Braille Monitor                                                    January 2009

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Feel the Rush of the Wind

by Jeff Barr

Robert Willis, age seventy-nine, is being interviewed by WWMT Kalamazoo, channel 3, as a skydiving instructor adjusts Mr. Willis’s chute harness. Photo courtesy of the Michigan Commission for the BlindFrom the Editor: On Thursday, October 30, 2008, the Kalamazoo Gazette carried a front page story about eight students at the Michigan Commission for the Blind’s adult training center. The day before the eight had gone skydiving. Through the years we have carried a number of stories about blind people who engage in skydiving, and the Colorado Center for the Blind has sent groups of students up at least twice that I can remember. So what was the big deal this time?

Longtime Federation leader Christine Boone has been the director of this center for about two years now, and she reports that the morale of the students is improving all the time and they are really beginning to grasp that the future belongs to them. This adventure was a big step for them, and the reporter seems to have felt the excitement and understood how important this event was for those who took part. Here is the story:

One by one they fell from the sky, free-falling at 120 mph the first few thousand feet, then floating peacefully the final half-mile or so to the ground. They felt the rush of the wind, but they did not see the clouds; they heard the steady hum of the aircraft from which they leapt, but they could not view the cabin that housed them. These skydivers, barrier-breakers one and all, are blind.

Eight students from the Michigan Commission for the Blind Training Center in Kalamazoo traveled to Hastings Airport Wednesday seeking to prove something to themselves and also to those who might underestimate them. The lesson: those without sight are not without ambition, courage, and ability.

“That's what today is all about,” said Christine Boone, director of the Kalamazoo training center for two years. “It is to show that blind people can do just about anything a sighted person can do, if they are given the chance. “Our mission at the training center is to show our students that they must learn how to deal with the misconceptions people have about the blind. In order to do that, they must have confidence and courage.”

Boone, who has been blind since birth, understands what it takes to knock down walls that society might have placed upon her. The New Jersey native earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Colorado and then a law degree from Creighton University. Before coming to Kalamazoo, she had a winning record trying labor and employment cases and was a member of Pennsylvania's Department of Labor and Industry.

She proudly joined her students as they readied for their jumps, offering words of encouragement and enjoying the atmosphere of nervous anticipation. “I was getting a little anxious before I put on the gear, but now I'm just real excited,” said Bob Willis, seventy-nine, of Royal Oak, who said he was about to become the oldest blind skydiver in the world. “That's my story, and I'm going to stick with it until someone proves me wrong.”

Ed Butters of Coldwater wrote in a recent posting on Skydiving Magazine's Website that he made a jump at ninety-two, but there is no independent confirmation of that jump. And Butters wasn't blind. Research seeking an official record-holder for the oldest blind skydiver has not produced results, so Willis's claim just might hold water.

Willis, a retired McGraw-Hill editor, who lost his sight to macular degeneration three years ago, was the first to hit the skies. He and Jake Warren of Lake Orion--at twenty-one the youngest in the group--went up together in their plane. They were joined by a pilot and two certified Skydive Inc. tandem jumpers who would be strapped to the first-time aerialists.

As the rest of the soon-to-be skydivers looked on from the ground, Willis made his jump. He leapt from the plane and was but a speck in the sky, free-falling in the heavens. His fall slowed when the canopy was employed, and for the next six minutes he soared peacefully to earth. “Wow, that was unbelievable!” Willis exclaimed seconds after hitting the ground, his parachute still tethered to his back. ”Not bad for an old man, huh?” Willis said he felt fine after his jump, although he did say he was a bit “balance challenged,” as he stood wobbly for the first couple of minutes back on the ground. He didn't waver when asked if he would take to the skies again. “I would definitely do it again,” he said, his face reddened from the windy fall. “In fact, I probably will. I'll wait until I'm eighty so I can break my own record.”

About five minutes later Warren, tears streaming down his cheeks, let out an “Awesome!” as he touched down.

Kristina Richard of Gwinn anxiously waited her turn, laughing nervously and wondering what lay ahead. Still, she said, there was no looking back. “Seven years ago, almost to the day, I had a major stroke, and I was in the hospital wondering if I'd ever walk, talk, or be able to feed myself again,” said Richard, thirty-six, who gradually lost her sight early in life as a result of cone-rod dystrophy. “Now I'm going to jump out of a plane. I'm so, so excited. I can't even believe it.”

There was an air of the surreal as the students made their jumps, these students who had vigorously chosen to fly the skies. The Kalamazoo training center's recreation fund allows for students to enjoy activities in the area. In the past bowling and swimming have been the recreation of choice. But this group opted for skydiving. “I was surprised, at first,” Boone said. “But there was never a thought of not letting them do it. Sighted people can skydive, why can't we?”

For more about the Michigan Commission for the Blind, visit <>.

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