KENNEWICK, Wash. — Justin Hilker has come a long way from the wild child he claims to have been as a teenager at Pasco High.
"Lots of people thought I was a total screw up, and in so many ways I was," he said. "Got into drugs and alcohol and all things bad for me."
Then four years ago, he moved to Hawaii and discovered skydiving, and left the fog-induced drug days behind.
Today, the 32-year-old makes his living giving tourists tandem parachute rides around the Hawaiian Islands. His company, TKFL Productionz, is an independent contractor for Sky Dive Hawaii.
Hilker is home this week visiting family. And, for the second year in a row, he'll skydive into the Benton County fairgrounds before the Horse Heaven Round-Up starts at 7 p.m.
But Hilker won't make this an ordinary parachute jump. He'll be carrying a flag banner as he drifts in circles during his descent until he lands in the rodeo arena.
"Last year I could hear the roar of the crowd while I was still high in the sky and it was awesome," Hilker said.
Edie Olberding, Hilker's mother, and her husband Fred are sponsoring the parachute jump through their Cloud No. 9 Farms company. And even though she couldn't be prouder of her son leaving his wayward days behind, she still feels fear for his safety every time he steps from a plane.
"There's nothing worse for a mother than watching her child waste their life," she said. "But I guess jumping out of an airplane is better than drugs and alcohol. But it still scares me to watch him to it."
Before the 1999 Pasco High grad found enlightenment in freefalling, he used to ride motorcycles with his father in motocross events, his mother said.
"His dad died in a motorcycle accident when Justin was 16, and that's when he fell apart and got into drugs," Olberding said.
Hilker said he never thought about skydiving until he moved to Hawaii to work on a farm. He watched skydivers land in a field near where he worked and thought he might try it.
Turns out he was a natural.
"Most people take a few months to get certified, but I did it in about a week," he said. "I also teach skydiving now and I almost think I like doing that even more than giving tandem jumps, which I love to do."
In tandem jumping, the tourist is strapped to Hilker's chest and parachutes to the ground with him doing all the work of releasing the chute and guiding it to the landing spot. He's made about 1,500 jumps during the past four years.
But there's a downside to having this kind of thrillseeking job, he added.
"Once a year I have to watch a friend die," he said. "Losing my friends like that makes me (be) extra cautious whenever I make a jump. In fact, I'm always scared just before a jump, and I think I probably wouldn't do it unless I felt some fear. Crazy, huh?"
When he goes up for Saturday's fair jump, he'll be on a plane from Pfister Aviation of Pasco. His pilot Jason Askerooth, also of Pasco, will drop him off at a precise spot about 5,000 feet.
"Without these people (Pfister and Askerooth), I couldn't do what I do," Hilker said. "I don't take chances, either. If there's a cloud cover or high wind, then I won't make the jump."
He'll free fall to 4,000 feet then open his chute and about 30 seconds later, he'll unfurl the giant American flag banner, which will stretch out below him as he twirls to the ground. And he plans to hit the ground Saturday at precisely 7:05 p.m., he said with a smirk.
Coming full circle is how Hilker describes himself today.
"It's a constant battle kicking a drug habit," he said. "But it can be done. What I do now might be considered dangerous to some people, but it's what I love to do and it keeps me from taking up old habits."
"Responsible adult" is how his mother describes him, and Hilker agrees.
"When I left for Hawaii I decided I needed to do something more responsible with my life and I have," he said.