Thom Hofman 6:15 a.m., June 19
Leaning over a white rail fence, I waited for my friend to fall from the sky. The tandem dive at Skydive San Diego and Tactical Air Operations was her sixtieth birthday present from her doting husband. With over 1,500 senior members, organizations like Skydivers over Sixty demonstrate unequivocally that there is much more to life after the Big Six O than rocking chairs and walkers.
Being a longtime adventurer, my friend had beamed excitedly the entire half hour drive southeast from San Diego to the private airport dedicated to skydiving. After signing a pile of disclaimers, she was led through a short training program before being strapped into the gear that would hold her body against her instructor. She was first on the plane.
Long before her plane lofted though, scores of military personnel took to the skies. Load after load of khaki clad soloists freefell then glided with opened chutes to the drop zone in front of me. The facility, owned by a man with the funky name of Buzz Fink, is one of several in the vicinity training Soldiers, Sailors and Warriors from the Americans, as well as from Europe. This specialized training for airborne and special forces includes a wide array of applicable maneuvers including falling in condensed format, high altitude freefall with low chute opening, night jumping, and landing on a moving target all with combat equipment in tow.
What blew my socks off though were the expert camera fliers with video cameras strapped to their helmets. They were responsible for photographing those in training or the paying customers out for a joy ride. Having to hit ground in advance of those they were shooting, they virtually dove to the ground with slick, stylish, acrobatic moves, landing with surprising grace and finesse given the speeds at which they zoomed to the ground. Watching them jump from 13,000 feet, freefall until terminal velocity, turn and shoot some pictures then skillfully maneuvering their rectangular parachutes to land before the client time after time gave me great confidence that my friend would not only land intact but with a broad smile plastered on her face. Afraid of heights as I am, I was jonesin’ just watching them, inspired by their high speed swooping (flying parallel with the earth), sharp turns and ultra smooth landings just feet from the tree lined fence.
Skydive San Diego has a perfect safety record—and watching their staff all morning I am not surprised. The licensed instructors with thousands of jumps under their harnesses are extremely fit and highly qualified. But, then again, skydiving in general has a low fatality rate, about one in every 100,000 jumps. Fatalities from malfunctioning chutes (about one in a thousand chute deployments malfunction) are curbed by a requirement that divers carry backup parachutes.
When I finally saw her waving gleefully to me from hundreds of feet above, I pondered what a woman like her would do on her seventieth birthday.