He’s no stranger to jumping out of airplanes, but a conventional trip will do just fine for Bob Felt. The Monona resident was on his way to board a commercial flight to this year’s National Skydiving Championships in North Carolina when he paused to reflect on his 24-year skydiving career.
“My first jumps were an experience of diving out into the unknown,” Felt said. “I remember just going, ‘Geronimo!’”
The 65-year-old is now the longest-serving instructor at Seven Hills Skydivers in Marshall, having taught at the skydiving club since 1995. Felt holds the highest certification from the United States Parachute Association, the “D license,” and has embarked on more than 5,000 career jumps since he began skydiving in college.
A native of Skokie, Illinois, Felt graduated from Northern Illinois University with a bachelor of science in computer science and landed a job with the University of Wisconsin System in 1979.
“That allowed me the opportunity to be able to skydive more because of the way my office was run,” he said. “They allowed me to come in early to work and get my time in and then go skydive.”
After taking on several roles in the UW System, Felt retired in 2012, but has continued to teach skydiving.
“Instructing is a passion of mine,” he said. “I’d like to pass on the sport and I like to see the enthusiasm of new people jumping.”
When Felt initially decided to become an instructor, he was motivated by a desire to help out at Seven Hills, which is a member-owned nonprofit. With experience teaching the Japanese martial art of Aikido, becoming a skydiving instructor was a natural transition.
“I was a martial arts instructor for 25 years, so I already knew how to instruct,” he said. “I’ve taught many, many students. The joy on their face when they make their first jump and then if they continue and graduate is great.”
Like many instructors working at Seven Hills, Felt serves in a volunteer capacity. He also fills a maintenance role and helps keep club’s computers up and running.
“I’ve got my hand in a lot of things and I just do it keep the club alive and keep it going,” he said.
Felt’s love for skydiving also extends to competing at national competitions and has won many gold and silver medals, though it was a bronze from his second time at nationals that he remembers the most.
“My team took third place, beating one of the established teams for the first time,” Felt said. “That was very exciting and exhilarating.”
He has also been a part of several world records, including history’s largest canopy formation, which is where multiple skydivers pull their parachutes and come together to form shapes in the sky. On Nov. 21, 2007, Felt was among an international team of 100 skydivers creating a diamond above the Florida Skydiving Center in Lake Wales, Florida.
“It was years in the making,” he said. “We went to camps to qualify and you had to get an invite. It was obviously a very dangerous situation when you’ve got 100 canopies all linked together.”
To qualify, Felt needed to be able to “dock” on the formation nine seconds after the person in front of him, eventually creating a diamond formation that was larger than a Boeing 747 airliner.
“We started with people jumping out high at 18,000 feet, and then there was a pass at 16,000 feet, and a pass at 13,000 feet and we all jumped out,” he said.
Though he is constantly traveling around to competitions, Felt continues to return home to resume his instructor duties.
“Competition and teaching are almost like two different things — getting back to Seven Hills and teaching is fun for me and rewarding,” he said. “We’re a small club and we’re like a family.”