Ben Morrow, age 88, certainly appears to be sane as he stands beside the runway at a small airport in Russellville, Ky. His hands clasped and resting behind his back, he occasionally smoothes his short, white hair and looks up into the summer sky. "If I thought there was any danger, I wouldn't do it," he says matter-of-factly.
Mr. Morrow, a retired treasurer for a furniture maker, is referring to the fact that, in a few moments, he will make his first parachute jump. If the logic of a man in his ninth decade stepping through the open door of a perfectly good airplane in midflight is clear to Mr. Morrow, the family members who have gathered to watch -- two children, four of his five grandchildren and both of his great-grandchildren -- have yet to be persuaded.
Give the credit -- or blame -- to George Bush. Four years ago, the former president made a much-publicized parachute jump -- his second -- at age 72. (His first came during World War II.) In the time since, older Americans seem to have fallen hard for skydiving.
"Instead of vegetating and waiting for the grim reaper, let's go out and have some fun," is how Leon MacKechnie, 73, of Midwest City, Okla., puts it. The owner of a company that makes automobile engines, Mr. MacKechnie has logged more than a dozen jumps since his first in May 2000.
Pat Moorehead, founder of Skydivers Over Sixty, an international jump group based in Long Beach, Calif., has seen the phenomenon firsthand. When the club started in 1993, about one new member joined each month. Now, a jumper signs aboard almost every week. Some, he says, are lapsed skydivers who tried the sport in their youth but dropped out, owing to family obligations or career demands or equipment that was less than comfortable. "Then they see in the news or on TV that parachutes have become precision instruments and the landings are softer, and that sparks an interest," Mr. Moorehead says.
And then there are the Ben Morrows of the sport, people who decide late in life to make their first jump."You can pretty much guess that they've led a regular life -- maybe they go bowling -- and they think this will be shot-in-the-arm exciting," says Mr. Moorehead, 68. "They think they might as well go out and do something fun instead of this couch-potato business. Some people buy the little red sports car, some jump out of airplanes."
Jim Guyer, 73, got hooked in 1999. A retired Miller Brewing Co. executive, Mr. Guyer had served briefly as a paratrooper in the military during the 1950s. But it wasn't until two years ago -- when he watched a skydiver on television and noticed how smooth and gentle the landing was -- that he decided to get back under a chute. Today, he has more than 900 jumps to his credit.
Last year, Mr. Guyer took up BASE jumping, in which the skydiver starts atop a building, antenna, span (bridge) or earth (cliff). Next, he plans to learn freestyle jumping. Instead of sticking his arms out, he'll jump head-first or in a sitting position, which increases his air speed to about 200 miles an hour from 125. "These younger [freestylers], they're a different breed," Mr. Guyer says. "They all have nicknames like 'Burrito' and 'Freak.' But they accept me because they know I'll try anything."
Mr. Morrow, for his part, completed his first jump safely from 11,000 feet. (For the record, he made a tandem jump, in which the novice skydiver is harnessed to and shares a parachute with a certified instructor.)
"I enjoyed every mile down, every foot," Mr. Morrow says. "There was absolutely no fear." He already has a jump booked for Sept. 8, 2002 -- his 89th birthday.--Ms. Muzslay is a writer in St. Louis.