Kevin Burkart’s Leap of Faith

What happens when the man who has everything…loses it?

Kevin Burkhart getting ready to jump out of a plane high above farmland.
Kevin Burkart prepares to jump

photos by ryan taylor

It wasn’t suicide, not exactly, that was on Kevin Burkart’s mind when he stepped into the Cessna Caravan single-engine airplane on a serene Sunday morning in August 2012.

But if it wasn’t suicide, it was certainly something close. I don’t care if my life continues, Kevin thought as the plane climbed steeply, to 5,000 feet, to 10,000 feet, all the way up 13,000 feet into the perfectly blue sky above the drop zone of the Twin Cities’ largest skydiving center.

The 41-year old entrepreneur had the good looks reminiscent of Memento star Guy Pearce, the million-dollar house on Prior Lake, the alpha male, jet-setting, thrill-seeking life—and a useless left arm strapped to his chest. A jerry-rigged harness Kevin had created held his arm across his body and kept his shoulder in the socket. This was the first time he was trying the harness in the air. 

A generation ago, doctors might have amputated what Kevin called his Frankenstein arm. Now they saved it, but for what? The arm just dangled there, useless, and the pain was nonstop, from bad to worse and then back to bad again. Inside the airplane, a dozen skydiving friends watched Kevin prepare. They smiled, knowing what this moment meant for him, an attempt to regain part of the life he’d recently lost. During those thrilling 60 seconds of freefall, Kevin could forget the pain, prove to himself and the rest of the world that he could still live life outside the lines. But behind the smiles, his friends’ stomachs were in knots. How would Kevin’s new body perform in freefall? How would he pull the chute? How would he steer with only one good arm? And most of all, how the hell would he land? A skydiving veteran made an ominous comment while he helped pack Kevin’s gear: “The outcome,” he told Kevin, “is unknown.”

Kevin Burkhart sits on a plane before taking off for a skydive.
Preparing for takeoff

“Nine out of 10 skydivers would not recommend him skydiving, maybe more,” says Jon Gleisner, a fellow skydiver on the jump that day. “Good god, I don’t know if I’d do a one-armed skydive if someone paid me $50,000.”

The cornfields below created a patchwork quilt of green. The St. Croix River lingered far to the west. Kevin breathed in the familiar and oddly comforting smell of seldom-washed skydiving gear. Another surgery was coming up at the Mayo Clinic in a couple weeks, but Kevin had little faith it would make a difference.

I don’t care what happens, Kevin thought as he stepped toward the edge of the plane. I’m OK with leaving this physical world of extreme pain. I am OK with dying today. Because it’s a helluva way to live.

And then he jumped.

Kevin Burkhart shortly after jumping out of a place.
Moments after jumping

This wasn’t the first time Kevin had put his life at risk. Hell, it wasn’t the hundredth time. In some ways, it seemed the point of Kevin’s life was tempting death: motorcycle riding, scuba diving to dangerous depths, participating in a skydiving event where 100 people simultaneously jumped out of five planes at 25,000 feet and grabbed hands mid-air during the free fall. 

Kevin had always lived fast and determined. His mother remembers when her 2-year-old son was first taking swim lessons, and confidence came before skills. He’d keep jumping into the water, and his mother would keep fetching him out, eventually putting him in inflatable swimmies so he didn’t drown. By 3 he could swim across the pool by himself. “If he set his mind to something, he did it,” his mother, Lois, recalls. That mentality stayed with Kevin through college, when he was student body president at St. Cloud State, and into the business world, when he founded a marketing company at age 24 and turned it into a multi-million-dollar business with a dozen employees. Kevin was often in the office by 4:30 a.m. and didn’t leave until 7 p.m., when he’d go have dinner with a client—work-life balance just wasn’t his thing. When he was on a waterski show team, Kevin performed as Aqua the Clown, starting the show with a long-distance jump. Once, when scuba diving in Cozumel, he went down more than 250 feet—twice as deep as most recreationalists—and got the bends. Kevin refers to his carpe diem mentality with a twist on a business axiom—getting a “return on heartbeats”—recognizing his finite time on earth and making the most of it. His wife, Laura, says she was instantly attracted to Kevin’s intensity and sense of adventure; they went motorcycle riding on their first date. “He finds great pleasure in doing things others say you cannot do,” she says.

Five months before he climbed onto the Cessna with his new harness, Kevin had been on another of his death-defying, life-affirming adventures: a snowmobiling trip with five guys near the Canadian border. The snow had been perfect all weekend. So had the weather: the sun bright, but the weather cool enough to keep the trails smooth and fast. The group raced up and down the hills of the Gunflint Trail, jetted into and out of conifer forests, across frozen lakes, and even skipped the sleds, like 50-mile-an-hour mechanized stones, on hundred-yard patches of open water where the ice had melted. 

It was Saturday evening, and the sun already had dipped below the horizon when the group took off back down the trail for the weekend’s final ride, with Kevin testing the limits of his new, 150-horsepower Ski-Doo.

“We ride pretty hard, you know?” says Troy Swanson, one of Kevin’s snowmobiling pals. “Kevin was typically in front the whole time. We kind of took turns trying to keep up with him, and that was a chore. Just about everything Kevin does is at the speed of light.”

Around 8 p.m., Kevin was out in front of his three-man group. A full moon shone on the lakes and the fields. The snowmobiles’ headlights illuminated the 10-foot-wide trails as they headed back toward Devil Track Lake. Kevin jetted up a hill at 50 or so miles per hour.

Then: Boom! One of Kevin’s friends, riding a short distance behind him, crested the hill and saw two smashed snowmobiles, skis locked—an apparent head-on collision had thrown both riders from their sleds. At first, the friend thought Kevin was dead. He turned Kevin’s body and saw him breathing. What happened? What’s your name? What year is it? he asked. Some questions Kevin answered. Others he couldn’t. Kevin had taken the brunt of the impact. The other rider was hurt, but not nearly as badly; the cause of the crash appeared mostly due to terrible luck. Kevin told his friend his back hurt, and that he couldn’t move his left arm.

A deputy was on the scene shortly after Kevin’s friends called 911. Kevin was fitted onto a backboard, lifted onto a snowmobile outfitted with a medical sleigh, and taken to an ambulance that rushed him to a nearby medical center. Later that night, he was airlifted to a Level 1 Trauma Center in St. Paul. 

The next day, with friends crowded into his hospital room, Kevin, in a narcotic haze from his pain medication, laughed and joked. He still couldn’t feel his arm. Within two days of the accident—still in a hospital bed, still in a neck brace—Kevin was working up a sweat as he took work calls. He was still Kevin: Full speed, all the time. Friends expected what Kevin expected: That he’d bounce back in a few weeks, good as new. A lifelong disability? That entered nobody’s mind. It was just a hurt arm. Soon, he’d be the old Kevin again. Right?

It was around 2:30 a.m. when Kevin shouted to Laura from their bathroom.

“Can you get your phone?” he asked, in a choking voice. “Can you take a picture?”

“Kevin was back. So, naturally, he did what old Kevin would have done: he got back into the airplane for another jump.”

It had been a few months since the injury. Nothing was getting better. Not the concussion; Kevin would feel aftereffects for months. Not the arm; the angle of impact had given Kevin a brachial plexus injury, which tore apart a group of nerves connecting his arm and spinal cord. Not the constant pain; Kevin described it as oscillating from a seven to a 13 on a 10-point scale. The four broken vertebrae were healing, but his arm constantly felt like broken glass was under his skin, like a knife was cutting through his wrist, like his arm was perpetually on fire. Surgery after surgery—he’d have eight over the next five years—had not helped the pain nor returned much mobility. He could no longer open a water bottle. The several dozen daily pain pills zonked him out.

But Kevin cared less about not being able to dress himself than not being able to do the things that made him feel most alive: skydiving, waterskiing, motorcycle riding. After each sleepless night that summer, he’d stare out his window overlooking Prior Lake at sunrise, mournfully watching his waterskiing buddies cruising along the glassy water. 

Laura, bleary-eyed, walked into the bathroom and found Kevin, his face creased with pain and tears. Months of self-pity had delved into something much darker. Laura had already cleared Kevin’s guns from the house. “I was worried that he wanted to end it,” Laura recalls. “He had said that no life was worth living if there’s that much pain that goes with it.”

Laura looked through the screen and saw a man at his most depressed, his absolute worst. It was a moment better forgotten, not preserved.

Much later, Kevin explained to Laura why he asked her to take that photo: Because he wanted it to be his bottom. And as he started to climb back up, he needed to remind himself exactly how low he had been.

The airplane door opened. The thunderous breeze smacked Kevin in the face. Standing between two fellow skydivers, each gripping his harness, Kevin made the count: “Ready, set, go!” They jumped. The outcome, as Kevin’s rigger had said, was unknown.

And then: Knees in the breeze, his body plummeting to earth at 120 miles an hour. Kevin’s body flew differently with one arm strapped to his chest, falling faster than his buddies. He started spinning in midair. One of Kevin’s co-divers feared Kevin was losing control and was about to rush toward his friend to stabilize him. But then he realized: No, he was perfectly stable, just Kevin being Kevin, a skydiving pro doing a few 360-degree turns for fun before he pulled his chute.

A cameraman snapped another picture of Kevin. It was opposite of the one Laura had taken in the bathroom: A face filled with rapture and bliss, all his pain and struggle forgotten for a moment, the happiest man ever. Kevin had jumped from an airplane thousands of times as a certified skydiving instructor. Never had it been quite like this.

Kevin pulled the chute with his good arm. Now came the hard part: Could he steer the canopy to a safe landing? Kevin reached up and grabbed one of the two handles, known as steering toggles, on either side of the parachute. The chute began to dive to the opposite side, rapidly auguring toward earth as Kevin struggled to buckle the two steering toggles together with a carabiner. I don’t want to fail, Kevin thought as he connected the second toggle to the first to create one makeshift steering handle. I want to live. Weird—I haven’t felt like living for months.

The canopy above him squared up, in good form for landing. With the steering toggles clipped together, the chute steered opposite of what he’d been used to. Kevin quickly adjusted, pushing the carabiner from side to side, as if steering a boat with a tiller. The buildings below him were getting bigger. Would he land far out in the field, like a beginner, as he and his friends had planned? No: Do things others say you cannot do. Kevin eyed a 50-foot square of grass between the hangar and an idling airplane. The ground came fast. Ten feet from landing, with a gathered crowd of friends holding their collective breath, Kevin pushed down hard on the carabiner, flared the parachute, and reached his toes down to the ground.

Kevin Burkhart laughing with a friend after landing from a skydive.
Finding joy post accident

“The sonofabitch stood up his landing,” Gleisner, one of his co-divers, laughs, recalling the moment.

Kevin was back. So, naturally, he did what Old Kevin would have done: He got back into the airplane for another jump.

Last year i got into spearfishing,” Kevin says excitedly, pointing out a handful of spearfishing guns, which he uses while scuba diving, stored in the back of his garage. “I got three fish on my first four shots!” While Kevin may not be able to do everything he used to before the accident, he’s diverting his abundant energy into new areas. 

Spending time with Kevin feels like an hours-long rollercoaster ride. Always inquisitive and perpetually distracted, Kevin jumps from one topic to the next without transition, poking fun at his short attention span by periodically channeling the hyperactive dog from the movie Up, and yelping, “Squirrel!”

It is a chilly morning earlier this spring and Kevin’s on his way to a nursing home in La Crosse, Wisc., to pursue one of his other passions: combatting Parkinson’s disease. Kevin’s dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s nearly two decades ago, and since then, Kevin has been a fervent advocate in the fight against the disease. In 2008, Kevin raised $48,000 to fight Parkinson’s by doing 100 skydives in one day. In 2010 he upped the ante, jumping 150 times in one day and raising $78,000. He was planning 300 jumps in one day in 2012 when he had his snowmobile accident.

Kevin Burkhart at a Parkinsons fundraising event.
Raising money for Parkinson’s in honor of his dad

At the La Crosse nursing home, Kevin visits a Parkinson’s patient he’s become friends with over the years and gives an inspirational speech to its residents about overcoming obstacles—about doing things people say you cannot do, like becoming the world’s most famous one-armed skydiver. 

Life is different now. Not better—certainly not. Kevin would never call his injury a blessing. He would never wish the constant pain on anyone. If he could turn life back to the moment his snowmobile was climbing up that hill and change its course, he would do so in a heartbeat. But the accident happened; the only thing he can control is his response to it. And from the moment he jumped out of that plane on that gorgeous August morning, he realized he could still do a lot of those things that made him feel most alive. He’d just have to do them a little bit differently.

Kevin’s mother bought him an adaptive paddle so he could canoe in the Boundary Waters. He’s rigged a special system that enables him to scuba dive with one arm. He’s learned how to waterski again, too. He can dress himself now, although Laura has to button his sleeves. One of Kevin’s new pursuits is fulfilling his political ambitions. Last year, he won a seat on Prior Lake’s City Council and is hoping to leverage that role to pilot a lifejacket-sharing program for children at a local public beach. 

Fourteen months after his accident, Kevin tried another Parkinson’s fundraiser, this time jumping with only one good arm. He completed 151 jumps, one more than his single-day record, even after twice needing to be pumped full of IV fluids and anti-nausea medication as well as pulling a calf muscle. He raised $130,000.

These days, Kevin’s interest in making money for himself has waned. Three years after his accident, Kevin sold his company and retired at age 44. Instead of working 18-hour days, he now spends several months a year at his home in Florida. He says that while the injury took away far more than it gave him, it did bless him with one valuable thing: perspective.

“There’s been some slowing down, and in a good way,” Laura says. “He still is out there, still a go-getter, but the pace of life has slowed down. He enjoys a lot of the moments he has with family and friends now. Before it was like business and making money and being successful. Now it’s about giving back and doing things with people or for people. He’s just a deeper, more connected person.” 

As much as we mythologize tragedy—“what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”—reality is messier. It’s more like this: You have a life of setbacks and achievements, of pain and of triumph, of wishing you were dead and of being eternally thankful you are alive. That’s where Kevin is. There is no Disney ending to his story, but it’s no Shakespearean tragedy either. 

There are certainly days when the pain is so great that Kevin wishes, as he tells the group of nursing home residents, “I left it all on the trail up there.” There are days when he feels that he, like his suffering father, would only gain peace by not feeling the pain any more. Thoughts of euthanasia surface when the pain is at its worst, but they’re nothing like before the one-armed jump. Because Kevin still wants more in this life. He wants happiness, though he knows happiness can be a fitful concept in his new normal. He wants to get back as much of his adventure-seeking life as he possibly can and share those thrills with others; this summer he’s starting an adaptive water-skiing clinic for people with disabilities. There are still dark days. But the dark days are fewer than they had been, and they are further between. And today is not one of those days.

“I guess I could regret it, looking back,” Kevin says as he walks to his friend’s room in the nursing home. “But the objective in life isn’t to end with everything intact. You want to get to the finish line with everything a damn mess. I know I’m going to be a disaster when I’m in a nursing home—if I even get there.”