Seeking solace in Lost Prairie

Fourteen months after Kalispell’s Joel Atkinson died with four others doing what he loves,a family and community continue to cope.

July 24, 2008
Joel Atkinson, shown here on top of a tandem jump with a novice skydiver, was Skydive Lost Prairie’s lead instructor when a May 12, 2007 plane crash killed him and four other people.
Joel Atkinson, shown here on top of a tandem jump with a novice skydiver, was Skydive Lost Prairie’s lead instructor when a May 12, 2007 plane crash killed him and four other people.
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Fred Sands squints slightly under his ball cap as the sun fills the long, grassy valley that surrounds Lost Prairie, some 34 miles west of Kalispell. He’s the owner and founder of Skydive Lost Prairie, and oversees the Lost Prairie Boogie, one of the biggest skydiving festivals in the West, and he’s talking about what it is that brings hundreds to this remote place out near the Cabinet Mountains every summer. It’s more than simply to experience the adrenaline of jumping out of an airplane.

“When you quiz people about why they come here to jump, you’re going to get a myriad of motivations,” he says. Maybe it’s vindication, self-fulfillment, curiosity, peer pressure or a dozen other reasons—and Sands, who’s been skydiving for nearly 40 years and running Lost Prairie for 28, has an anecdote to match each.

But for the few first-time jumpers who stick around, who come back time and again to jump, who eventually get certified to jump on their own, Sands says there’s something different that drives them. It’s something about Lost Prairie, and the tight knit network of skydivers who call this place a second home, or a second family.

“The camaraderie you find among skydivers, it’s a pretty hard and solid connection,” says Sands. “We’re doing something that’s unique to most people in the world, and because of that shared lust for adventure, usually you find most skydivers are good friends.”

Joel Atkinson was one of them. A Kalispell native who grew up near the airfield where Sands first learned to jump, Joel was one of those first-timers who got the bug, who didn’t want to do anything else but jump, and who, by all accounts, became as much a part of the Lost Prairie skydiving community as anyone.

“I just remember this young, lanky kid coming out. And coming out. And coming out, and coming out. And just being a part of a core of young jumpers,” Sands says. “He was one of the kids you watch grow up and get good at it. And because he enjoyed it so much, he wanted to teach other people about it. So he became an instructor here. He helped keep the place going.”

People don’t like to address the topic, but keeping the place going this summer will prove difficult. Fourteen months ago, Joel, 25, another instructor named David Landeck Jr., 25, an engaged couple taking their first tandem jump—Kyle Mills and Jennifer Sengpiel, both musicians in the Great Falls Symphony—and a recently hired pilot, Troy Norling, were killed when their plane crashed and burned short of the Lost Prairie runway. The accident rocked the community, the first fatalities in over a decade.

Last year’s Boogie, which occurred as planned just two months after the May 12 crash, was filled with memorials and tributes. Joel’s ashes were released during a jump by his friends—an event that not only marked the penultimate day of the Boogie, but also what would have been Joel’s 26th birthday and the eighth anniversary of his first jump. Forty-six skydivers took part in scattering his cremated remains.

This year’s 41st annual Boogie, slated to start July 26 and attract, per usual, more than 500 skydivers from around the world and hundreds more spectators, will not include any of the same memorials or tributes. More than a year removed, there’s a need to move on. In a place known for its unbridled adrenaline and colorful characters, and a community bonded by trust, safety and an obsession with squeezing every last drop out of life, they don’t know any other way.

But the accident, and especially Joel’s death, continues to cast a shadow.


•••
For Joel Atkinson, Lost Prairie was a place of far greater importance than just a runway and steady supply of adrenaline. It was where he found his calling.

“He was always the kid at the top of the tree,” says Gail Linne, Joel’s mother. “As a kid, right when Rocky Mountain Outfitter [a local mountaineering store in Kalispell] was something he knew about, he wanted to go buy a rope and rappel. He was always jumping off stuff. He just had that spirit and a bright mind and a strong body for those kinds of things.”

When Joel was 14, his mother and father both recall him riding in the car as they passed the Kalispell City Airport south of town. As he sat in the backseat watching skydivers come down out of the air, he told them, “That’s what I’m going to do.”

Joel was smart, but bored with school growing up. He dropped out of Flathead High School in Kalispell, opting instead to take his GED. According to his father, he scored the highest grade in his class after studying just a couple weeks.

“There was no challenge for him [in school],” Linne says. “Too often, that’s what happens with kids who are gifted.”

“You know, his mother and I both worked and got masters degrees,” says Jim Atkinson, Joel’s father and a Kalispell City Councilman since 1988. “At the time we thought he would do that and go on to great things.”

By his 18th birthday, his parents knew what Joel wanted: a jump at Lost Prairie. They purchased it for him.

Joel quickly became consumed by the sport, and his parents offered their unconditional support, despite working through a difficult divorce.

“It seemed strange to me, because of how intelligent he was—that he would not do well in school,” says Wade Atkinson, Joel’s older brother by two years. “I guess when I was in school I had theater and my friends there, and a passion that kept me involved in school. But he didn’t have that passion and driving force in his life, and skydiving gave him that.”

During the separation, the parents continued attending church together with the boys, holding weekly dinners and planning other regular contact. They wanted their support to continue unaffected. For Wade, that meant his parents getting into theater at Flathead Valley Community College. To support Joel, it was slightly more extreme.

“I was looking up there at the sky one day, watching them all come down, and it occurred to me,” says Jim. “One, I thought, ‘I’ve got to validate his passion.’ And, number two, I don’t ever want to say when I’m old, ‘Gee I wish I’d have done that.’ So I said, ‘Joel, I’m gonna go skydiving.’”

Jim and Joel Atkinson jumped from the same plane at Lost Prairie in 2000. Jim remembers seeing Joel get up to jump first, a big gaping hole opening in the plane and thinking, “Close the damn door!”

“Then Joel gets out and waves, and goes, and goes, and goes,” remembers Jim.

Then Jim put his foot outside the plane, grabbed onto a handle and plunged into the sky.

“It’s just awesome,” Jim says. “I validated my son’s passion. And, oh my God, I knew exactly why he was doing what he was doing.”

There was another reason Jim jumped that day.

“It was very important,” Jim says, taking a pause and then nodding as he collects his thought. “My dad died when I was five. And I didn’t have a dad. And, you know, that affects you…It really does. So I wanted to be all the dad I could be for my boys. And then I’ve also watched TV and movies, and seen these guys who say their dads never loved them…So I really wanted to be a part of my boys’ lives in a big way.”

As Joel became more and more immersed in skydiving, Jim not only realized he needed to get more involved, but also that Joel had started to build a new family at Lost Prairie.

“Joel might not say this, but I think I shared my fatherhood with Joel with Fred Sands,” Jim says. “I think Fred gave Joel an opportunity that I couldn’t. And that was kind of neat. Because Fred was able to take over in places where I wasn’t able to take over. I was always Joel’s father. I was his moral base and his logical base and things like that. But I think Fred offered him the sky. He really did. He offered him the sky. And Joel liked Fred. Joel respected Fred and admired Fred and knew that Fred was offering him something no one else could.”

•••
Fred Sands never wanted to skydive. He was attending Flathead Valley Community College in 1971, when a friend mentioned wanting to skydive at the Kalispell City Airport. At the time, Kalispell was the center of the local skydiving scene, as well as the home of the annual Boogie.

“I was talked into it,” Sands says. “I lived in south Kalispell, and always saw them, but never thought about it…After a couple days to think about it, I went along.”

What Sands found prodded him to abandon hopes of a career in theater and take on skydiving full time.

“I did find something quite unusual outside the door of an aircraft,” Sands says. “And I needed to pursue it.”

In more than 38 years of skydiving, he’s logged over 8,500 jumps. In 1980, his love of skydiving prompted him to purchase the 27-acre facility at Lost Prairie.

Over the years, Skydive Lost Prairie has grown from just a couple outbuildings to a fully operational jump center with a school, check-in station and runway. As soon as Sands took over, the Boogie relocated to his facility.

“We saw that growth and civilization was upon us in Kalispell,” says Sands, who joined a network of divers from western Montana and Canada to find a more remote jump site. “We were looking for a place to have as our own. A place where we wouldn’t have to deal with too many rules and regulations imposed on us from city government.”

Isolated and more laidback than most drop zones, Lost Prairie quickly developed a niche in the wider skydiving community.

“I’ve jumped and worked at a lot of drop zones over the years, and it’s difficult to describe just what makes Lost Prairie different,” says Tod Hendricks, a Coeur d’Alene-based professional free-fall photographer who travels the country taking photos and video of skydivers. “It has a flavor that’s second to nothing, through a combination of its location, remoteness and the camaraderie between skydivers who come from all over the world to jump together.”

“It’s just a really mellow scene. It’s not really intense the way other drop zones can become,” says Zach Blair, a pilot now flying in Alaska, who’s attended several Boogies and spent a summer at Lost Prairie. “Other drop zones have some really hardcore people, and that can be kind of intimidating, especially for first-time jumpers. People [at Lost Prairie] just kind of take you in and it’s very welcoming. It’s a much more mellow vibe there, I guess. That’s just how it is.”

And Sands, they say, is the patriarch who sets the tone.

“Fred is the patron, the dad who takes care of the household so all the kids can play,” says Jim Atkinson. “That’s a great responsibility on his part. He works hard at it, and everybody respects him for that…Fred takes on all the liability and all the kids play.”

That play is best witnessed at the annual Boogie. The event started in 1967 as an annual dive meet at the Kalispell jump site, where regional divers convened. It has gained greater notoriety among jumpers and a cult following with spectators over the years. Sands says they’ll fly between 6,500 and 7,500 jumps during this year’s 10-day event, with planes and jumpers heading up from 9 a.m. until nightfall. But the aerial display is just a part of the experience—wild revelry and fraternity-like traditions fill the nights.

“In the evening it would seem like just a big party, but in the day it’s kind of an air show, or an air exhibition,” says Blair, who served as lead pilot at Lost Prairie in 2005. “The divers are coming down all the time, and the planes are coming and going.”

Lauren Winter, a longtime friend of Joel’s, remembers her first Boogie as awe-inspiring.

“For someone like myself who is not a ‘skydiver,’ simply the significant other of a skydiver, I remember my first Boogie and it was just so amazing to me,” she says. “Everyone is so friendly and excited, they are there doing something they love, something that they have created a lifestyle around. They are so excited about new people and tandems and making new friends. It’s a great atmosphere.”

That atmosphere is enhanced by the Boogie’s signature events. For instance, the last night ends with most of the jumpers taking off together.

“They do a ‘cross-country,’” says Blair, explaining the tradition of flying as many planes and divers as possible up high to jump right at dusk, pulling their parachutes immediately out of the aircraft to maximize their fall. “They’ll take them up for a ‘hop-and-pop,’ and a long canopy ride down as the sun sets.”

Shortly after, it’s common for all the planes to do a fly-over in formation with all their running lights on. Veterans of the Boogie know to catch such spectacles from a nearby fire tower. There, spectators can watch the last dive and the sunset before coming back to a bonfire and bustling ruckus below.

“There’s a connection we all have out there during free-fall,” says Hendricks.


That connection comes out in a different way during the Boogie’s infamous late-night carousing.

On alternating nights, the Cock Chorus and Clit Chorus (also known by slightly more offensive names) take the front stairs of The Lost Prairie Lounge across the street, surrounded by a crowd of cheering fans, and sing sets of parodies heavy on genitalia references.

“The, uh, girls choir has become a tradition,” says Sands, noting how the ritual has evolved since the first Boogie. “It started out mocking the male skydiver and his ego, and the girls singing their ‘praise.’”

Hours before the event, all the male or female skydivers disappear to rehearse their lines. A select male or female of honor leads their respective group as a soloist, high in the rafters of the bar’s front roof.

The songs usually lead to more antics, such as “bar-diving,” a topless form of crowd surfing, and other such late-night and early-morning partying.

“As far as the choirs, bar-diving and the fire tower goes, those are the memories that last forever,” says Eric Harding, a longtime Lost Prairie and Boogie enthusiast. “ As long as you don’t get too drunk where you can’t remember them.”

As crazy as the festivities can get, Joel Atkinson’s parents still embraced their son’s part in the action. His mother remembers how Joel would walk her to her car every night before the choirs would take over the bar. But one night, she snuck back in.

“I just closed the car door and when he walked away, I went back in,” remembers Linne. “I thought, What is going on here? So I stayed and it was the boys’ night for their choir. It gets wild. And there was Joel, up in the rafters as a soloist.”

•••
On May 12, 2007, Joel and fellow instructor David Landeck Jr. helped two first-time jumpers into a Cessna 182 while the pilot, Troy Norling, hired just 10 days prior, walked around the outside of the plane conducting a pre-flight check. It was to be a tandem jump, where expert instructors like Joel and Landeck would attach themselves to the students—one expert, one novice—and they’d jump with one parachute. But it never happened.

The plane left the runway at Lost Prairie at approximately 10:15 a.m. and climbed 300-500 feet before something went wrong. A report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released earlier this year reasoned that a loose oil cap allowed oil to spew onto the airplane’s windshield, prompting Norling to suddenly turn back toward the runway. As Norling made the sharp 180-degree turn, the plane lost speed and plummeted toward the ground, where it exploded into flames just 300 yards from the runway.

The NTSB report later figured that the plane carried around 165 pounds more than its maximum takeoff weight.

The accident proved to be a huge loss for the community. In the case of Joel, specifically, Lost Prairie lost more than just a skilled instructor—it also lost the person who came to embody everything that made it special.

“Just before Joel exits a plane with a student, he’s just absolutely psyched, with a long smile on his face. He’s probably goofing around a little bit to lighten the mood and put the student at ease,” says Blair, trying to explain what made Joel stand out so much as an instructor. “Some drop zones are like tandem mills. They do tandems all day long, and the instructors can get kind of blasé about it. It’s just another jump to them. Joel never did that. He was always stoked and super-positive about every jump. And everyone around him picked up on it…I don’t think I ever saw him jump when he wasn’t totally psyched to be there.”

He was also excellent at his job. By 2006, Joel was the dive school’s lead instructor, had completed more than 1,000 jumps at locations from Hawaii to Alaska to Florida, and was written up in Parachutist magazine. His mother recalls one of Joel’s more public jumps, in 2005, when an ESPN reporter visited Lost Prairie as part of a special tour of the country. When the reporter took a tandem jump with Joel, they ended up having trouble with the parachute. Witnesses say Joel performed a cut-away maneuver and pulled his emergency chute, a routine emergency response that averted any danger.

“Joel was my [first] tandem instructor,” says Winter. “I remember how comfortable I was—more excited than nervous. But at about 9,000 feet the butterflies really hit. Having all the friendly faces on the plane was so awesome. One couple in particular was across the aisle from me and I just kept getting reassuring smiles and nods, it was great. Having Joel as my instructor was a big deal for my first jump. I had known him for 12 years at that point and it just eased the whole situation for me.”

The fact that Joel influenced so many made his death that much harder to stomach. Many of those who knew Joel still aren’t emotionally ready to talk about it publicly. “This is all very fresh still,” one said when declining an interview.

“It was obviously a tragedy of unending depth,” says Sands. “The thing that helped me get through it was the enormous support I received not just from the local people here, and from the extended family, but from the e-mails, and the cards, and everybody noticing and pulling for us. It was having everybody lift us up and pull us through. We kept on going. We needed to do that rather than simply stop. The people that were on that plane wouldn’t have liked it if we’d stopped.”

•••
Now what? A year removed from the accident and on the eve of the next Lost Prairie Boogie, a lot of the community isn’t sure what to expect. The skydivers will come, and the crowds, but no one is certain if that special carefree revelry will be the same.

A lot of the concern gets shifted to Sands. With the economy turning poor and fuel prices skyrocketing, it’s no secret that his operation is strapped. He admits he needs a huge 10 days—“Financially, it’s my Christmas,” he says—during the Boogie to make his season. But the aftermath of the crash is still unaccountable.

“Fred lost an airplane. He lost a pilot. He lost two tandem masters. He lost two customers. He could have lost–well, he could still lose his whole business. But most of all, he lost a couple of sons, and numerous loved ones. And lost a part of his life there,” says Jim Atkinson. “Fred will still cry. He and I cry all the time when we see each other. It’s just painful still. It’s a raw wound.”

Sands understands the sentiment, but isn’t about to use the crash as an excuse.

“Things are a little bit slower,” he says, noting a slight decline in summer jumpers last year. “I’m not going to blame it on the crash.”

Sands insists things will return to normalcy. The jumps, the color, the choreography in the sky and the excitement will all keep going. All the planes that come for the boogie will still do a nighttime fly-by with all their running lights on. The divers will still pile into every plane available for a sunset dive on the last night of the Boogie. And there’s no doubt the late-night debauchery won’t change, either.

But in the crowd, Joel and the other crash victims will stir memories, and several unknowing would-be divers will receive a random handout: “Jumps for Joel,” tickets that give first-timers a discount jump. Some folks will make contributions to Joel’s memorial fund. But amidst the joy and exuberant carryings-on, the realization of loss and the freshness of tragedy seem more fully internalized now.

“The thing that’s different is there’s a couple of memorial gardens on the grounds,” Jim says. “There’s a memorial that’s been added, but I think people will walk by and go on. They’ll remember the tragedy and be very respectful of that, and their hearts will hurt a little bit. But they’ll skydive. There’ll be no slowing down. And the reason there’ll be no slowing down is because Joel and all the other people on that plane—maybe not the two students—would want people to go on. They don’t want people to slow down.

“Will those skydivers jump one less time because Joel died?” Jim asks. “I don’t think so. They’ll jump one more time.”

Sands agrees.

“We’ve always been real close, but now we’re closer because we had to endure—and still have to endure that day. We’re probably tighter than ever,” says Sands. “It’s the spirit of the skydiver. A lot of people look at us and say we have a death wish. We’re actually 180 degrees from that. We have a life wish. We want to experience life and do it with our friends. If there’s bumps in the roads, then we learn from those and have to carry on.”

The 10-day Lost Prairie Boogie begins Saturday, July 26, at Skydive Lost Prairie. Spectators can attend for free. For more information visit www.skydivelostprairie.com.
“The camaraderie you find among skydivers, it’s a pretty hard and solid connection,” says Fred Sands. “We’re doing something that’s unique to most people in the world, and because of that shared lust for adventure, usually you find most skydivers are good friends.”
“The camaraderie you find among skydivers, it’s a pretty hard and solid connection,” says Fred Sands. “We’re doing something that’s unique to most people in the world, and because of that shared lust for adventure, usually you find most skydivers are good friends.”
Fred Sands, who has nearly 40 years of skydiving experience, purchased the 27-acre Lost Prairie facility in 1980 and mentored Joel from the beginning. “He helped keep this place going,” Sands says.
Fred Sands, who has nearly 40 years of skydiving experience, purchased the 27-acre Lost Prairie facility in 1980 and mentored Joel from the beginning. “He helped keep this place going,” Sands says.

Joel, second from back left, sits with fellow divers before a group jump. “Joel was my [first] tandem instructor,” says longtime friend Lauren Winter. “I remember how comfortable I was—more excited than nervous. But at about 9,000 feet the butterflies really hit. Having all the friendly faces on the plane was so awesome.”
Joel, second from back left, sits with fellow divers before a group jump. “Joel was my [first] tandem instructor,” says longtime friend Lauren Winter. “I remember how comfortable I was—more excited than nervous. But at about 9,000 feet the butterflies really hit. Having all the friendly faces on the plane was so awesome.”
“He was always the kid at the top of the tree,” says Gail Linne, Joel’s mother. “…He was always jumping off stuff. He just had that spirit and a bright mind and a strong body for those kinds of things.”
“He was always the kid at the top of the tree,” says Gail Linne, Joel’s mother. “…He was always jumping off stuff. He just had that spirit and a bright mind and a strong body for those kinds of things.”

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