Brad Vancina helps operate Skydive Greater, based at the Greater Kankakee Airport. Vancina, of Elwood, is a Lincoln-Way Central High School graduate. | Jaime Angio~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 29, 2013 7:30PM
Brad Vancina jumps out of airplanes. It’s what he does — and he’s done it more than 12,000 times.
He has been skydiving for about 15 years, and has parachuted to the ground in Australia, Mexico, Jamaica and all across the United States.
What started out years ago as a hobby is now a business.
Having his very own drop zone — the site where skydivers land — is something Vancina, 41, of Elwood, never would have imagined. But he and his business partner, Larry Knipper, recently opened Skydive Greater, based at the Greater Kankakee Airport.
“It’s a small tandem operation,” Vancina said. “We are a skydiving club, and we encourage and promote skydiving.”
Vancina handles the jump operations, safety and training, and the parachute equipment. Knipper takes care of the aircraft.
Tandem jumping is when the instructor, or jump master, takes a customer for a plunge.
“You are physically strapped to me, and we jump out of the airplane together,” he said.
A construction engineer by trade, Vancina knows the ins and outs of tandem skydiving. He spent more than a decade working at other local skydiving operations, spending a great deal of time filming others and making tandem jumps.
“In the sport, you will see people come in and out of it for different reasons,” he said. “I was interested in the video aspect, where you wear the camera on your head ... and when the tandem pair exits, you’re flying around and taking them photos.
“I always had tandems in front of me, and I saw good tandem instructors and bad tandem instructors, I knew what to do and what not to do. Eventually, I decided to move a little deeper in the world of skydiving and work a little less at my construction job and to be more versatile.”
Skydive Greater opened in April at the Greater Kankakee Airport, 813 A East 4000 South Road. But moving deeper into the world of skydiving wasn’t part of the original focus for Vancina, who grew up in New Lenox and attended Lincoln-Way Central High School.
“I would have never thought that it was going to go in the direction that it did,” he said. “After you do your tandems, you progress into a student program and then you start learning how to fly your own parachute.
“All I wanted to do was go and do a couple of skydives just to prove that I could do it on my own. I would have never thought 15 years later I would be sitting here in my own drop zone.”
Vancina had been around airplanes since he was a kid. His father was a private pilot and would fly in and out of Frankfort’s airport. But Vancina was 25 when he jumped for the first time.
“Skydiving never really came into my head until I saw my brother and my dad make that jump that summer evening,” Vancina said. “There is something about the air, and when you get up there and the smell of it, it’s clean up there and you see so much stuff, and it’s just amazing. And then you start jumping out of airplanes and it’s like, forget it, it’s all over then.
“I can still remember it clearly, it was a beautiful day, big puffy clouds, it was the middle of June and I drove out to the airport, kind of excited and scared like everyone is. I can still remember the sound of the aircraft, just being amazed at everything around me and seeing these crazy people with parachutes on their back jumping out of airplanes.
“I remember when I got into free-fall, like everyone does, it’s the most amazing feeling, you can’t describe it and the way it makes you feel. It’s everything from being scared, excited, to thrilled, to be on the ground and you’re in amazement of what you just did.”
Vancina aims to make a first-time skydiver feel comfortable and safe. What Vancina has enjoyed most during his skydiving career has been being a part of that “moment” for thousands on their first jump.
“I enjoy doing the tandem jumps now, more than any other jumps I do, even more than jumping by myself,” he said. “I think it’s fun taking that first student on that jump and seeing their excitement.
“I’m exclusively a tandem instructor, that’s all I do and I love it. It’s fun being that involved with every student that walks out of this place. The fun part about it is making people comfortable.”
Vancina, a father of three, has introduced his two sons to skydiving, and both Cody, 19, and Josh, 16, work with him at Skydive Greater.
“It’s awesome to see them here with me,” he said.
Most people, he said, think he is out of his mind for his passion for skydiving.
“Because they don’t understand,” he said. “And for us, it seems crazy that people think it’s crazy, because we’ve been doing it for 14 years. If you follow the rules, you can skydive for a long time.
“I guess what I tell people is, ‘What did you do last weekend?’ ”
Vancina isn’t preoccupied with what could go wrong.
“I just know that God is going to take you when he wants you,” he said. “And you can do a lot of things in between that time, and I don’t think it really matters what you do.”