- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2004

HOUSTON — Just hours after he faced down the gravity of his own 80th birthday, former President George Bush yesterday kept his date with a different kind of gravity.

At 1:20 p.m., the octogenarian, harnessed to an Army paratrooper, bellowed “Let’s go!” as the pair leaped from an F-27 plane circling 13,500 feet above his presidential library and museum at Texas A&M; University. His partner deployed a drogue chute to slow them from 180 mph to 120 mph, and they free-fell for several minutes before deploying the main chute at 5,500 feet.

“This was a day of joy and a day of wonder for the Bush family — and certainly for the old guy,” Mr. Bush said after the jump.

The former president said his feat was intended to send a message to like-aged men and women: “Don’t just sit around watching TV, talking to it. Just because you’re 80 doesn’t mean you’re out of it.”

The skydive was part of a two-day celebration to honor the 41st president, who was born June 12, 1924.

About noon, Army skydivers overseeing the jump decided that turbulent wind conditions and plentiful puffy clouds meant Mr. Bush — still deemed a “student jumper” — would have to make a “tandem jump.” He was tethered to the front of Staff Sgt. Bryan Schnell, who has made more than 4,000 jumps.

Sgt. Schnell said Mr. Bush bellowed “Let’s go!” and the pair jumped out of the plane.

“We had a great time,” the sergeant said, adding that his partner, a former Navy flier, performed flawlessly on the drop, arching his back and keeping his balance.

Mr. Bush was scheduled to jump just once yesterday, but added an early morning leap after he learned the Golden Knights, the U.S. Army Parachute Team that accompanied him on both plummets, would award him a pin after his fifth jump. Once on the ground, he got that pin, which had a bronze star on it, signifying that the recipient had once made a jump in combat.

On Sept. 2, 1944, Mr. Bush’s Avenger torpedo bomber was hit by Japanese antiaircraft fire over the South Pacific. The 20-year-old Navy pilot bailed out off the coast of Chi Chi Jima — the only one of his three-member crew to survive enemy fire from the island.

After he was rescued by a submarine, Mr. Bush — who had become the youngest pilot in the Navy when he enlisted on his 18th birthday — was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

He vowed to jump again one day under less severe circumstances, but didn’t do so until 1997. Mr. Bush took another jump in 1999 on his 75th birthday, at which time Barbara Bush told her husband he could make one last jump on his 80th.

Asked yesterday whether he planned another for his 85th birthday, he said: “Well, I have to be here anyway, so …”

But earlier in the week, his wife of 59 years said flatly: “This will be his last jump one way or the other.”

A barbecue with 3,000 guests followed the jump, but it was a far less formal affair than Saturday’s bash at Houston’s baseball stadium, which included most of the Bush clan and a slew of celebrities.

Wynonna Judd, Crystal Gayle, Randi Travis and Tommy Tune performed some of their hits to the accompaniment of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, as did Christian singer Michael W. Smith.

Former Vice President Dan Quayle lauded the president, as did a slew of athletes, including Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, tennis greats Chris Evert, a longtime Bush family friend, and Pete Sampras. Golfer Greg Norman joked that jumping out a plane takes “cajones.”

The night’s honoree spoke at the very end, saying, “This has been an emotional day.”

The event wrapped up with a surprise skydive by seven members of the Golden Knights, who parachuted in and landed to cheers from the crowd. The 5,000 guests then sang “Happy Birthday” as the sky lit up with fireworks.

The party was part of a year-long fund-raising effort, which was expected to raise $30 million to support the former president’s library, a cancer center and his Points of Light Foundation, but actually pulled in more than $55 million.

In an event Saturday at an inner-city recreation center, Mr. Bush had a kind word for the press — some of it. He called The Washington Times “a wonderful newspaper” that is “offsetting some of the other papers.”

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