Published: May 31, 2017
Meet Skydive Finger Lakes' Owners, Justin and Sabina Baker
At the end of 2015, Justin Baker purchased a historic dropzone: Finger Lakes Skydivers located in Ovid, NY. He gave it a new name--Skydive Finger Lakes--and the rest is history. The path he trod to get there is a unique one, indeed.
Justin Baker grew up in Illinois' "Gem City" of Quincy. During the 19th Century, Quincy was a thriving hub, as riverboats and rail services linked the city to the many important destinations westward and along the river.
By the time Justin was a teenager, though, Quincy had a new--albeit niche--claim to fame: the World FreeFall Convention. The WFFC was one of the largest (and most legendary) skydiving "boogies" on the planet. From 1986 to 2001, Quincy played host, and was reliably swamped with skydivers for the event dates and the dates surrounding. In the year 2000--the year Justin started jumping--more than 65,000 jumps were made at the ten-day boogie.
"For two weeks out of the year," Justin smiles, "The World FreeFall Convention moved in and took over Quincy. I grew up watching it. My first memory was when I was in kindergarten, watching skydivers. It was always very intriguing. They put on a fair; they had rides, concerts. The whole town would go out there and watch the jumping. For a long time, I thought that's what skydiving was--a big party--because of it. All I knew was that I totally fit in with those guys, and I couldn't wait to start jumping myself. So I did it-- I learned how to skydive at the Convention."
Quincy didn't have a year-round drop zone. When the WFFC was over, Justin had to travel two-and-a-half hours each way, to a dropzone near St. Louis, to keep learning. He made the journey every weekend and immediately started packing to earn money for jumps.
Before long, Justin picked up a trailer and started spending all weekend at the dropzone. Because he was working third shift at the time, Justin would get off work on Friday morning at 7 o'clock and drive to the drop zone after working all night. Then he'd pack parachutes for the rest of the day on Friday, jump and pack Saturday, pack parachutes all day on Sunday, drive to work on Sunday night and work all night. Yep, your math is right: he'd be up for 24 hours on Friday and 24 hours on Sunday--every weekend--just for the love of skydiving.
In 2002, Justin moved to Skydive Space Center in Titusville, Florida, in search of more consistent jump numbers than he was able to log in Missouri. When he got to Florida, it was perfect: a "really happening dropzone, with a lot of talent coming through." He felt immediately and profoundly at home. Justin picked up his tandem rating in 2003 in Florida and started doing tandems on the weekends.
"I was doing tandems part-time," Justin recalls. "I was scared to make the jump to full-time skydiving; that it would become a job and I would hate it. I didn't want to hate my passion."
"Then," he grins, "I got married."
It started at Skydive Space Center one day when a raven-haired knockout showed up to the dropzone with her sister and brother-in-law. Her name was Sabina, a 20-year-old Peruvian girl with a megawatt smile and a gentle, kind personality. Sabina's brother-in-law had started skydiving in 2004, and since she lived with them, she started to come out to the dropzone to cheer her family on and to join in the weekend fun.
"I met Justin at a dropzone sushi night," Sabina remembers. "There were a lot of guys there, but I remember thinking that he stood out; I thought he was cute. He was acting silly that night, as skydivers do. I didn't see him again until six months later or so, at the party of a friend of ours. We talked for hours and hours. We started dating pretty much right away. For my 21st birthday, his gift to me was a tandem skydive. We got married pretty soon after that."
Since then, Sabina and Justin have added lots of love to the family. They now have three children: a 10-year-old, a 5-year-old, and a two-year-old. With a big family, of course, comes big responsibility, and Justin was eager to meet it.
Once Justin and Sabina were wearing each others' rings, Justin decided that the only way he was going to be able to responsibly continue to skydive was to go full-time. In 2006, he made the leap. Eventually, he started traveling to northeastern drop zones in the summer so he could work as efficiently as possible. Even as he was cranking out the tandem jumps, Justin had his eye on the prize.
"I wanted to own a dropzone pretty much since my first year of skydiving," Justin says. "That was always the end goal."
By the time Justin found Finger Lakes Skydivers, he had inquired about almost every dropzone that came up for sale--and there were a lot of dropzones up for sale.
When Justin first saw Finger Lakes Skydivers, it was, in his words, "rustic." The private airfield had been there since the 1960s and had seen very little in the way of municipal funds. There was--and remains--lots of space, lots of room to grow and sufficient space from the surrounding community that the skydivers can let their hair down when they want to without getting on the neighbors' nerves. There's plenty of open space to tent-camp--and cabins, as well--so folks can spend the weekend on the dropzone just like Justin used to do when he first got started.
"Sometimes I got real close, but there was always just a bad feeling," he explains. "When I arrived here, though, it was the right fit. It felt perfect. It's the people here, really, that did it. The people, after all, are what I really love about skydiving. Not all dropzones feel like this one--in fact, it's pretty rare--and I feel very lucky."
"The view, too," he muses. "The view here is amazing, with the lake. Our sunsets--man, we have amazing sunsets. Amazing."
That was 2015, and Justin's family was about to be more than the proud new owners of a beautiful dropzone. They were about to be--well--bigger.
"It was amazing when the right opportunity came along, but I was pretty scared, actually," Sabina laughs, "Because we found out about this opportunity at the same time we found out we were having our son which was a surprise. We had a year to prepare ourselves; to buckle up and start saving and working towards that goal."
"I always knew since I met Justin that this is one of his dreams, to have a dropzone. He is very driven and very passionate," Sabina notes. "Anyway, his parents and my parents were entrepreneurs as well. I am used to the rollercoaster."
As well as an inveterate roller-coaster rider, Sabina is a very functional, very dedicated, very key part of the dropzone's success. Sabina's work experience-full-time for a helicopter school, for about 12 years informs the enormous amount of help she's able to offer Justin.
"Although I am not a skydiver, Justin and I have both been involved in aviation for a long time. So I can relate," she explains. "I understand the details when he speaks about aviation, and when it comes to safety and culture. He applies all the skydiving knowledge he has gained over the years, and I just support him with all the technical part of running the office away from home. That's the agreement we have: I take care of things here in Florida, and he can concentrate fully on the dropzone."
Even though Sabina's physical presence is extraordinarily rare at the Ovid dropzone, her spirit looms large--and Justin's family commitments are just as strong as his ironclad commitment to the sport.
"When Justin was doing tandems in Rhode Island," Sabina explains, "He would be gone for four to five months out of the year. Now we're talking about seven months out of the year, which sounds worse, but it's better, actually, because he gets to come home and visit more often. We make an effort for him to come home every 3-4 weeks for at least four days. Of course, sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't. That's the reality of owning a business, but we are blessed. We have a great team that we trust, who do a great job running it when Justin is home with the kids and me."
With all that love and focus, Skydive Finger Lakes is certainly growing. On weekends, the operation runs two airplanes, catering to plenty of brand-new tandem students as well as a solid fun-jumper base. This year, Justin and his team are hard at work upgrading the facilities. At the time of publication, their plans for the future include adding a shiny new facility, which will integrate a new hangar, an indoor packing area, a rigging loft, a gear room and a comfortable lobby. And--just this past year--the kids finally got to see the dropzone. The Bakers took a family trip up to Ovid to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner with the skydivers.
"I was very happy that they got to meet our family," Sabina enthuses.
"When I started skydiving," Justin remembers, "I remember telling people that I was going to do great things in the sport. At the time, it was probably the most irresponsible thing I could do--I couldn't afford it. I had all these bills. But I figured it out. I knew it was going to change my life. It did, and I think that happens for a lot of people. It makes you see the world in a different light."
"I think there are probably businesses that are a lot easier than this one," he laughs, "And probably more profitable, that I could do, but I choose not to. Because skydiving changed my life for the better, and I want to bring that to other people, too."
We can't wait to go back! One of the most thrilling experiences of my life.
» Lauren D.