EXETER, Maine — Despite flying airplanes for most of his life, Lester Slate has never had to jump out of one. For his 90th birthday, he decided it’s time to give it a shot.
“Some say, ‘you’re nuts,’” said Slate. “I say, I may be, but that’s my privilege, I guess.”
Slate, who will jump at Pittsfield Airport through Central Maine Skydiving in mid-July, said he was trained by the military how to use a parachute, but they never let him jump.
The 40-year military veteran was a pilot for the Navy during World War II, and even witnessed the formal surrender of the Japanese while aboard the USS Hamlin, which was next to the USS Missouri, where the document was signed.
After World War II, Slate was called back into service by the Navy, but he didn’t want to learn how to fly jets, he said. He was transferred to the Coast Guard, where he encountered different challenges.
“[We did] everything from hunting moonshiners down south to hunting icebergs [up north],” he said, adding that he was on the International Ice Patrol for two years. “I reported icebergs to ships so there wouldn’t be another Titanic.”
Slate retired as a captain in the Coast Guard in 1963 and remained as an active reserve until 1982. After that, he flew single-engine planes.
He had to finally give up flying when his sight started to go. He said he’s now blind in his left eye and has cataracts in his right eye.
“My last flight was about three years ago,” said Slate, who said his grandson-in-law let Slate fly his plane. Flying is in Slate’s blood. Three of Slate’s brothers were pilots, he said.
The Chicopee, Mass., native has lived all over the place, he said. He first came to Maine in 1942, where he took flight training at Pittsfield Airport for the Navy.
“When I got orders to go to Pittsfield, I thought it was Pittsfield, Mass.,” said Slate. “Oh no, there’s a Pittsfield, Maine too, they said.”
Pittsfield left an impression on Slate, he said, as he married a woman from the town. Maxine died about two years ago.
“She wouldn’t want to me do it,” said Slate. “With all the flying I did, she didn’t really like to fly. I felt safer up there than I did on the ground.”
Slate said he drew inspiration for the jump from former president George H.W. Bush, who safely parachuted on his 85th birthday in 2009.
“If the president can do it, why can’t I?” Slate asked. “I want to do it just like he did.”
He said he wrote a letter the former president asking about his experience, but he never heard back.
“I figured he could give me some tips on skydiving,” said Slate.
Slate said he’s not nervous about his jump next month. “Not yet, anyway,” he said.