Based at Cape Fear Regional Jetport, Skydive Coastal Carolina changes lives through the thrilling adventure of skydiving.
It’s an adrenaline rush like no other.
For the past 24 years, father and son team Brian and Blake Strong have been providing the thrill of a lifetime for thousands of adventurous people. The Strongs own and operate Skydive Coastal Carolinas (SCC) in Oak Island, attracting first-time jumpers, tandem jumpers, accelerated free fall (AFF) students, military jumpers, experienced skydivers and brave bucket-list adventurers.
Skydiving offers an incredible perspective on the world. A tandem jump starts with 30 minutes of ground instruction. The jumper is then equipped with a parachute system and harness that connects jumper to certified instructor. Next, it’s a heart-thumping plane ride to an altitude of 11,000 to 14,000 feet, where the pilot gives the green light to open the door. No turning back now. It’s go time!
“It’s not the roller coaster ride that people think,” Strong says. “The lump in your throat goes away as soon as you’re out of the plane. It’s a natural high that puts you in an euphoric state.”
After 40 to 50 seconds of freefall at around 5,500 feet in the descent, the instructor deploys the parachute for an incredible birds-eye-view glide to a smooth sliding stop on the ground. Celebration time!
Strong, who has made more than 1,500 jumps in the last 40 years, dreamed of skydiving from the time he was a child.
He joined the military in 1974 hoping to become a paratrooper. But that just wasn’t in the cards, so after his duty, he became a certified skydiver. Two years later, Strong, who also holds a commercial pilot license and a master rigger certificate, made his first jump in Connecticut.
His son Blake says, “I have been around skydiving my whole life. It’s hard not to get hooked!” He started packing canopies at the age 14 and made his first jump as soon as he turned 18, the minimum age to jump. He is a senior rigger, videographer and coach with more than 1,500 jumps.
His younger brother Conner is just 16 years old, but with special approval from the United States Parachute Association (USPA), he made his first jump this past November. Needless to say, he’s already hooked, too.
Strong first opened his skydiving business in Green Sea, South Carolina. “The only things there were tobacco, corn and cotton fields,” he recalls. He ran the business there for five years.
Then in 1994, after a career in the U.S. Air Force, Howard Franklin became the airport manager at Cape Fear Regional Jetport. He saw potential in the airport, but quickly recognized that it needed some flair. Franklin invited Strong to come to the airport to do a demonstration jump. Within two weeks, 10 people showed up to skydive. That was enough for Strong to relocate his business to the jetport.
The ride to the sky is in one of Strong’s three planes. There’s rainbow-colored Bubbles, a Cessna 182. It’s Strong’s first plane and seats four jumpers or a pair of tandems plus the pilot. Then there’s Sharky, a Cessna 182 that Strong rescued from under water in Wallace, North Carolina, and rebuilt five years ago. Finally, there’s the newest addition to the fleet, the Beechcraft King Air B90 that seats 13 plus the pilot. Skydivers exit this plane at the maximum 14,000 feet.
An on-site mechanic meticulously maintains the planes to rigorous safety standards. Strong uses the slower winter months to creatively repaint the fleet. “The plane is part of the excitement of the jump,” he says. “Sharkey used to have a big shark painted across it. Now it’s bright orange, a safety factor for both jumpers and pilots.”
Strong has an amazing team of people who have an unparalleled passion for skydiving and throw out the stereotypical images of “wild, crazy people living on the edge of death.” They are, in fact, some of the nicest people who hang out at the drop zone waiting to share the experience of a lifetime.
Bob Mehl is a licensed USPA instructor and examiner, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) master rigger qualified to pack reserve parachutes and an FAA commercial pilot with 7,500 hours of flying time. He has jumped more than 14,000 times in 22 states and 12 countries. Mehl started skydiving in the 1970s when he was just 16 years old because has skydiving in his blood. “My uncles were in the 82nd Airborne Division specializing in parachute assault operations and in the 101st Airborne Division during World War II and jumped on D-Day,” Mehl says.
He adds, “To me, jumping is like walking down the street. Just another day. Depending on the weather and my time, I will jump up to 25 times a day!” Mehl splits his time between jumping and flying the King Air.
Jared Quillen is a tandem jump instructor and self-proclaimed fun jumper. “It’s my passion. I’m a weekend jumper,” he says. Quillen recently earned his 800th jump.
Tyler Clarke is an AFF and tandem instructor. He made his first jump 10 years ago at SCC. “I can’t tell you what it’s like to free fall because there are just no words to describe it,” he says. But he hints, “It’s a moment of freedom. No limitations. Pure bliss.”
Thomas Ballard is both a skydiver and past aerobatic pilot. He has jumped in 100-person formations known in the sport as a “big way.” Ballard says, “When you exit the airplane, you leave all your problems and all your difficulties.”
While Strong appreciates his own jumps, he particularly enjoys observing other skydivers’ emotions. “Some people are totally terrified, even crying. But when they exit the plane, the fear goes away. They hoot and holler as they are coming down. And when they land, they go crazy. Some people hug me, lift me off the ground, screaming how great it was.”
Open seven days per week, SCC accommodated 10,000 jumps last year, doubled from prior years, despite a seven-week shutdown for COVID. “We had our best year in 24 years in 2021,” Strong says.
Some of the most memorable jumps at SCC are young adults who jump for their first time on their 18th birthday. “It’s a family affair, everyone comes out to watch. And I love seeing a 90-year old jump. They always gather a big crowd, 50 family and friends,” he says.
About 10 skydiving couples per year get engaged, some landing on the beach at Oak Island where family await the down-on-one-knee moment. SCC has hosted marriages, gender reveals, re-engagements and filming of jumps for movies and TV. And for the past several years, Santa has arrived at Oak Island from the sky, complete with red and green billowing smoke trails.
Most gratifying are tandem jumps with people with disabilities, veterans who lost limbs and people with terminal illness. “We are extremely privileged to provide these adventures,” Strong says.
Perhaps AFF instructor and USPA coach Michael Daniel sums it all up best: “I train people to jump. I get people over their fear. I change people’s lives, one jump at a time.”
Thomas Herzog is an instructor, safety-training advisor and tandem examiner. For him, it’s all about spontaneity. “If you are not living on the edge, you are taking up too much space,” he says, grinning. “Start to live your life. Come skydive with us!”