WATERVILLE — Before climbing into the plane, the instructor goes over safety and ground instruction a final time. Adrenaline rises with the plane as it takes off on the runway at the Robert LaFleur Airport.

The instructor ticks off the growing altitudes as an aerial view of Waterville emerges that would stun even the locals. The rivers and terrain are a mosaic of colors as the plane soars to 10,000 feet above the ground. The instructor asks if there are any final questions and pops open the door as wind whistles around the plane. Lift one leg over the side of the plane, and then the other, arms crossed over your chest. And then you free fall.

Once the parachute is deployed, it’s impossible not to be stunned by the view and calm of the sky. In this moment, nothing else matters.

Jennifer Knight of Augusta was among those who experienced those views while doing a tandem skydive for the first time at Vacationland Skydiving at the Waterville airport. She originally was going to go with a group of women after graduating nursing school, but was unable to go when they did and knew she still had to try it.

“I feel pretty good, I’m just gonna do it,” Knight said before jumping.

Upon touching down on the ground, she was full of energy.  “I have to get feeling back in my legs,” she laughed. “I’m definitely going to go again with my boyfriend.”

Randy Marshall crosses his arms in the tandem jump position Wednesday as his skydiving instructor, Owen Ross, pulls his right leg out at 10,000 above the Robert Lafleur Airport in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Knight described the experience as putting complete trust in someone else: the instructor.

The company was supposed to begin operations last year, but didn’t get off the ground because of the coronavirus pandemic. The extra time allowed staff to work out potential logistics issues and do maintenance work at the airport.

“It’s hard to jump from a plane with someone strapped to your back during a pandemic,” said Randy Marshall Jr., the airport manager. Since opening in May, he said it has been “a cohesive and safe operation that’s gone off without a hitch thus far.”

Located at 2 LaFleur Road in Waterville, Vacationland Skydiving brings 15 years of experience with skydiving to central Maine.

The team has two aircraft and three coaches, two of which are also instructors. To date, they have completed 1,800 jumps. Vacationland Skydiving is open noon to 6 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. It is open Fridays through Sundays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and closed on Tuesdays.

“Definitely worth trying for people who are on the edge,” Marshall said after his first jump. “It was great to see Waterville from above, and the airport looks great.”

In the meantime, the airport has been working on a taxiway reconstruction project that is completely federally funded. The project costs about $4 million and was designed over the winter. Additionally, two private solar companies are set to build on the property in the near future.

However, when new projects happen at the airport that are not related to aeronautics, there is a long check list that must be completed. Along with that checklist is a lease agreement that must be approved by the Waterville City Council. Having these lease arrangements usually is good for the airport in multiple ways because the private companies are responsible for removing vegetation, wildlife, and providing new fencing which benefits the property as a whole.

Vacationland Skydiving, like the flight school, has a lease with Lafleur Airport. According to Marshall, the month of May set record numbers of jumps for the company. June and July have not been as cooperative weather-wise.

Waterville’s Robert LaFleur Airport, which is larger than the Augusta State Airport, faced many challenges due to COVID-19. Having to comply with mandates as a transportation traffic center was one of the biggest. Lack of aircraft traffic was not as much a problem because the airport sells fuel for freight aircraft. Due to the pandemic, people seemed to buy more online goods from companies like Amazon. The airport sold 17,000 gallons more fuel this year than the year before COVID-19.

Skydivers prepare to load into the waiting Cesna 182 operated by Vacationland Skydiving for a fun jump Wednesday at the Robert Lafleur Airport in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“It’s been very positive,” said Marshall in regards to having Vacationland at the airport. “PR-wise, it’s been great, because it brings out people who wouldn’t normally be at the airport.”

Marshall said there is so much going on at the airport and that they hope to become more involved with the community in the future. “Our purpose as the airport is to support the public and support transportation.”

Brad Fisher, owner of Vacationland Skydiving, said, “Skydiving is something everyone who is capable and over 18 should try.”

Fisher, who has lived in Maine for 23 years, resides in China. He is a professional helicopter pilot for LifeFlight of Maine, and runs Vacationland “for fun.” The geographic location of Waterville, proximity to his house, and distance from other skydiving businesses made for the ideal location for the business. Fisher did not want to oversaturate the market.

“You have to do it, the person who doesn’t want to do it is the person who will benefit the most,” said Fisher.

Skydiver Steve Straub huddles in the rear of the Cesna 182 fuselage Wednesday as the plane carries three skydivers to 10,000 feet for a jump with Vacationland Skydiving at the Robert Lafleur Airport in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Vacationland Skydiving offers four different packages which can be enjoyed by both beginners and advanced skydivers. Tandem Skydiving requires no experience and has the participant strapped to a licensed instructor for $229. The next package costs $328 and is called Tandem Skydiving & Video Package. Essentially, the jump is the same, but they will provide you with an edited video of your experience from the moment you greet the instructor up through your reaction once on the ground again.

The U.S. Parachute Association is the governing body for skydiving in the United States. Vacationland Skydiving is a USPA member, as are all accredited drop zones. Vacationland continues jumps, weather-permitting, into November, however, by then business is usually just locals enjoying the end of the season.

Experienced jumpers Devin Forbush and Colin Garrity traveled to Waterville to experience skydiving at Vacationland Skydiving.

“It’s amazing, we were going to go to Connecticut, but came up here,” said Forbush, who has completed between 160 and 170 jumps. “It’s an addictive sport, lot’s of love and support in the sport.”

“It’s awesome,” said Garrity, who essentially packed up his life to pursue skydiving. Garrity works for Skydive New England and has completed more than 500 jumps.

Owen Ross, a skydiving instructor with Vacationland Skydiving, parachutes back to earth Wednesday with Morning Sentinel intern Haley Hersey at the Robert Lafleur Airport in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Vacationland will be hosting a Sisters in Skydiving event Sept. 25. Less than 5% of skydivers are female, so this event will be to highlight female skydivers. Men are welcome to join and the public is always welcome to come and enjoy the show when jumping is happening, the company said.

Drop Zone Manager Shawna Waters said new jumpers arrive and “they’re nervous, they’re excited.” She likes to tell people it costs money to go up in the plane, the jump is free. Taking the plane back down is often less enjoyable than jumping.

“It makes you feel like Superman when you land and feet touch down,” said Waters.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.