KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — Former President George H.W. Bush marked his 85th birthday on Friday the same way he did his 75th and 80th birthdays: He leaped from a plane and zoomed downward at more than 100 mph in free-fall before parachuting safely to a spot near his oceanfront home.
Bush made the tandem jump from 10,500 feet with Sgt. 1st Class Mike Elliott of the Army’s Golden Knights, who guided them to a gentle landing on the lawn of St. Ann’s Church.
“It’s a great, exhilarating feeling,” he said after he was removed from his harness. “I don’t feel a day over 84.”
He said he enjoyed the jump so much that he planned to do it again when he turns 90.
When he was president, Bush was an avid jogger, speed golfer, fisherman and tennis player. He said he has slowed down since then, but he doesn’t intend to stop moving.
He told reporters that he jumped Friday for two reasons: to experience the exhilaration of free-falling and to show that seniors can remain active and do fun things.
“Just because you’re an old guy, you don’t have to sit around drooling in the corner,” Bush said. “Get out and do something. Get out and enjoy life.”
All five of Bush’s children, including former President George W. Bush, were there, along with 14 grandchildren, two brothers and a sister.
Elliott said he was “definitely nervous” because of Bush’s age and the presence of his entire family.
“What we do is inherently dangerous, so there’s always some risk, but we pride ourselves on safety and make sure everything goes as planned. And today it went without a hitch,” he said.
Bush’s first parachute jump came when his plane was shot down over the Pacific in 1944 during World War II. He bailed out at 1,500 feet after a bombing mission over ChiChi Jima. His two crew mates didn’t make it.
In 1997, Bush fulfilled a wartime promise he made to himself that someday he would jump from a plane for fun by hopping out over Yuma, Ariz., and he jumped again on his 75th birthday at his library in Texas.
His days of solo parachuting ended at age 80 when bad weather forced him to scrap his plan to go alone. He made not one but two tandem jumps in Texas.
The skydiving jump marked Bush’s seventh parachute leap from an airplane. His last jump was in November 2007, also with Elliott, at the reopening of his presidential library at Texas A&M University. He made that jump unannounced after hip replacement surgery.
Joining Bush on Friday was anchor Robin Meade from HLN, the cable network formerly known as Headline News. Meade also made a tandem jump with the Golden Knights.
Nancy Brindle, who works at Patten’s farm stand in Kennebunkport, said she was surprised at the number of local residents who were concerned about Bush’s safety but she wasn’t worried.
“It’s so much fun to live in Kennebunkport and be part of the excitement,” she said. “It’s a pleasure to be part of it all. It far outweighs any inconveniences.”
Former first lady Barbara Bush doesn’t object to her octogenarian husband’s fascination with skydiving.
“She is fine with it, particularly now that he does tandem jumps. She has so much trust and faith in the Golden Knights that she’s fine with it,” said Jean Becker, Bush’s chief of staff.
Dr. Tom Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Study, applauded Bush for serving as an example to others — especially seniors — to stay active.
“For Mr. Bush to have this attitude of, you know, carpe diem, really is spot-on. Clearly age is not stopping him from doing something that he thinks is really fun, and thrilling,” said Perls, a professor at Boston University. “Age, the number, should never stop somebody.”