If you run into Ian Bobo in the dairy aisle of Publix, you probably won’t guess that this mild-mannered 50-year-old makes his living hurtling toward Earth at 100 mph, with only a swath of thin fabric stretched between him and certain death.
But that is how Bobo makes his living. He travels the globe regularly, training sport skydivers as well as elite military units, under the auspices of the educational company he founded and co-owns, called Flight-1.
Skydivers like Bobo ride the currents of gravity, speed and lift to take “jumping out of a perfectly good airplane” to a new level.
Bobo even has a T-shirt, made for him by a friend, that proclaims “I’m huge in Russia.”
Russia is one of many countries he’s visited many times over the years for coaching and competition. He recently returned from competing in the World Championships in Siberia.
Bobo is pretty big in Sweden, too, as well as in California and Arizona and anywhere else where skydiving is popular, including the local drop zone on the DeLand Municipal Airport.
It was in DeLand, in 2006, where Bobo’s company got its start, as an educational offshoot created by him and his teammates on the demonstration and competition team at Performance Designs, a DeLand manufacturer of skydiving canopies (us normal folks call them “parachutes”).
As it turns out, there’s a lot more to skydiving than jumping out of an airplane, pulling a rip cord and staying alive (or enjoying the trip) until your feet hit the ground. There are many skydiving disciplines you can specialize in: accuracy, freestyle, freefall formations and canopy piloting.
DeLand was already known as the world mecca of freefall-formation skydiving when Bobo moved here in the late 1990s, and Bobo has competed in formation internationally, as well as coaching and teaching formation teams worldwide.
Formation skydiving — you could think of it as sky dancing — challenges skydivers to maneuver together, grasping each other’s hands or legs, to form specific geometric configurations during the fast-moving freefall portion of the trip back to Earth, before the parachute is unfurled.
But Bobo’s latest passion is canopy piloting, after the parachute is open. It’s a skill you’ll need whether you want to win a world championship by swooping in at terrifying speeds, or simply need to fly yourself into enemy territory with extreme precision.
“Swooping, or canopy piloting, is kind of like the golden child of skydiving, currently. It’s fast, it’s in your face, and people can crash, so the public loves it,” Bobo said.
Flight-1 teaches canopy piloting to about 2,000 individual sport skydivers and more than 1,000 military operators each year.
“We slowly got the interest of U.S. Special Forces, to apply our knowledge to their mission set,” Bobo said. “Now we’re a worldwide institution. We’re kind of the gold standard in this special niche, and have been blessed to turn a hobby into a profession.”
Bobo is about to focus the international spotlight of his achievements on his adopted hometown of DeLand, with his induction into the International Skydiving Hall of Fame, Class of 2021. He and his wife will travel to California in early October for the ceremony.
The Hall of Fame, begun in 2010, is a collection of 83 skydiving pioneers, supporters, inventors and role models from around the world. The roster includes one other DeLandite, Bill Booth, who holds 12 patents for skydiving safety equipment.
The 2021 induction will add five more, including Bobo. But what earned him a place among many whom he considers role models, mentors and teachers?
“I guess my scenario is a little bit unique, because I’ve done a little bit of everything,” Bobo said. “Inventor, educator, competitor.”
Bobo’s invention, in 2003, is called the Removable Deployment System or RDS.
“It did revolutionize the discipline I was involved in,” Bobo said. “Now nobody competes without it.”
He’s also one of a very few in the sport to have won world championships in both formation skydiving and canopy piloting.
As a group, members of the Hall of Fame form the growing foundation of an ambitious project designed to foster tourism, and increase awareness and understanding of the sport of skydiving: the International Skydiving Hall of Fame and Museum being planned in Orlando by an international committee.
“They’ve just purchased land down by Disney,” Bobo said.
When it’s built, Bobo will have a permanent place in the Skydiving Hall of Fame and Museum.
The honor commemorates a long journey from his first jump as an 18-year-old recent high-school graduate who joined the parachute club at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he would earn an engineering degree while falling in love with the sport of skydiving.
It may have been inevitable. Bobo is the son of a pilot who built aircraft in the family’s garage, and upon learning of his yearning to skydive, his mother supported his dream, and got him a gift certificate for a jump for his 18th birthday.
“You don’t make your first jump thinking you’re going to make a career out of it,” Bobo said.
But he did. And he doesn’t think of his career choice as especially daredevilish or dangerous.
“It’s a higher-risk environment, but still you’re actually in a lot greater danger driving to the drop zone,” Bobo said.
The goal of Flight 1 is to make the sport safer through collaboration, knowledge and high-quality training. Skydiving equipment has evolved to a high level of safety; what remains is making sure the people using it know how to keep it safe.
“Unfortunately, the reason Flight-1 exists is, accidents continue to happen,” Bobo said. “The majority of accidents and injuries in skydiving happen under open parachutes, due to pilot error. Skydiving, as a whole, has a void in the continuing-education programs, involving just the parachute flight.”
Enter the mild-mannered guy in the dairy aisle, working every day to improve a sport he loves. A sport that’s exotic to many of us, but ordinary to a guy who stopped counting when he logged 25,000 jumps.
“To me, it’s just a performance medium, and it happens to be the air,” Bobo said, adding “And it’s great up there!”