KENNEBUNKPORT — Most people celebrate birthdays with a cake and candles, but former President George H.W. Bush celebrated his 90th on Thursday with a 6,300-foot parachute jump out of a helicopter near his summer home in Kennebunkport.
The 41st president departed by helicopter from his home, Walker’s Point, around 11 a.m. and made the tandem jump with Sgt. 1st Class Michael Elliot, a retired member of the U.S. Army’s parachute team, the Golden Knights. Elliott previously guided him in a jump five years ago, on Bush’s 85th birthday, and Bush vowed then to make the jump one more time.
As Bush safely touched down in a red, white and blue parachute on the grounds of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, family and friends sang “Happy Birthday.”
While the press was not allowed at the landing site, friends who were present said his wife, first lady Barbara Bush, greeted her husband with a kiss upon landing. Bush’s sons, former President George W. Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush were also there.
“He gave a wave and a big smile to the crowd, you could just tell he was exhilarated,” said Diana Untermeyer, a friend and colleague of the Bush family who worked at the White House during his administration.
“He’s an amazing man. This is just another sign of that,” Untermeyer said. “I think that like most of America, our family loves him to pieces. It was just a real thrill to do this again.”
Elliott said the weather conditions weren’t optimal for the jump – it was windy and cold.
“I knew we were probably going to tumble,” said Elliott, 45. “He’s fine, there was nothing bad about it, there was just a lot of wind.”
Bush, who has lost the use of his legs to a form of Parkinson’s disease, uses a wheelchair or scooter to get around. Elliott said that made the landing a little harder because Bush touched down first.
“(The landing) wasn’t as pretty as we wanted it to be, but it was completely safe,” said Elliott, who has made 10,000 jumps throughout his career.
“He’s as happy as a kid in kindergarten,” Elliott added. “I think he’s probably feeling younger now than ever.”
This was Bush’s eighth parachute jump. The first was during World War II, when his plane was shot down and he bailed out over the Pacific Ocean.
He has since skydived to mark his 75th, 80th, 85th and now 90th birthdays and has tandem-jumped with Elliott the last three times.
Elliot said that Bush’s family and doctor had been worried about the jump, and the announcement was kept secret until the last minute, in case Bush decided against it.
But on Thursday morning, Bush announced his surprise jump on Twitter.
“It’s a wonderful day in Maine – in fact, nice enough for a parachute jump,” he wrote.
Bush spokesman Jim McGrath said Bush likes a surprise and an adrenaline rush.
“It’s vintage George Bush,” McGrath said. “It’s that passion for life. It’s wanting to set a goal, wanting to achieve it. I’m sure part of it is sending a message to others that even in your retirement years you can still find challenges.”
To commemorate Bush’s birthday, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved a resolution Thursday, introduced by Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King of Maine, honoring Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush, who celebrated her 89th birthday earlier this week.
A line formed around the block to get into the party, which was open to the public. A society spokesman said they had supplies for 1,000 people, but were expecting about 500.
Children crafted birthday cards for Bush, a local jazz band performed and guests gawked at more than 60 birthday cakes donated for the celebration.
The cakes were judged by a group of chefs from the White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport, with the winning confections sent to the Bush family compound.