Franz Gerschwiler free falling upside down

An Interview with Owner Franz Gerschwiler

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Franz Gerschwiler, owner of Skydive TecumsehImagine This…

You’re a happy fun jumper at your favorite local skydiving club. The dropzone is a legend; it’s been around for more than half a century–the very beginning of the sport–and it’s still going strong. Then, one day, you’re pulled aside and asked if you want to buy it. They’re asking you to carry the torch. You’re in a position to do so, so you do. It’s a whirlwind. You build; you develop; your make improvements; you hustle; you pour yourself into it and you make it awesome. Then, one day, the owner of the airport dies, the airport that was your home is yanked out from under you like a tablecloth and–after you do what you have to do to get reestablished at another airfield just down the road, you pick up the newspaper.

And you find the obituary for your beloved dropzone.

Which, coincidentally, is not dead.

Skydive Tecumseh dropzone

Sounds like a nightmare, right? Well, it’s a nightmare that Franz Gerschwiler actually lived with Skydive Tecumseh, the totally-not-shut-down dropzone where we lay our scene. Despite the inarguably tough times and the herculean effort of re-building, Franz is determined to make Tecumseh better than what it was–he just needs people to know that Skydive Tecumseh is very much alive.

“I had been traveling for a couple of years after my retirement, skydiving,” Franz remembers. “I followed a friend to Tecumseh on a lark, and I jumped there for a few weeks. I enjoyed it so much that I ended up spending the summer there. I came back the very next year and spent a few weeks there again. I ended up buying myself a trailer. I bought the gear store because I wanted somewhere I could rig. Then the owners asked me if I wanted to buy the place. After probably a year of back and forth about things, I ended up buying it. That was nine years ago.”

“I don’t think any prospective DZO understands what they are going to get into,” Franz adds. “I didn’t.

The Backstory 

Skydive Tecumseh was originally founded in 1963. Predictably, everything could use an update. After buying the drop zone, Franz replaced all the equipment with shiny new versions. After a couple of years, it became clear that new construction was needed. Franz didn’t want to put up the spendy new buildings on leased land, so he negotiated with the airport owner to buy a quarter of the airport’s total land. The list of improvements kept getting longer.

“It already had a good reputation amongst sports jumpers for being fun,” Franz explains, “But I think there was maybe not enough ‘business’ to balance the fun. It was a club, after all. We turned it into a top-flight dropzone with decent policies, best practices, solid customer service, a new web interface, etcetera. We tripled the business; we turned it into a really stellar operation.”

Excited skydiving student hold onto instructor

For several years, Tecumseh kept growing. As Franz and his team continued to improve the place, the rest of the airport was taking notice. One day, seven years later, the owner of the airport pulled Franz aside. He asked Franz if he wanted to buy the rest of the airport property.

“I think he knew he was dying,” Franz remembers, “So we agreed. We shook hands. He was a good guy and we had a good relationship. I had never had a handshake from that man that didn’t mean anything, so I took it for granted it would be okay–that all that needed to happen next was dealing with the bank to get the loan sorted out.”

“And all of a sudden,” Franz says, “I found out that this other guy with a hangar on the airport was buying the airport, and I was out of the deal. Within a handful of weeks, the airport owner had died, leaving Franz without recourse.

With the owner gone, there was no persuading him to change his mind. The owner’s widow continued to finalize the sale, deaf to Franz’s appeal. It was March of 2014.

“Within a year,” Franz says, “The new owner was in the process of kicking us out of our home of fifty years, throwing all kinds of vitriol and totally unfounded scare fabrications about safety and what have you. In fifty years, mind you, there have been no FAA violations recorded. Not one.”

Franz took the new owner to court to try to get an injunction against him. It did not go well. “We had to watch him list off all of these falsifications in court, in front of a judge,” he grimaces. “The judge didn’t give us the injunction, and insult to injury, the things the new owner said about Skydive Tecumseh were turned into a newspaper article. It was painful. It still is. It’s still playing out in court, in fact.”

The newspaper said that Skydive Tecumseh was done–shut down–finished. Even though it was the farthest thing from fact, the article was a huge blow.

The Future

Franz knew he had to move or Tecumseh would be over, so he collected himself and his team and persuaded an airport about 20 minutes down the road to let them set up an operation there. The crew spent a few months operating out of a bus and a tent until he could get them into an indoor space. He managed to lease two hangars back-to-back and knocked them together to make a facility.

Skydivers point of view looking down

Toughened by his previous experience, Franz wasn’t about to leave a deed for later. “I purchased that airport from its previous owner,” he says. “So that we can’t get kicked off again.”

Now, Skydive Tecumseh is growing again. “We’re building a 11,000-square-foot hangar facility, along with campground and shower house,” Franz proudly announces. “It’ll all be up by summer 2017.

“It’s actually a better airport,” he adds, “With a great view. We’re surrounded by the Irish Hills Lakes, so it’s gorgeous up there. And we’ve got a hundred acres to ourselves, which is bigger than the old airport. We have a Super King Air. At the end of this story, it’s going to be a vastly superior facility.”

Since the new Skydive Tecumseh location is only 20 minutes down the road, there is no difference in the dropzone’s customer base. In fact, the new airfield is closer to a freeway, so jumpers coming in from Detroit and Ann Arbor won’t notice a difference at all. The dropzone is actually closer to Lansing, now. Tecumseh’s new home is a little further away from Toledo, but it’s still the closest dropzone to that city.

“Obviously, I had a choice, when the move happened, to just become a tandem operation,” Franz adds, “But I chose not to. We built a campground for sport jumpers, and a hangar big enough to handle them all. I mean: I don’t need an 11,000-square-foot facility just for tandems. We’re working hard to continue to be the hub of sport jumping in Michigan, and I know we can. We have built the hangar big enough for a Twin Otter, so that’s kind of where I am aiming at in the future.”

“I have been kicked,” he insists, “But I am not giving up. I still love the sport and I still believe in it.  It has just been a tough road the past couple of years. SkyDive Tecumseh did and does have something special about it. It is an incredible jumping community and we’ve got a proud history of creating new jumpers and breathing life into the sport. The legacy will continue, just in a different place.”

Tandem Skydiver in freefall at Skydive Tecumseh

On Labor Day my daughter took our first jump. She got me it for my 62nd birthday to check off my bucket list. It was the most intense adrenaline rush I have ever experienced. James and Amber (my daughters tandem partner) were very professional and made our jumps fantastic. We will be back again and hope to bring a group with us. Tremendous experience.

John Gay