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Why I’m Still Jumping out of Airplanes at 78

Larry Thomas says staying active is why he wakes up in the morning

larry thomas wearing his skydiving jumpsuit harness and helmet

Dennis Sattler

En español

Larry Thomas’ entire world revolves around sports and staying active. At 78 years old he is an avid snow and water skier, is in a bicycle club, plays golf once a week, and is in a pickleball tournament. But his most extreme pastime may very well be skydiving, a sport he didn’t begin until he was in his 50s.​

​Thomas first skydived thanks to a friend who constantly asked him to join on a jump.

​“I kept saying, ‘No, I’m not gonna go skydiving. I don’t want to jump out of a plane. What, are you crazy?’ So just to shut him up I said, ‘All right. I'll do one skydive,’” he said. ​

​Thomas was 53 years old when, joined by his son and his son’s friend, he agreed to go on his first jump in New Jersey. Since he had never done it before, he was required to jump tandem, meaning he was physically attached to a more experienced jumper. ​

​“It scared me to death. But after I was out in the sky, I went, ‘This is pretty cool.’ So I landed, and I didn’t think anything more of it because I was only going to do one skydive,” he said.​

​Little did he know that, because of his friend’s persistence, he would continue to skydive into his late 70s. Thomas eventually took a course that allowed him to jump on his own and has accumulated approximately 4,090 total jumps. ​

"It’s never as exciting as that first time there. When that door opens up, you can’t describe it to somebody. You look at the door and you see that the clouds are way below you. It is so exciting. You’ll never get that crazy adrenaline rush you get on those first couple jumps."

— 78-year-old skydiver Larry Thomas

​Skydivers over 60

In early April, Thomas joined 105 other skydivers in their 60s and 70s in Perris, California, to jump out of five planes to attempt to form a giant snowflake figure in the sky. The effort was intended to break their previous over-60 world record for the largest free-fall formation, which was made up of 75 older jumpers. ​

​The group is part of the Skydivers Over Sixty Society, formed in 1992 by Pat Moorehead, who, after he turned 60, urged his friends to invite other older jumpers to join his new group. Their intent has remained the same: recognizing skydivers who continue jumping or join the sport in their grownup years. The organization has expanded to over 1,000 members from all around the globe. ​

​The jumpers, mostly retirees, come from all walks of life: physician, nurse, venture capitalist, accountant, mailman, roofer and even rocket scientist.​

​“We love adrenaline in our life. We love to do exciting things,” Thomas said. “Every skydiver I’ve ever met has been an A-type personality. They just love life. They love being active and they just can’t wait for the next challenge.” ​
 

group of over fifty people skydiving and creating a linked formation as seen from below against the blue sky

Gustavo Cabana

​A jump for the ages

To prepare for their April world record attempt, group members practiced formations several times on the ground by standing in designated spots and acknowledging whom they would need to link with once airborne. The team was then divided into their assigned planes for the jump from 18,000 feet (requiring supplemental oxygen). They would exceed speeds of 120 miles per hour and have only 60 seconds to get into formation during their plunge toward earth.​

​To maneuver themselves in the air, the divers lean their bodies in the direction they want to fly. ​

​“You can go forward, backward, left and right just by dipping your shoulders or your body position, and you can fly just like a bird,” Thomas said. “So, when we leave the plane, there’s people that are 1,000 feet away from us and we have to fly over, get to them and dock on to their arms or their legs.”​​​​

Over the course of four days in early April, the 106 skydivers made eight attempts to get into formation while free falling. ​

​On their first try they successfully docked, but the timing of their connection was off by mere seconds. No record. On each of the following attempts, they were one person short of getting into formation within the small window of time allotted.​​

While the over-60 world record of 75 jumpers remains intact, don’t be surprised if many of the skydivers who just came so close to setting a record try again.​

​“It’s important for people at any age to stay active and not use age as any kind of excuse not to do things or try new activities,” Thomas said. “Some people talk about a bucket list. I’ve done everything on my bucket list.”​

Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.