"They are a different breed. That's about all I can say," said Carol Heatherington, of Lehigh.
She's talking about the 500 skydivers, give or take, who come to the Fort Dodge Regional Airport during the Labor Day weekend for the annual Couch Freak Boogie. This year it is Wednesday through Sept. 5.
The Boogie, said airport Director of Aviation Rhonda Chambers, "is a gathering of skydivers, usually focused on fun rather than competition. For one week a year, the large grassy area between the hangars and taxiways transforms into a campground and home away from home for the dedicated Couch Freaks. Over this five-day period, the wide-open grass spaces become a small community capable of providing services to over 1,000 people."
That includes 80 electrical hook-ups wired to a permanent electrical transformer for the week, then removed again after the Boogie. In the early days of the event, she said, tents were the standard sleeping accommodations. But now hotel rooms are booked and more than 80 RVs arrive, and tents though still abundant, are no longer the preferred housing arrangement.
For Heatherington and her husband, Lyle, it's a weekend of fun. As part of the Plane Crazies, the couple help man the gates during the Boogie.
Tandem skydiving offered at the Boogie
Thrill seekers can take a tandem jump from around 13,000 feet, connected to a certified experienced parachutist at the annual Couch Freak Boogie at the Fort Dodge Regional Airport.
Tandem jumps are $220 and will be offered on a first-come first-served basis. A video of the jump taken will be taken by a skydive videographer for an additional $120.
Tandem jumps are offered beginning at 9 a.m. Friday through Sept. 5, weather permitting. To sign up, follow the signs from the main airport entrance.
While the main purpose of the Couch Freak Boogie is fun, a new Iowa skydiving formation record was set in 2004 - with 60 skydivers in formation. The previous record was 42 skydivers. It was the third attempt for the day, and the formation held together for 16 seconds, a full 13 seconds longer than required for recognition as a record.
Months of planning go into being the host airport, said Rhonda Chambers, director of aviation at the Fort Dodge Regional Airport. She said the team of five employees at the airport are pros at getting ready for this event, which attracts skydivers and visitors from an average of 30 states, approximately 25 Iowa counties, in addition to countries such as Puerto Rico, Australia, Belgium and Canada.
Anyone can come to the airport and sit in the bleachers to watch the skydivers. There's no admission charge, but a freewill offering is accepted to help defray costs. Food vendors are on site.
"We're at the entrance gate going into the hangar area," she said. "There's another gate where the skydivers land, and we keep the general public out of the airport landing area. The third gate is where the skydivers come into the airport to register."
The Heatheringtons belong to an organization called the Plane Crazies.
"It's a group that supports the airport," she said. "If the airport needs help with something, they can call on us and we'll come and help them out."
Heatherington said she's jumped twice with the skydivers, "and I have ridden down in the skydiving airplane, and believe me, I don't think I would do that again. That guy comes straight down. And I'm afraid of heights."
The last jump is right before dark, she said. "They have to be down before dark. And at night, they party. Believe me, they party. They have a band come in. It is a regular city out there."
This Boogie differs from most in that the Fort Dodge Regional Airport is a drop zone for only one week out of the year, Chambers said. "However, this event is considered the largest skydiving Boogie in the nation. If you're a skydiver, you know where Fort Dodge is located on the map. The Dollar Daze Couch Freak Boogie is organized by the Des Moines Skydivers who are based out of the Winterset airport and consist of approximately 30 members. The event has been held over Labor Day weekend in Fort Dodge since the late 1980s with some of the original Des Moines Skydivers members still active in the club."
Boogie organizers use a 50-foot trailer set up the weekend before the Boogie to operate state-of-the-art software for loading skydivers on continuous flights for usually 12 hours a day in up to five aircraft, Chambers said.
"By 6 p.m. Wednesday, the first aircraft from Skydive Arizona have arrived and more than 150 skydivers have registered for the Boogie, which does not officially begin until the next day," Chambers said. "However, if the weather is good and the aircraft are here, they have been known to begin jumping already on Wednesday evening. By the weekend they are operating five aircraft continually and can be dropping skydivers every three minutes."
In addition to five aircraft, a helicopter will be on site for skydivers to jump from, Chambers said. The draw for jumping from a stationary helicopter is that it gives the skydiver the actual thrill of falling, where jumping out a moving aircraft does not provide the same experience.
By the end of the event, it is expected that more than 5,000 jumps will have been taken.
The largest number of skydives recorded for the event was in 2003 with 6,798 as a result of perfect weather conditions every day.