Former President George H.W. Bush nearly had a fatal skydiving accident during a jump with retired Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, Shelton said on Tuesday.
“I thought in retrospect, I was darn near the scene of a president that bought the farm,” Shelton said. “It was a pretty harrowing experience for him.”
Shelton was stationed at Fort Bragg several times in his career and is a former commander of the post and the 18th Airborne Corps there. He recounted the story of his skydive with Bush as the nation this week mourns the passing of the president.
Instead of dying in a fall from the sky over his presidential library in College Station, Texas, 19 years ago, Bush passed away peacefully on Friday in his bed in Houston, surrounded by loved ones.
In June 1999, Bush wanted to celebrate his 75th birthday by jumping out of an airplane. And he invited Shelton, who at the time was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for President Bill Clinton and an experienced skydiver.
It would be Bush’s third-ever parachute jump — the first was when his Navy bomber was shot down over the Pacific in World War II, and the second with the Golden Knights Army parachute team in Arizona in 1997.
Shelton said the group of six skydivers in 1999 included himself, a former Golden Knight who had trained Shelton, the president of the American Parachute Association, a Navy SEAL and an Army Delta Force operator.
Bush jumped with a former Golden Knight, named Andy Serrano, and the Parachute Association president. Bush had his own parachute, Shelton said, but the other two men were to hold onto him during the jump “to make sure that everything went well.”
“So they all three go out of aircraft,” Shelton said. “I go out, and I’m above him, and I’m looking down. And I can see the three of them down below. But it appeared to me at the time that there was a large separation between him and the other two guys.
The problem, Shelton learned later, was that Bush tensed up during the jump.
“If you don’t relax and kind of make your body into a badminton, then you’ll start being like, as they call it, a piece of a plywood,” Shelton said.
“You’ll be just be somersaulting all over the air,” he said. “And you could very easily become entangled in your chute when it opens.”
Shelton later saw a video of the jump, he said. It showed Bush tumbling so severely that Serrano and the other skydiver were torn loose from him. They couldn’t get close to get control of him, Shelton said.
The former president was supposed to pull his ripcord at 5,000 feet.
“He just kept right on tumbling and he went right through the — right through the level, the 5,000-foot level, and went right on down. Until finally, just short of when the activation device would go off, he’d stabilized.
“And then Andy Serrano went flying into him like a bird, and reaches out and pulls his chute for him,” Shelton said.
Shelton could tell how much the experience frightened Bush “because when I landed, President Bush came running over to me and he started telling me — talking 90 miles-an-hour — telling me what had happened to him.
“Then he paused and said, ‘Has that ever happened to you?'”
It had, Shelton told Bush, on his fourth jump when he was in free-fall training.
“And I know the fear that goes through you when that’s going on,” Shelton told him.
Bush didn’t let the experience stop him from jumping again.
“I really admired him when five years later he went back and made another jump at his 80th birthday,” Shelton said. “So although it scared him then, it did not preclude him from doing what he obviously had enjoyed doing.”
Shelton spent time with George and his Barbara Bush on that trip and met them again in 2001 for the presidential inauguration of their son George W. Bush, he said. He greatly enjoyed their company.
“He was a terrific individual. You didn’t be around President Bush very long to appreciate the quality of guy that he was,” Shelton said.
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