderie, bonding on day one, and I knew there was a step missing between the free ground school and [the students] getting there, so I decided to install a middle section.”

first time tandem skydiving student in freefall

Ward’s idea was to replicate, in whatever way he could, the same “structured bonding” he experienced in two other parts of his life: in college, in a fraternity; afterwards, in the military.

“Joining a fraternity is one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Ward explains. “You show up to a strange house with a bunch of dudes hoping to have some place to drink beer and meet chicks. Then they put you in a room with a bunch of strange guys and say, These are your brothers. Get to know each other. Then they impose a structure in the fraternity; a pecking order within your pledge class family, just like the pecking order in your own family.”

“It’s much the same in the military,” he continues. “The military has a battalion, and within that you have four companies, and then that has four platoons, and then four squads. You’re a member of each one of those divisions of bonding or cohesiveness. You have loyalty: I’m first platoon and first platoon is the best. A little bigger, and now we’re in Delta company. So now, it’s Delta company is better than Charlie company. You’re proud of each structure, of your platoon, your company and battalion. There is bonding on every level.”

Ward imagined that working with that structured-bonding idea would be great for learning not just to skydive but to understand the all-important social aspects of the sport.

“I saw that it would open up different bonds and means of competition,” he says. “It would give them a sense of belonging even before they made the skydive.”

It would also offer a safe, familiar place in the novel (and, for many new students, slightly overwhelming) dropzone environment.

“Everybody is part of this Skydive Perris family,” he insists. “Nobody is an outsider.”

To achieve those ends, Ward had to design the most effective way to connect new skydivers on their very first day at the dropzone. He had to bridge the jump between brand-new jumpers and 50-jump jumpers so — just like the fraternity model — he started by assigning each incoming student a mentor and a division on day one.

Each student starts out as a member of the student program — the Genesis Alpha family — which is, in turn, part of the greater Perris sport skydiving family. Under those auspices, each fresh face gets an assignment: alpha class; bravo class; so on. From there, each class is split up into 5 “families,” of which each family has a mentor, or head of the family. They stay in these families for the entire time they’re learning to skydive (and, in many, many cases, as they’re growing in the sport, long after they earn their solo skydiving license).

The six hours of training on the first day is a bonding experience all its own. Very importantly: from the get-go, each student has a mentor they can reach out to at any time. That mentor’s job is to make sure that, even if they don’t jump today, they’re connected, and they’re coming to the dropzone (or the bowling alley, or the park, or the pub) to hang out with their cadre of fellow students.

“There’s no ‘hope to see you again soon’ in the student program at Perris,” Ward says. “Our students are integrated deeply into our greater skydiving family from the very start, and they make amazing connections with each other incredibly quickly. We’ve worked hard to get this vibe where everybody is part of this one big family and no one is better than anybody else. Everyone is welcome. And nobody is left behind.”

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This post was written by Skydive Perris