I rolled out of bed on the later side this past Sunday morning, grabbed some coffee and checked my e-mail. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. A couple work things, messages from friends, something from my mom. I took a leisurely look at the newspaper, checked out ESPN, absorbed the latest outrages on Twitter. Went back, looked at my e-mail again. On second blush, Mom’s e-mail did seem a little strange: “Dad’s flight is taking off now. Hopefully he’ll be down in about ten minutes.” My brother Michael, who was copied in, responded “Oh no…”. That’s when a half remembered pre-Christmas discussion came back to me. Did I think, my mother had asked me, that it would be a good idea to give my recently turned 74-year-old father a tandem skydive for a present? It occurred to me that whatever reservations I had expressed in response had apparently been overridden, and now Dad was about to jump out of a small-engine plane somewhere outside Daytona, Florida. Well, no one ever claimed “Bracy” was Gaelic for “good sense.” Anyway, given my fear of heights and love of not dying, I couldn’t help but wonder what had been going through the head of my father when all of this went down. To those ends, here is my interview with Terry Bracy, the man who seven decades into his lifewalk started volitionally throwing himself out of aircraft.
Exactly whose idea was all of this? Questionable judgment runs in the family, so there are a number of plausible suspects.
I’ve been harboring an interest in doing a jump since you were a kid. I’ve always had a piece of me that can be kindly described as adventurous. Your mother, who is entirely sane, said, “What the heck, he’s turning 74, why not give him a go?” So when I opened her present on my birthday, I was a bit confused, but ultimately surprised and thrilled to see a certificate for one tandem jump at Skydive Deland in Florida. My close friend Bob Mooney joked that if this doesn’t work, she’ll get me a motorcycle.
Like many people in their seventies who have lived highly active lives, you’ve had your share of physical maladies in recent years, including back trouble and a painful knee replacement earlier this year. Did this give you pause before throwing yourself from an airplane?
Not much. Before jumping, I did ask my orthopedic surgeon who is a golf buddy, and he said he knew I would do it no matter what he advised. Knowing me as he does, he did put in an extra-strength knee replacement during my surgery.
How much training and preparation were you given before your jump? Did you feel fully prepared? Can one really feel fully prepared?
You go in the door, and the first thing they have you do is watch a half-hour video of a guy with a white beard who immediately made me think of St. Peter at the gate. He goes on seemingly forever talking about the dangers involved that if something should go wrong, anything, the company is not responsible. If the plane runs out of gas, if the parachute doesn’t open, if your pilot turns out to be a terrorist — no matter, the company is NOT responsible! You then sign a document to that effect. Anyone who is tiptoeing nervously into this experience probably doesn’t make it by St. Peter. I signed. Then after about 40 minutes wait, I was sent to the dressing room where I met my tandem partner, a wonderful guy named Manny Nico who dressed me in the flight suit and jumping equipment, and briefed me on every part of the exercise in detail. Manny is a real pro, and whatever concerns I had disappeared. I couldn’t wait to get up in the air. And I hate commercial flying.
What were your emotions like as you made your ascent and prepared to do the one thing that makes the least amount of sense to do on an airplane? Did you have to struggle to maintain your composure?
My main emotion was excitement. The “adventurous Terry” was out of his cage and I couldn’t wait to freefall. My only nervous moment was when the two engine Otter took off with the jump door open.
I’ve held a dim view of commuter pilots since my days working at the U.S. Transportation Department, where I read multiple confidential studies on the infamous phrase, “pilot error.” Our plane was packed with jumpers, maybe twelve, and Manny slid me to the back of the bench where everyone sat because we were off last. There were a lot of hugs and fist pumps. I liked the young guys a lot and they asked me why I waited so long. At 5,000 feet, the first group bailed out, at 10,000 the second. As the groups left, Manny edged me from the end of the bench to the front and then onto the floor of the plane, and finally to a position where I sat in the jump door. Manny and I tightened our gear, and then when the plane hit 13,500 feet, I bailed out with Manny on my back. And wow!
Can you describe the sensation of falling — the sights and sounds? Did you feel exhilarated? Scared? What about when you reached the ground?
The first sensation was a cold face in a fierce wind. In seconds, I settled in and was swept up by a feeling of freedom. I thought of Superman and played the role. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life and unlike anything I had ever done. We free fell to 5,000 feet when Manny opened the parachute, which was almost like hitting a wall. You are falling at 110 mph and then wham, you’re stopped and vaulted perhaps 1,000 feet upwards. That was the biggest surprise to me. Once in control of the parachute, Manny taught me how to use the yellow straps on either side to fly the chute like a plane. What fun. As we came in for a landing, Manny told me to pick up my legs as far as possible so I wouldn’t land on the new knee. We touched down like a feather, my partner on his legs and me on my butt.
The jump left me with not so much as a muscle pull. I hit golf balls on a range that afternoon.
The following day I did notice I was tired. Maybe that had to do with the adrenaline used in the excitement of one of the most fun 15 minutes of my life. Would I recommend it to others? Yes, with these conditions: One, you have to really want to do it and not be pushed by someone challenging you. Two, you must be fit and have good heart and blood pressure health. Three, you have to have an “adventurous” person inside you, dying to be let out.
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