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Sports · Style · July 2, 2018

Q&A: Opal skydiver “cheats” the Grim Reaper

Photo/Don Del Rosso
“I think the key to the sport is being a little on the conservative side,” Larry Westby says. “If you do really on-the-cusp, really edgy things, there are more consequences involved.”
The sport attracts a lot of alpha male and female types. They see stuff and they want to be a hot dog, too.
Larry Westby
• Age: 69

• Home: Near Opal

• Work: Licensed tandem instructor, Skydive Shenandoah, New Market, 2017-present; tandem instructor with various skydiving companies since 1999.

• Family: Divorced; son, Coby, 15.

• Education: Happy Camp (Calif.) High School, 1967.

• Hobbies: Reading, fishing.
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
The veteran skydiver’s first solo jump almost proved his last.

“I was going to college (in Oregon) and my buddy said, ‘Let’s go skydiving’,” recalls Larry Westby, 69, who lives near Opal. “And I thought it was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard.”

A certified skydiving instructor visiting Southern Oregon College gave Mr. Westby, his friend and a bunch of other students four hours of classroom training before their inaugural jump from a Cessna 182.

The way he explains it, the first jump seemed cut-and-dried simple.

“You go to 3,200 feet, grab this little strut on the plane and jump off in this kind of banana-arch position,” says Mr. Westby, bending the back of his left hand to illustrate the point. “I did a flip and my feet hit the (parachute) lines . . . and created a malfunction. I didn’t have a clue. It cut a hole in the parachute — an 8-foot hole. So I landed really hard.

“Almost killed myself.”

While a rookie mishap on Sept. 16, 1976, nearly cost him his life, it didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for the sport.

Mr. Westby expects to record his 6,000th jump — including 4,000 tandem dives — in two or three weeks. He needs 15 more jumps to reach those marks.

> Video at bottom of story

With tandem skydives, a pair of harnesses join the student and instructor, who deploys the parachute.

Besides his first dive, Mr. Westby has had only one other close call.

About 34 years ago, he joined a “formation” over southern Florida with a group called the “Toad Suckers” that involved seven other jumpers.

His parachute got entangled with another one.

“I’m just virtually wrapped with the material over my head,” says Mr. Westby, a tandem instructor with New Market-based Skydive Shenandoah. “And I’m going, “This is 9,000 feet. I’m f------ dead!’ That was my thought. I can’t even move.”

But he quickly managed to free himself.

“I just cut away. Just got sling-shotted off like 100 feet away, instantly.”

In nearly 20 years as a tandem skydiving instructor, Mr. Westby has first-hand knowledge of two deadly jumps.

About seven years ago, a student at the last second decided not to parachute over a drop zone near Williamsburg, says the retired printer.

“The next thing you know we hear a big thump,” says Mr. Westby, who had been sitting next to the pilot. “And then the videographer who was back in the plane says, ‘Tail strike’.”

Amid the confusion, the student accidently pulled the instructor’s reserve parachute handle, according to Mr. Westby.

“Well, the reserve parachute comes out and goes zooming by the tail and just slams the instructor right into the tail of the airplane. His head hit the tail. Left a big old dent in the tail.”

Found hanging from a tree, the instructor probably died upon impact, Mr. Westby says.

“The thing that really sucked about it was his wife was in labor at the hospital with a really bad pregnancy. So somebody had to go tell her that evening that her husband had died.”

The other fatal jump — about 14 years ago in Louisa County — involved a small man who weighed about 120 pounds, Mr. Westby says.

“There’s a thing called ‘wing loading’,” the Army veteran explains. “If you don’t have enough weight on a parachute, they’re really susceptible to collapsing.”

The Louisa skydiver “hit this really bad turbulence of air. It collapsed his parachute and just slammed him into the ground. From about maybe 70 feet, he just went into a really violent spin and just smacked right on the runway.”

Free-fall speeds average 120 mph, Mr. Westby says. Jump heights typically range from 9,000 to 14,000 feet for tandem dives. The average free-fall time for those heights range from 30 seconds to a minute, respectively.

Data show the sport has a low mortality rate, according to the Fredericksburg-based United States Parachute Association.

Last year, for example, skydivers in the United States made 3.2 million jumps, resulting in 24 reported deaths, USPA noted. That equals one death per 133,571 jumps.

Over the years, a couple of jumps stick out as among the more memorable for Mr. Westby.

A few years ago, a women had planned to celebrate her 50th birthday with a jump near Chambersburg, Pa., as 30 or 40 family members watched from below.

But at the moment of truth, she refused to jump.

“There was no way you were going to get her out of the plane,” Mr. Westby says. “She wasn’t moving. She wedged herself against the door opening. I felt so sorry for her.”

On another occasion, a Georgetown University professor in about 2003 brought about 25 students to Louisa County to teach a class on “fear,” Mr. Westby says.

“We’re up 13,000 feet,” he recalls. “The professor’s the last one of the day. And he’s the only one that didn’t jump. He says, ‘I can’t do this, because I’m too scared.’ He had a Ph.D. in psychology.”

• You said your first jump in college nearly killed you. What was that experience like?
Terrifying. I was scared out of my freaking gourd.

• Did your life flash before your eyes?
Oh yeah. Just like they say it does. You see it all go by.

• Could that have been a sign to quit?
Believe it or not, I jumped later that day. And I’m going, “Why am I doing this?” You do it once, you don’t know what to expect. But if you do it again, it’s a little: “I’m totally insane, or it’s fun.” For me, it was a little of both.

• What’s so fun about jumping out of a plane at 9,000 feet?
It’s kind of like riding a motorcycle on the ground. Every time you get up there and open the door, you’re kind of cheating the Grim Reaper every time you jump.

A really good friend of mine said, “Skydiving doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But it’s like when you were a little kid, stomping around in a mud puddle. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s still a whole lot of fun.” It’s just life-enhancing, I guess.

• What’s the highest jump you’ve made?
18,000 feet.

• What happens if a parachute doesn’t open?
You have another one. You always have a reserve.

• What happens if the main and reserve parachutes fail?
Close your eyes and say your prayers. But you don’t give up. You pull all your handles. Just keep fighting.

• What’s the hardest part of skydiving?
Landing your parachute. There’s a lot of stuff going on in your head on your first (solo) jump. You’ve got “gear fear” — all these scenarios that could possibly happen and you’ve got to make the right decisions.

• What’s the most common cause of skydiving deaths?
I think a lot of times it’s people that have been out of the sport for a while. They come back and they borrow somebody’s parachute or something. And they kind of think it’s like riding a bicycle. They screw up. They do a wrong procedure. People do really dumb things on landings.

• What kinds of folks skydive?
The sport attracts a lot of alpha male and female types. They see stuff and they want to be a hot dog too. All you have to do is screw up a little bit and you’re hitting the ground going 70 mph head first.

• Has it ever crossed your mind that skydiving could kill you someday?
Possibly. I think the key to the sport is being a little on the conservative side. If you do really on-the-cusp, really edgy things, there are more consequences involved.

• When your son turns 18, will you let him skydive?
I would love to take him. But he has no desire to do it. And he’s got the genes.

• Your ex-wife skydives?
She’s got about 614 jumps.

• After 6,000 jumps, do you still get a rush?
I do. It’s kind of one of those rare win-win deals, because I get paid to do it. I get a free jump and I get to share the experience with another person.

• How much do you get paid?
$40 a jump and $25 if you do a Handycam video (of the skydive).

• How many jumps to do a day?
On busy weekends, eight to 10.

• What’s your record?
Sixteen in one day. Took about 10 hours.

• Do you think you’ll ever retire?
I’m going to keep jumping. We’ve got jumpers 80 years or more. There’s an organization called JOES (Jumpers Over Eighty Society). How many people over 80 can jump out of a plane? That’s pretty cool.

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jjones · July 3, 2018 at 7:27 pm
What a great story about a 69 year old skydiver. While some old boys, like myself, may find it a challenge just “jumping” out of bed each day, Larry is flying like an eagle jumping from airplanes. This man is brave, courageous and bold! A contemporary American Hero for us Senior Citizens.
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