Betty Diem, 84, carefully took out her hearing aids. She was ready to skydive. She was at the airplane hangar, where instructors had suited her up in skydiving gear, a GoPro camera, and goggles.
Diem and her retirement community neighbour Frances Lock, 85, ascended 4,000m to fulfill a wish on their lifetime bucket lists – jumping from an airplane – at Skydive Philadelphia in Philadelphia, the United States.
The airfield glowed with summer dragonflies and timothy hay, and the puffy clouds finally cleared enough for takeoff. Diem was partnered with Matt Forgille, a tandem diver with a hipster beard. Lock was partnered with Chris Howard, a hunky Australian skydiving instructor. “He had me secured pretty much everywhere, ” Lock said.
Why would these octogenarians skydive? For the same reason they and many US seniors do lots of risky things.
“I’ve always wanted to do it,” said Diem, a retired career Air Force nurse.
“The movie Bucket List was actually great for business,” said Aaron Teel, drop zone manager at Skydive Philadelphia. As they waited almost four hours to jump, Diem and Lock couldn’t sit still. They’d had to cancel a week earlier because of bad weather. When all systems were go, Lock climbed the steps to the PAC 750 XL airplane with her cane, which she left behind for the jump.
Skydiving from an altitude of 4,000m gave Diem and Lock a full minute of free-fall time before their tandem divers opened the chutes at about 1,700m – an experience captured on video.
Three of Lock’s four adult children waited in the hazy sun, trying to spot the plane circling above.
Then, four dot-sized kites appeared in the sky – one orange, one yellow and green striped (the cameramen), and then two more. The women’s parachutes grew larger and larger, and they swooped down gently onto the grass along the runway.
How did the ladies prepare for the jump of a lifetime?
Diem and Lock are residents of Wesley Enhanced Living, a retirement community that helps arrange ways to fulfill its seniors’ bucket lists – the things they’ve always wanted to do but never got to. Some wish lists have included learning to build a violin, working as a sous chef at a restaurant, and riding hot-air balloons or roller coasters, even a Segway on the Route 202 bypass.
Along with some other seniors, the two women first attempted a zip line, and then a contraption known as the “I-Fly” – an indoor wind tunnel that simulates the rush of a skydive and the feeling of weightlessness.
“What’s to be afraid of? One of my sons and his wife went skydiving, and after that I wanted to do it,” Lock said. “Every life is a fearsome thing.”
Diem lived a life of adventure after graduating nursing school in Philadelphia. She enlisted in the Air Force and flew many missions between 1961 and 1983 as a flight nurse – in Thailand, the Philippines, France, Germany, and New Mexico, and elsewhere in the US, sometimes treating the wounded, or servicemen who had malaria, sometimes flying drug addicts in the military into treatment hospitals. She even attended jungle-survival school.
“But the pilots always told me, ‘Why would you want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane?’ So I never got to jump,” she recalled. Especially after hearing about airmen who had parachuted into Vietnam and were captured and imprisoned, Diem wanted to wait until she was safely back in the United States.
In 1983, she retired from the Air Force and worked as a corporate nurse for Intel Corp. In the 1990s, family ties brought her back east to Chalfont, Pennsylvania, before she moved into the retirement community.
At a picnic table before their jump, Lock listened to her friend in quiet amazement. “I just had children!” she said, laughing.
Born in Olney, Lock married in 1950 and worked for the Central Bucks School District, near where she and her husband raised their family.
On the grass post-skydive, the women sat panting. Would Lock skydive again? She’s not sure.
“I had a bit of an upset stomach, and I thought my shoes were falling off,” she said, safely back on the ground with the crew and sipping from a water bottle.
Diem said she can’t wait to skydive again.
“At that altitude, I couldn’t catch my breath. But I had a blast of wind in my hair, and then ... it was wonderful.” — The Philadelphia Inquirer/Tribune News Service/Erin Arvedlund