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Ex-President Bush celebrates 80th birthday

Ex-President George H.W. Bush celebrated his 80 birthday Sunday with a parachute jump from 13,000 feet over Texas.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Former President George H.W. Bush celebrated his 80th birthday with a 13,000-foot parachute jump over his presidential library Sunday, and said he felt the same thrill of prior jumps even though his hopes of skydiving solo were dashed.

He made a tandem jump — harnessed to a member of an Army’s Golden Knights parachute team — after officials decided the wind conditions and low clouds made it too dangerous for the 41st president to jump alone, which he did when he turned 75.

“This was a real thrill for me,” said Bush, wearing a black-and-gold jumpsuit. “I felt no fear ... for me to get a chance to jump with the Golden Knights is a dream.”

With Staff Sgt. Bryan Schnell on his back and a black-and-gold parachute ballooning above them, the former president waved his arms to some 4,000 spectators as he neared the drop zone — a painted logo of “41 at 80” in the center of a football-field-sized area on the grounds of his presidential library at Texas A&M University.

“It’s been a great day,” Bush said after sailing to the ground, landing and scooting a ways on his backside. “This was a day of joy and a day of wonder for the Bush family, certainly for the old guy.”

The crowd included his wife, Barbara, his son Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev — whom the former president had invited to jump with him.

“Afraid,” Gorbachev said through an interpreter, explaining why he didn’t accept the offer. “Maybe on his 90th birthday. ... For me, it would be a first. At my age, that may kill me.”

Gorbachev gave Bush flowers and a bottle of vodka.

After Bush, who turned 80 Saturday, jumped tandem early Sunday morning in a practice run, officials decided weather conditions were too risky for a solo skydive.

“We were concerned the president possibly could get lost in a cloud and we don’t want him to do that,” said Lt. Col. David Standridge, commander of the Golden Knights.

“It was a different sensation, but when you’re in the arms of an expert parachutist, there’s far less concern,” Bush said. “The feeling is the same. It was incredible.”

He said he would like to try a solo jump again, but gave no timetable other than “soon.”

The jump, Bush’s fifth, earned him parachutist’s wings that were pinned on him after he landed. The wings include a small bronze star, indicating he’d made a combat jump in a hostile area.

Bush made his first parachute jump as a 20-year-old Navy pilot shot down over the Pacific during World War II. In 1992, he bailed out over Yuma, Ariz., fulfilling a wartime promise he made to himself that some day he’d jump from a plane for fun.

Bush said Sunday he hoped his stunt sent a message to people that “at 80 years old, you’ve still got a life.”

“For me, I like speed. I like the thrill of it,” he said. But the jump also “sets an example for older people, here and abroad, that just because you’re 80 years old, it doesn’t mean you’re out of it.”

The skydive capped two days of birthday festivities for Bush.

On Saturday, a baseball park full of about 5,200 people, including his eldest son, President Bush, former British Prime Minister John Major and celebrities and sports figures such as Dennis Miller and Pete Sampras, wished Bush a happy birthday.

The weekend events were designed to raise money for the George Bush Forty-One Endowment, which supports his library foundation, the Houston-based University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Bush’s Points of Light Foundation. During a party Saturday night, it was announced that the endowment had raised more than $55 million in the last two years.