Ageless in the Sky
People | Jan 08, 2024
Ageless in the Sky

Anthony Ebel

Above: Photo by Daniel Wilsey.

Skydive Chicago takes elderly people on skydives quite often, so general manager Anthony Ebel thought nothing of another email earlier this fall saying, “An older person wants to skydive.” Then he saw the triple digits—104 years old. That was enough to catch his eye.

Dorothy Hoffner had previously jumped at Skydive Chicago to celebrate her 100th birthday, and this time around she had one extra request. While a seated exit is typical for students with mobility issues, she did not want to be pushed out. She wanted to feel like she was jumping.

So Ebel checked with the legal department to ensure the liability risk was reasonable and also reached out to Hoffner’s pseudo-grandson, Joe, who assured him that she was in great shape—and also mentioned that the jump might be a Guinness World Record for oldest skydiver.

Skydive Chicago staff agreed to reach out to their media contacts, thinking the story may reach the local paper or, at most, WGN-TV news in Chicago. The drop zone’s events coordinator shared the planned jump with USPA, which in turn contacted Dittoe, the PR company it has worked with for the past two years to help positive skydiving stories reach news outlets with the goal of growing the sport and developing positive public perception. Everyone was interested.

Finally, it was October 1—jump day. The original plan was to get Hoffner to the drop zone before any reporters showed up, allowing her time to get her bearings and settle in. But instead, she arrived to a crowd of friends and reporters as she entered the hangar, and before she’d even left the ground, she was a celebrity.

The SDC team shuffled her into a private room to take care of paperwork and training out of the spotlight, and paired her with her tandem instructor (who is also lead instructor), Derek Baxter. Most of the drop zone’s TIs prefer to exit seated, but Baxter has always preferred a standing exit, so he was the first to ask. Hoffner used a walker, so Ebel made sure to ask her if she felt confident lifting her legs for the landing, to which she responded by throwing her legs up faster than many people half her age.

Photo by Charles Lane.

Photo by Charles Lane.

Skydive Chicago also has two Skyvans, three Twin Otters and a Caravan, so there were options as far as aircraft. After discussing the differences in the planes (and the exits), Hoffner liked the idea of standing on the edge of the Skyvan and flipping on exit. Without any hesitation, she said, “That’s what I want to do.”

She then spent the next hour talking to friends who had come out to show support, as well as giving brief media interviews. Meanwhile, SDC staff were all-hands-on-deck corralling the media, which continued to show up in force. Nine thousand news stories and TV segments would be produced covering this jump, as well as more than 150,000 social media posts shared.

Finally, it was time to load into the Skyvan. Hoffner, Baxter, two videographers and select members of the media got on board the plane, joined by an S&TA—whose job was to keep everyone safe and offer a helping hand when needed (standard procedure for special-needs jumps at the drop zone).

Photo by Charles Lane.

Photo by Charles Lane.

 After climbing to altitude, the jump was just like any other. Hoffner got to yell out her “Geronimo!” as they stepped out of the plane and nailed the exit. Freefall went smoothly, and—with more strength than you’d expect from a 104-year-old—she held on to her harness all the way to pull-time. And after opening, she wasn’t interested in any fast turns or spiraling down; she just wanted enjoy the view as long as possible. Hoffner lifted her legs like a pro and landed safely, and spent the rest of the day letting everyone know how much fun she had, and that age was just a number.

A little over a week after she jumped, Dorothy Hoffner passed away peacefully in her sleep. She was a firecracker, making plenty of witty remarks to Skydive Chicago staff, as well as giving advice for the future. For all of their attention paid to her, Hoffner was not interested in the media. She was just a person who wanted to make another skydive, and those at the drop zone are grateful for the opportunity to have shared it with her.

About the Author

Anthony Ebel, D-30074, is the General Manager and S&TA at Skydive Chicago in Ottawa, Illinois. He has been skydiving for 17 years and has 9,000 jumps. When not at the drop zone, he is a simple family man with his wife, Nicole, and two children, Vivienne and Adler.

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