Skydivers attempt record in Pepperell

Weather hampers effort, but senior group still makes jump in attempt at another record

Skydivers Over Seventy in formation over Skydive Pepperell. The airfield is visible at bottom of photo. (Photo courtesy Justin Silvia)
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PEPPERELL — It was an overcast day with intermittent rain.

That wouldn’t work for the purposes of skydivers standing on the ground.

But the group — all in their 60s and 70s and many with well over a thousand jumps under their belts — waited it out, sitting in chairs covered by canopies at Skydive Pepperell.

“There’s always one optimistic idiot at the airport that says this (expletive) is going to blow out in about 30 minutes,” Doug Garr said. “I’m that idiot.”

Garr came up from Manhattan for the gathering on Saturday. Years ago, he returned to skydiving after a 25 year hiatus, partially to finish his book on the sport, partially because he says golf was too stressful.

He was one of 16 people who wanted to set a New England record for the most skydivers over 60 to jump in formation this weekend. The standing record is 14.

Under the tents they practiced the formation, as they waited — and hoped — for the clouds to clear. One “illegal” grip on a fellow skydiver, like grabbing a harness, could throw the whole record out.

For 67-year-old Cathy Hackett, this wouldn’t be her first record attempt. She set an New Engalnd all-women jump record in the 1990s, a couple decades after getting her start.

Her first jump was with her then-fiance in 1972.

“I fell in love with it, broke the engagement and got jumping,” she said.

As one of the few women in the sport, particularly in the early days, she said she learned how to be a “drill sergeant” just to get skydiving students to listen. Since that first jump, she estimates she has made over 4,000 jumps, though she stopped counting at 1,000.

Stephen J. Smith — who grew up in Tyngsboro — got his start in 2000 when he was 43-years-old and stressed, not about golf, but real estate investments.

“I saw a bumper sticker on a car that said nothing else matters at 13,500 feet and when I see that I say ‘I wonder if there’s any truth to that,'” Smith said. “And then I did my jump and never thought once about any real estate.”

Some people who skydive stop.

“Life moves on, you know,” said Bob MacDonald.

But not for all, including MacDonald. The Norwell resident is 78-years-old, making him the oldest of the group on Saturday. He took his first jump in 1966 and said he returns for the camaraderie.

On a wall in one of the structures at Skydive Pepperell is a sign that says “Pepperell Family.”

The weather Saturday didn’t clear enough to allow the plane — a boxy 22-seat sky van — to drop the skydivers at the altitude they would need to execute the formation.

So they adjusted plans and sent up seven of the skydivers over 70-years-old for a different New England record.

They all made it down safely, sliding into the cleared grassy area at the edge of the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border. However, they say a technicality will keep it from the record books.

For 77-year-old Easton resident, Danny Thompson, the jump was somewhere around number 3,300.

“It’s good,” he said afterward. “Everyone you walk away from is good.”