Saturday, June 13, 2009

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine | So just what does an 85-year-old former president who’s about to jump out of a plane at more than 10,000 feet eat for breakfast?

“You’ll find it out there in the ocean,” former President George W. Bush joked after his father parachuted to a picture-perfect landing on a tiny strip of land along the rocky Maine coastline.

Making his seventh jump from a plane, his sixth on purpose - he ejected from his Avenger torpedo bomber after being shot down while bombing Japanese installations on Chichi Jima when he was just 20 years old - former President George H.W. Bush celebrated his birthday Friday in daredevil style.

Strapped to an Army Golden Knights parachutist, the elder Bush floated for seven minutes above the Bay of Maine before landing just to the side of St. Ann’s Episcopal Chapel, where he married former first lady Barbara Bush 54 years ago.

“She teased me. She said, ‘Look, it’s a good thing you’re doing it at church, because we won’t have far to move you,” a clearly exhilarated Mr. Bush said of his wife, who looked relieved that the man 23 grandchildren call “gampy” was back on solid ground.

Mr. Bush, who has had two hip replacements and major surgery on his back, said there were two reasons he decided to jump out of a plane on his 85th birthday: “I can’t play golf anymore,” he said with a laugh. But more importantly, “it sends a message all around the globe that just because you’re an old guy, you don’t have to sit around drooling in the corner.”

“Get out and do something; get out and enjoy life,” he said.

The jump was touch and go from the start. The Maine morning broke gray and rainy, and winds whipped the shoreline. “It’s messy,” Mr. Bush said before the jump.

A gaggle of TV cameras and reporters gathered on a small point alongside the Kennebunk River as low clouds raced across the sky. An hour before the scheduled jump, Army Maj. James Bean said, “The wind has changed 180 degrees,” forcing the team of jump experts to redraw its plans.

Meanwhile, the former president, who made skydives on his 75th and 80th birthdays, underwent a 45-minute refresher course on tandem jumping. Strapped to Sgt. 1st Class Michael Elliott, Mr. Bush would still need to use his body weight to help turn the pair on the seven-minute descent, and position his legs just right on the landing.

The Golden Knights had a Herculean task hitting their mark: Fly too far, and the parachutists would smash into the 118-year-old stone chapel; miss short by just 100 feet, and they’d crash into the jagged rocks along the point. Toss in some crosswinds and a tiny target - a small grassy strip, maybe 100 feet by 50 feet, that must have looked tiny from 13,000 feet - and the jump was no piece of birthday cake.

At 1 p.m., the jump plane circled overhead, passing the point low in the sky before heading to jump altitude, where it made several more passes. “They’re having a hard time finding a hole in the clouds,” Maj. Bean said.

But then the “Bush Blessing” occurred: “God opened up blue skies. and we gave him a great birthday present,” said Sgt. Elliott.

Indeed, a big hole opened up in the clouds just minutes before the scheduled jump time, which was moved up by a few minutes. The wind dropped to a gentle breeze as a throng of Bush family members - three of Mr. Bush’s siblings, all five of his children, 19 grandchildren and dozens of cousins and friends - stripped off jackets on the suddenly sunny day.

A test jumper bailed out of the jump plane and spiraled to the ground, making hard turns along the shores and across the bay, hitting the “X” in the middle of the grassy strip dead center. On a second pass, another batch of skydivers leaped, floating softly to the ground. As the sky turned bright blue, the former president known as “41” (his son is “43”) dove out from 10,500 feet.

He and Sgt. Elliott plummeted at 125 miles per hour for a few seconds, a small white drag chute slowing their speed. At about 5,000 feet, Sgt. Elliott deployed the main chute and zig-zagged across the sky. “The president wants to take his time,” Maj. Bean said. “The more you turn, the more fun you have.”

Sgt. Elliott made one last turn and Mr. Bush stuck his legs out straight as the pair flew across the point and stuck the landing to cheers from family members, who seconds later broke out in a chant of “Gam-pee! Gam-pee!” Mr. Bush wobbled momentarily on unsteady legs, but was beaming a broad smile as Mrs. Bush gave him a big hug.

Walking to a bunch of microphones before a bank of TV cameras, he was still smiling. “Well, we made it! Great day in the air,” he said, calling the flight down “exhilarating - and that’s not easy at 85. … But I don’t feel a day over 84.”

His namesake and fellow former president summed up the jump in one word: “awesome.”

“I think it’s awesome an 85-year-old guy’s jumpin’ outta’ airplanes on his birthday,” 43 said. But asked if he’d be making a jump soon, Mr. Bush the younger deadpanned, “Uh, no.”

Out in the bay, a batch of people on a dozen boats struck up an impromptu rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

Just before heading off to greet his family, who planned a big birthday party, the former president sought to reassure Mrs. Bush. He vowed that this was absolutely, positively his last jump - “until I’m 90.”

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