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George Bush Skydives  

Dan Pointer was the first to tell me. George Bush wanted to skydive and I was being considered to fly camera for the USPA team of civilians working in partnership with the Golden Knights. Woah. I hung up the phone and took a breath. Nah, it’s not really going to happen. George Bush must have said something about wanting to try it someday like so many people do, only being the former president, the comment shook people up at USPA. He wouldn’t do it. Besides, I didn’t vote for him. Did they know that about me? Would it turn up in some background check, my tendency to support liberal causes? Anyway, no big deal. It was no more than a rumor.

Confirmation came a day later that the jump was on. Dan instructed me to keep a lid on the project because Mr. Bush didn’t want excessive media coverage or security issues. I told my wife about the call. I said I’d have to kill her if I told her anything, but she threatened to kill me if I didn’t. The hard part was keeping it from my skydiving friends. Tom Sanders and I were to film the jump together in Yuma AZ. That meant trading diplomacy for the baggage of substantial differences we’ve carried on each other over the years. But the money was good ($0), well anyway it was the former chief of state and that’s resume material! Not to mention the honor to being invited by the folks at USPA. Kasey Kassens was the camera flyer for the Golden Knights.

There was a buzz at the military base in Yuma. Our group from USPA was there in force, as were the Golden Knights, PIA, and representatives from the manufacturers providing the equipment for his jump. Things needed to go right. I’ve since read letters from jumpers complaining that he should have been treated as any other student, nothing special. Few students, though, decide to jump after delivering an opening talk at the Parachute Industry Association, few have bailed from a wrecked plane, and fewer still were former presidents and heads of the CIA. The event would get worldwide attention. Any glitch would have raised a million eyebrows.

I’m prepping gear in a hangar when in walks an entourage lead by two men who quickly check the bathroom next to me and pop out a couple seconds later. Walking briskly toward me was none other than the Man, on his way in. I had to shake his hand. I wanted to say something Forest Gump like "I gotta pee.", but the moment caught me off guard and I just blubbed out "Hi". And so it was, a moment I’d remember for life, a moment he’d forget in the bathroom.

Skydive AZ provided the Skyvan that took us to altitude. George Bush geared up and headed for the plane slowing down only to give Barbara a kiss. I was impressed by their regard for each other. He seemed confident. The ride to altitude was nice. The door was left open for take off which Mr. Bush seemed to like. I had a couple chances to shake his hand and wish him a good jump before prepping my gear, 35mm motion picture film with video assist and stills. He was getting the loaded helmet package.

I took rear float on exit. The door was jammed with the jumpmasters, Tom, me, Kasey Kassens, Chris Needles, BJ Worth and our student. I could hear no countdown but saw his solid up down go and we were gone, George Bush, tall guy that he is, bumping his head on exit. His body position was stiff initially. Perhaps the bump shook him a bit, but he got things under control pretty quickly. I swung around front view to see him smiling. And he performed a very nice level 1 AFF jump practicing rip cord pulls, smiling for the slew of cameras staring back at him, and communicating nicely with his jumpmasters. He was exceptionally air aware, most likely because of his experience as a combat pilot. And he pulled his ripcord for a nice snappy opening.

Setting up to land, I noticed my downwind approach speed was super fast. Turning into the wind, I had very little forward speed under a stiletto. Just after we’d exited, winds turned 180 degrees and were suddenly smoking at 20 mph plus. The jumpmaster in contact with George Bush was already on his game. Winds were way over acceptable limits, but there was a student under a large canopy up there that needed landing. He gave instructions to keep the canopy headed into the wind with an occasional order to crab left or right a bit. On landing, the jumpmasters and ground crew raced in to catch the president and collapse his struggling canopy. And he was down.

After landing, Mr. Bush did a few interviews and headed back to the base to view Kasey’s, Tom’s and my video assist. He and Barbara were excited to relive the moment, and Mr. Bush said himself that all first time students must buy video from that day forward. Not true, but they did enjoy seeing the jump and we played our videos again and again for them. It was nice to chat informally with the president and his wife while they unwound from their day in the desert. They were very pleasant people.

The project was done. George Bush goes into the history books as the one president of the US who made a skydive. The rest of us have stories to tell. He gave our sport a try, years after using a parachute strictly for survival, and had a great time.

George Bush Parachutist May, 1997


February 10, 1997: Former president of the United States George Herbert Walker Bush stepped on to the raised platform in front of 800 skydivers at the Parachute Industry Association’s biennial International Symposium in Houston, Texas, and strapped on a 1943-vintage Switlik parachute. It was the same type and even came from the same batch that then-Navy Lieutenant Bush had used during World War II to bail out of his disabled torpedo bomber off the coast of Japanese-occupied Chi Chi Jima.

While the moving story he told captured the emotions of his audience, it also rekindled his long standing but heretofore unknown desire to do it again --at least the bailing out part.

As President Bush tells the story, his 1944 jump was not exactly a textbook combat aircraft emergency departure. He climbed out onto the wing and pulled his ripcord, leaving out the intermediate step of jumping, or at least falling free from the airplane first. The consequences were a ripped canopy and a nasty bump on his head from the horizontal stabilizer. His story told, the nearly endless and certainly emotional ovation from the crowd seemed to seal his fate. He would jump again.

Well before 7:00 a.m. the next morning, George Bush was already up. It had been a night of reliving old memories that drove him to the decision that for him was inevitable: He would jump again -- and soon.

Not wanting to lose the moment and knowing that those who could help him make that jump would soon be busy (the PIA seminars began at 8:00 a.m.), he called USPA Executive Director Chris Needels. Needels, the symposium co-host for USPA, had been a member of President Bush’s National Security Council staff.

Like the other conventioneers at the symposium, Needels was up late with fellow jumpers, telling jump stories over a few drinks. So the last thing he expected was a sunrise phone call with a voice on the other end saying, "Please hold for President Bush."

He leaped out of bed, knocking over the phone and lamp, stood at attention and replied, "Certainly." He heard his former boss and commander-in-chief say, "Chris, I’ve decided to make a jump. Can you come by my office today so we can talk about it?"

That afternoon at 2:00, Needels, along with Golden Knights commander Colonel Danny Greene, USPA Director of Safety and Training Glenn Bangs, and USPA President B.J. Worth, met with George Bush and began the planning.

J-43 President Bush, a military veteran and for four entire Armed Forces, wanted an environment where he would feel comfortable and where he could fulfill a self -made promise of more than 50 years. The obvious solution would be a Golden Knights operation at a military installation using military aircraft. Well, few things in life are as simple in execution as they are in concept. Under normal circumstances, making a first skydive is fairly straightforward -- but these clearly weren’t normal circumstances.

First of all, President Bush didn’t want to make a tandem jump. He wanted to freefall on his own and pull his own ripcord, something he didn’t get quite right years before. He wanted accelerated freefall.

Then there was this thing about age. At 72, was he too brittle or too out of shape? And at the symposium, he was still sporting a lower leg cast from a running injury. But here’s a person who walks around the golf course so fast that most golfers are on the 10th tee when he’s headed for the clubhouse. He’s trim and in shape. Further good news, he was about to get his annual medical exam.

Just to be sure that age wasn’t a critical factor, the USPA staff searched its data base. Of nearly 33,000 members, 2,446 were over 60, almost all actively jumping. The check of those over 70 turned up 51 still in the air. Whats more, the data revealed that one 82-year old skydiver had made 100 jumps in 1996! So age didn’t seem to be a problem for someone in reasonably good physical condition and using the proper equipment.

However, making a jump with the Golden Knights was not as easy as it might seem, even for a former president. The Army Parachute Team doesn’t normally teach people to jump. Furthermore, if military aircraft were used or the military trained a civilian, un programmed military dollars would be spent for non-mission related tasks. Using the Golden Knights, an army recruiting tool, could arguably provide an opportunity to bring a very upbeat and patriotic vision of soldering. However, President Bush insisted on no government expense.

J-40 Within three days, reality displaced hype. But, despite the logistical and political complexities of the challenge, a viable plan began to evolve. It became clear that the civilian side of the sport would have to take the lead. Not that the military didn’t want to, but a not-for-profit association that designs training programs and certifies instructors, with the help of an enthusiastic equipment industry, could do it more simply. That meant USPA and PIA.

Step one was to organize the challenges: a former president of the United States making an AFF jump, a civilian airplane on a military installation, the course taught by USPA certified-AFF instructors, and involving some Golden Knights. USPA formed a tight inner circle of planners from the Department of Defense, the Golden Knights, the Secret Service, the Parachute Industry Association and the Office of George Bush. To make the challenge a little tougher, President Bush asked that the event be kept quiet. For him, this was really about a combat veteran coming to closure with a traumatic event of World War II, not about a politician running for office. Respecting the early ground rules was fine with the planners. There was more than enough to do without responding to press inquiries, and USPA has limited in-house PR resources. With a little forethought, there would be ample opportunity later to exploit the event for the promotional purposes of the skydiving industry.

Then halfway through the planning cycle, President Bush added a new wrinkle: He promised exclusive after-event media coverage to Jim Nantz of CBS sports, who would conduct the interview for producer Lucy Scott’s "CBS Morning News." While this posed no real problem to USPA, it did for the Army. The military base at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, the site of the jump, is open to the public. Turning journalists away from such an event could be an unforgivable snub. This particular sticking point remained sticky. until J-1, when a last-minute livable agreement was reached.

Meanwhile, back at USPA Headquarters in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, Needels and his chief of training, Glenn Bangs, began working out the details of the operation. First, it needed a name. They first though of "Operation Barbie II," named after President Bush’s first plane for his future bride Barbara; but the Office of George Bush tactfully suggested that deference to a very nervous Barbara Bush, they chose another name. It was also learned that the plane from which Lieutenant Bush jumped was already "Barbie III," since he had wrecked two others in training. So it became "Operation Second Look."

J-21 Just three weeks out, it all seemed to come together. Bangs had lined up Sergeant First Class Andy Serrano of the Golden Knights as left-side jumpmaster, while he took the right. Larry Pennington of Skydive Soffolk in Virginia would be the ground and canopy control instructor. Sandy Reid of Rigging Innovations in California would assist in the ground training and equipment preparation, as would Needels between coordination duties.

Equipment, too, was beginning to fall into place. Sherry Schrimsher, PIA’s new executive administrator, began to designate which manufacturer would supply what item for President Bush to use or wear. The problem wasn’t how to get it, but how to tell so many anxious industry members that someone else’s gear had made the cut. The final decision came from the instructors. With safety the number-one concern, they chose the gear they knew best.

It was no problem finding a jump plane. First, Larry Hill, owner of Skydive Arizona, then, Melanie Conatser of Perris Valley Skydiving in California offered aircraft. Both were less than an hour’s flying time from Yuma Proving Ground, but Hill offered first, and his skyvan was a couple of miles closer.

J-7 Now only a week out, USPA moved its coordination center from Alexandria to Yuma, a base well-preferred for the many and often unique requirements of a complex undertaking. This wasn’t just another day for the Golden Knights training camp or for the Yuma facility year ‘round. This was about training a 72-year-old, very popular former president and commander-in-chief to skydive from 12,500 feet above the desert floor. By this time, all the planners had that I-don’t-know-whether-to-throw-up-or-pray feeling Navy Lieutenant Bush encountered 53 years ago. For 45 seconds, the Secret Service, which dutifully and devotedly protects the president of the United States, would be irrelevant. For 45 seconds, his life would be in the hands of his skydiving instructors.

J-5 With only five days remaining, equipment testing began in earnest. Sandy Reid inspected each piece as it arrived on site. The manufacturers had outdone themselves. While USPA had requested red, white and blue, many pieces also had the seal of the President affixed or engraved. And certainly every custom-made component was state-of-the-art.

Every item which could affect the outcome of the jump was then test jumped at least three times by an instructor built like George Bush. It wasn’t just an added pro forma exercise, either. The first main canopy opened too hard. The instructional and rigging staffs chose a different canopy and within a few hours had one. While not red, white, and blue, it performed superbly; and it would turn out that the rainbow color pattern was more photogenic when it appeared on page one of nearly every newspaper across the country.

One all air items had met or exceeded the very stringent requirements of safety, comfort and aesthetics, the rehearsals began. On every jump, someone acted as a surrogate president; usually, Larry Pennington. First, the training staff simulated everything going as expected, but then simulated it not. But as hard as the 220-pound stand-in tried, the instructors were ready for every contingency -- a backloop off the tailgate, a parachute container that wouldn’t open and the student failing to pull the ripcord, just to name a few.

Every practice jump included video followed by extensive critique. The team rehearsed and critiqued the classroom training too. Meanwhile, Yuma Proving Ground took care of motorcades, crowd control, media pool sites, dinner arrangements, billeting and opportunities for the locals to meet the president. nothing was left to chance.

J-1 Then it was showtime. President Bush arrived at 2:20 p.m. on a DC-9, likely the first of its kind to land on Yuma’s tactical airstrip, normally a staging site for testing new military aircraft like the C-17. After a quick lunch in his military guest quarters, he headed off to training. He was clearly fired up and ready. Needels began with USPA’s opening statement:

"Mr. President, welcome to the USPA’s accelerated freefall training course. For approximately seven hours over the next two days, you will receive the most extensively planned and exhaustively-rehearsed first-jump training course in the history of sport parachuting...."

Then the team of instructors took over. For three and a half hours, President Bush met the curriculum with zeal. He remained relaxed but enthusiastic, never hesitating to ask the tough questions, while always respecting the expertise of his five-person instructional staff. He doggedly drilled the emergency procedures until both he and his trainers were satisfied

To cap off the day, the training staff had a special high-tech treat -- a virtual reality canopy control trainer. This state-of-the-art device provided by Systems Technology, Inc., in Hawthorne, California, allowed the president to sit in a harness and steer a simulated canopy toward a simulated target on the ground. Not to lose the opportunity for a little nostalgia, the instructor replaced the ground target with a virtual aircraft carrier. With a slightly undershot approach, president Bush landed again in the drink, but this time in friendly cyberspace, not Japanese-held territory. On his second attempt, he made the deck. Then it was out of the harness and off to dinner with the alphabet of people who put the program together: USPA, USAPT, PIA, YPG, CBS AND OGB (the Office of George Bush).

J-DAY The next morning, the winds were up as early as the president, so the team wasted no time getting started. By 8:00 a.m. the president and his instructors returned to the classroom to ensure that every procedure of the day before was now ingrained in the mind and body of the student. It was, With a little more than an hour of review, it was time to go.

To ensure that the president saw everything that he would be asked to do, the student and his trainers headed to the drop zone to watch a veteran skydiver from the Army’s Military Freefall Committee skydive. It was essential that the president see firsthand how to control a canopy as it neared the ground, particularly in the increasing winds. Pennington, using a ground-to-air radio, talked the surrogate president to a tip-toe landing on target.

Next it as time to suit up and board the airplane. Donning his red, white and blue equipment, President Bush headed for the Skyvan, giving wife Barbara a kiss and a high-five en route. After he practiced a few exits on the tailgate with Bangs and Serrano, the plane taxied to position and took off.

At 10,000 feet, three Military Freefall School instructors exited the aircraft, AFF-style. Once again the instructors adhered to the commitment that the president see every jump activity first. The air craft then continued to climb to the ultimate jump altitude of 12,500 feet.

The last 2,500 feet seemed to take forever for project director Needels and the very anxious jumpmasters. Bangs and Serrano sat on each side, with Needels directly across from the president. jump run came in less than six minutes.

Oxygen stood ready for the president just in case he needed it at the higher altitudes. He was amazingly calm, and hardly needed it at all. Bangs, Needels and Serrano, on the other hand, helped themselves liberally.

Then it was red light, yellow light, green light -- "GO!" Bangs, on the president’s right, shouted, "Mr. President, are you ready to make a skydive?" President Bush responded with a very confident and affirmative, "Yes!" Needels let go of the president’s chest strap and the plane unloaded in sequence -- cameraman Joe Jennings first, then the president and his two jumpmasters, Needles, cameramen Tom Sanders and K.C. Kassens, followed by B.J. Worth and Golden Knight commander Greene.

For the next 45 seconds, it was clear that the student had learned well. He practiced his ripcord pulls, checked his altitude, smiled at the cameras, checked his altitude again and pulled his ripcord -- this time by the book. To the great relief of the parachute master riggers who put it in its container, the canopy opened perfectly. Then the president was in the hands of canopy control instructor Pennington. His job: to talk the former president of the United States to the ground, safe and back under the protection of an anxious Secret Service detail.

But Pennington had done this many times before. Despite the strong winds, he radioed the proper turning commands to edge President Bush closer to the intended landing point, a 15-foot diameter bright orange fabric "X" in front of an excited audience and anxious spouse. As the president neared the ground, his new skydiving friends waited to assist should he land harder than anticipated. They weren’t necessary. Between Pennington’s signals and the president’s canopy control, President Bush managed a one-footed stand-up just 30 yards from the target.

While everyone congregated to congratulate the first skydiving commander-in-chief, the moment belonged to Barbara and George. George Bush had come to closure with a traumatic event of more than a half a century ago, and Barbara had George back -- safe, sound and rejuvenated.



Skydiving with George Bush, Golden Knights, First US President to skydive, AFF, Military, Arizona, skydiving stunts, aerial camera equipment, aerial cameras, helmet mounted camera systems, commercials, motion pictures, Jennings Productions, Freefall Cinematography.