How Skydiving Changed My Life

Terrence McGrath

I became interested in skydiving my senior year in high school after watching a night demo jump into the school’s stadium. I approached the jumper and asked how I could participate. Since the internet was just a fairy tale, most drop zone recommendations occurred by word of mouth. He suggested I explore the program offered in Calistoga, California.

My first jumps were static lines at the Calistoga Airport, where all the people were friendly. The training included parachute landing falls and canopy control (of a 28-foot round military-surplus ’chute). Square canopies, GoPros, automatic activation devices and wind tunnels were very far in the future.

During my two years at junior college, I kept involved in the sport by jumping at Santa Nella (and just about every other location in California) with old military equipment. The biggest technology advancement at the time was the Stevens Cut-Away System, which was the external connection from your right riser to your exterior (belly wart) front-mounted reserve handle. Military canopies had a fast descent rate and a slow forward speed, backed up in 10-mph winds and provided unforgiving hard landings. To help with the hard landings, you could buy French Para-Boots with air-cushion soles. I spent more for them than I did my first canopy.

During my second year at junior college, I won the biggest, most import contest of my life: the U.S. draft lottery. A high draft number allowed me to conclude ROTC and attend Chico State (home of the Chico Sport Parachute Club). At Chico, the jumpers were mostly students using military gear donated by Perry Stevens at the Antioch DZ. We jumped at different locations with temporary permits.

The most interesting location was in Vina, California, where we used the Vina Mat, a deserted World War II emergency strip that had offered military pilots in training a landing option in emergencies. A local resident who was an ex-World War II fighter pilot still maintained his flying certificate and gave us access to a Cessna 182 and a Cherokee Six. We coordinated jumps with Red Bluff Flight Service a day in advance, and they would give a NOTAM (notice to airmen) as we approached jump run 5-minutes prior to exiting.

During my two years at Chico, I spent the weekends on the drop zone. Each summer, I made a two-week drop zone tour around the state with another Chico student, Jeff Steele (who had his ash dive this last September). During this period, I earned a Jumpmaster [now called Instructor] rating and a D license and became Star Crest Soloist #523 (for docking last on an 8-way or larger). I also experienced two adrenaline moments: a canopy collision and a close call with a Beechcraft Bonanza in freefall. (Seems the 5-minute NOTAM was no guarantee of compliance.)

Over the years, I have been a really inconsistent jumper, stopping and starting three or four times due to moving, raising a family or time-crushing issues like business trips. For many years, I served on the board of the California Parachute Club (one of the oldest clubs in the U.S.), which kept me involved with the sport even though I was not current. I don’t have the number of jumps that many old-timers or very active jumpers do, but I got the variety I needed. I’ve made a few hot-air balloon jumps, a jump with oxygen and a few helicopter jumps. I went to the World Freefall Convention in Quincy, Illinois, a few times, which allowed me to join the D. B. Cooper Club by making a jump from a 727.

Last year was a big year for me; I retired from my career and also received my USPA 50-Year Membership Certificate (#1125). Looking back on 50 years, I would say the strongest impact on the sport has been tandem jumping, square canopies and AADs. For me, two events stand out. First was flying an American flag into a San Francisco Bay Area racetrack in front of a grandstand full of Vietnam Veterans. The second was being able to jump with my two sons. One son I call Goose, the other I call Maverick, and I am Viper, since I fly above, keeping my eye on them.

As my boys grew up, they often heard me say “blue skies,” aviation slang comparable to “happy trails” or “smooth sailing.” So how fitting that last year we all went out and got blue-skies tattoos. I am proud of USPA, proud of my D license and proud to be Viper.

Terrence McGrath | D-3581
Pleasanton, California

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