Published: January 22, 2018
It may have taken him a while to becoming a skydiving instructor, but there's no doubt that Matt Benelli was born to fly.
His family, after all, has been in the airlines since the airlines were a business. Both his grandparents worked for United - his grandfather was a pilot and his grandmother a flight attendant - and his mom worked her way up from a cabin crew position to work as a Vice President for Frontier.
"Non-traditional sports, traveling...that's always just been a part of my life," Matt smiles.
On Matt's 14th birthday, the family flew to Tennessee and drove to Pigeon Forge to celebrate. It was there that he got his first taste of flying in a wind tunnel. Wind tunnels were far fewer and farther between back then, so he was 25 before he had another go - when he ended up in Vegas to celebrate that birthday. When he visited Indoor Skydiving Las Vegas, the passion was quickly rekindled. While there, he found out about a new tunnel that was being constructed close to where he was living in Denver. The moment he got home, he joined a league at the wind tunnel and then started showing up absolutely religiously.
Matt's first free fall
It wasn't long before Matt added proper out-of-plane freefall to his repertoire. In July of 2007, he heard that one of his favorite instructors was teaching his last AFF course at Mile-Hi Skydiving. Clearly, he had to join.
"I had progressed from belly flying into a pretty solid sit fly," Matt says, "So I wasn't worried about the freefall. I got up really early on a Saturday morning. I was raised that if you wanted to be liked at school, you brought treats on your first day, so I stopped by the donut shop and brought them with me to the DZ."
He went through the whole ground school and made a couple jumps that day. Despite his early confidence, he found the first one - well, rocky.
"When we got to the door, my knees kinda buckled," he laughs. "Instead of ready, set, go, it was ready, set, fall out of the airplane. Once we got up to terminal velocity and things sped up, it was much more comfortable. I liked the fact that I was able to push through and that feeling of freefall was pretty addicting."
Making the leap from desk to sky
When the financial crash hit and Matt was laid off, he traded his corporate job for the tropics - to manage a guest house his family had purchased in Puerto Rico. In the absence of a wind tunnel, he rocked up to the local dropzone and went full-on into skydiving.
He showed up every weekend he could and jumped, but it wasn't a professional gig. In fact, Matt didn't start working at a dropzone until he left Puerto Rico in the fall of 2013 with his then-girlfriend, Caitlin - now his wife - to make a new home in Cape Cod. He had about 100 jumps under his belt at that time.
"I didn't have any certifications," he says. "I didn't have anything that would benefit a dropzone but I called the guy who owns Skydive Cape Cod and Delmar Skydive Center - Jimmy Mendonca. I called him like 7 times. We were only going to be here temporarily, but we needed a stepping stone off the island to get back into civilization and catch our bearings, and I was going to try to work at the drop zone for the summer."
"Jimmy kept telling me to call in a month," he laughs. "So every month I would give him a call, and he would say call me in a month. In the middle of June, I called him and said I was there - that I was on Cape Cod, and I was on my way out to the dropzone. We sat down and ended up talking for something like three hours. He essentially told me that he didn't have a position for me. There was really not much in the way of help because I wasn't a tandem instructor. I didn't know anything about anything, but I had a solid customer service background from the hotel industry and my corporate work before that. Jimmy said if he had a busy Saturday, maybe he'd give me a call to come in and help, which I was thrilled about. So one day, he called, and I came in."
Learning The DZ Ropes
Matt was there, soaking up knowledge, almost every day for that entire season. He almost instantly carved out a place for himself, running around managing people and supervising the operation.
"It was also a customer service position," he adds, "I was there whenever anyone needed somebody to talk to - to tell people where to go, to pick up rigs. I learned how to edit videos. I learned how to harness students; the tricks of the trade as far as a tandem operation goes. I did anything I could to learn. Those were probably some of the best days of any career I have ever had. I would jump out of bed at 5 o'clock, excited."
Matt soon set about racking up the jumps. His goal: to make 500, when he could start the training to be a tandem skydiving instructor. In 2013, he did just that. When Skydive Cape Cod shut down, he ventured southward to help Jimmy open the Dallas Skydive Center and acting as dropzone manager. After six months in Texas, he returned to the Eastern Seaboard to land at his current home: managing our beloved Long Island Skydiving Center.
A Reason To Get Up In The Morning
"It was definitely a whole new world," Matt grins. "The season I came on, I jumped right into the deep end. It was an incredible lesson; an incredible season. It's a big dropzone with big goals and a lot of moving parts."
These days, at just 36 years of age, Matt has 2,342 jumps (and counting). He's a licensed USPA tandem skydiving instructor and coach, and he couldn't be happier in his work.
"I love my job," he enthuses. "I really do. The team gets together and accomplishes the group's goal of getting as many people into the air, and giving them as good an experience as we can. We send them out the door with an amazing video and a smile on their face, stoked to go tell their friends about how they just jumped out of an airplane. It's the best reason I've ever had to get up in the morning."
Inspired? Ready to follow in Matt's foot steps? Rock on over here and get signed up for your first (or next) jump!