Nelson, who has more than 2,700 jumps to his credit, started Freefall Adventures in 1988. Like his students, he was looking for a thrill.
"I've been a pilot since the early 1970s," Nelson said, "and I always wanted to jump out of a plane."
With $40,000, he bought parachutes and related state-of-the-art equipment, including helmets, jumpsuits, altimeters, reserve parachutes, and automatic opening devices.
"It would cost a skydiver $2,500 to $3,500 for a complete outfit," he said.
The single-engine airplanes are rented at the Cross Keys Airport in Williamstown, N.J., where Nelson instructs his students. The jumps are performed over 70 acres of grassy turf at the airport.
"Right now, I'm about breaking even," Nelson said. "Airplanes are expensive to buy and maintain, so we rent them for about $150 and up. And you always have to update your equipment.
"But more people," he added, "are seeking excitement and taking up skydiving."
He charges $185 for the first jump, which includes 30 minutes of prejump instruction and the use of a single-engine airplane. For $285, he instructs a student for 10 hours on accelerated free fall.
In the first jump, Nelson accompanies the student by hooking on to a harness. Both bail out from the standard height of 10,500 feet. The free fall takes about 50 seconds, covering about 6,500 feet, before the parachute is opened. The rest of the ride down takes about five to eight minutes with the chute opened.
As the student becomes more proficient, Nelson said, the free fall can increase to one minute, or 8,000 feet, before the chute opens at the 2,500- foot altitude.
"You can jump from 13,500 and have a longer free fall," he explained.
Most of his students are in their mid-20s to late 30s, Nelson said, but occasionally he instructs seniors. Last Dec. 17, he instructed G. Stockton Strawbridge, former chief executive of Strawbridge & Clothier, for what turned out to be a successful jump - on his 80th birthday.
"You're up and down in an hour," Nelson said of the time it took to board the plane and complete the skydive. "Mr. Strawbridge is a pilot, and he said he always wanted to jump. We get a bunch in the 50s and 60s who make jumps."
"It was no big deal," Strawbridge said. "I took some instructions and then went up. I was a pilot in the Navy, and it was something I wanted to experience. I enjoyed it, but it was nothing to get excited about."
After a couple of months of practice jumps and instructions, a student graduates to full-fledged skydiving - without accompaniment.
Nelson can boast of two skydiving accomplishments. First, he has not had a fatality, thanks to the automatic opening device.
"If you become unconscious during a dive," he said, "and are falling at a speed of about 100 miles an hour, when you reach 2,000 feet, the automatic device will open your reserve parachute."
Second, Nelson completed 301 jumps in a 24-hour period on May 26-27, 1988, at New Hanover Airport in Gilbertsville in Montgomery County, averaging four minutes and 22 seconds per jump.
It is a world record - most jumps in one day. You can look it up in the
Guinness Book of Records.