How Skydiving Changed My Life - Jay Lehr


by Jay Lehr | D-22708 | Ostrander, Ohio

When I was 16 years old and working as a summer camp waiter in New Hampshire, I was commandeered off a road one day to help fight a forest fire. That day, I saw smoke jumpers jumping in to fight the fire. I thought it was so neat that each summer during college I applied to the smoke jumping school in Missoula, Montana, but, sadly, was never accepted.

After college I went on to play amateur football, ice hockey, lacrosse and baseball and forged a good career in environmental science. One day in 1978, I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by a local newspaper about my various athletic exploits. (Ultimately I became, and remain, an Ironman triathlete.) At the end of the interview, the reporter asked if there was anything I had not yet done in sports that I still wanted to do. I thought for a moment and remembered that I had yet to jump from a plane.

When the interview appeared in the newspaper, all my friends asked when I was going to jump. So I assembled a small group, including my 16-year-old daughter, to take a static-line course. After five hours of training on how to “arch, reach, pull—one one-thousand, two one-thousand,” I hit the ground laughing because I had forgotten it all. But I was hooked, and I grabbed another parachute and made my second jump 30 minutes later. This time I got it right.

Upon my second landing, I thought how great it would be to jump into my 25th college reunion, then just four years away, so I made skydiving my new hobby. Since I was not a natural and was always apprehensive, I made sure I jumped every month, even through the winters. My reunion came, I made the jump and all my classmates were impressed—and now I had jumped for 46 consecutive months and thought I might as well keep up this very exciting streak. It was difficult at times, particularly when snow and cold reduced the available jumping days at the DZ where I did most of my jumps, Skydive Greene County in Ohio.

With a lot of help from my friends, I managed to keep the streak going. While I tried to jump early each month during the winters, my travel schedule and the weather did not always make this possible. On February 28 one year, with my streak on the line, Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld flew me up to the minimum altitude during a light rain. I stepped out of the plane with pilot chute in hand. On January 30 one year, with a temperature of 10 degrees Fahrenheit on the ground, Jim West spent two hours heating the oil in a Cessna so that he could get it started to take me up to 10,000 feet (where it was 10 below). I don’t even know what the wind chill was at my 120-mph fall rate, but I had so much clothing on I think if my chute did not open I still would have landed softly.

Though by no means a talented skydiver, as the decades went by and my age began to show, I got a lot of friendly attention from jumpers young and old for what most saw as amazing perseverance. I always joked that I did it for fear that I might lose my nerve if ever I missed a month, and this may actually be true.

Now at age 73, I have jumped for 32 years without missing a month. I’m still working full time as a lecturer on issues relating to energy, environment and agriculture, and my introductions to audiences usually include mention of my skydiving streak. Invariably, when questions come at the end of my talks, most of them are about skydiving rather than what I came to speak about. In a sense, my hobby and career have merged; now I often show a two-minute video of a recent jump, and the audiences love it. I have been very lucky in life, but as I look back and forward there is no more exciting aspect to it than that which skydiving has provided.

Lehr got off to a good start keeping his streak alive in 2010 with a jump on January 3 in Xenia, Ohio, with friends Rhonda Reichel and Nate Isaacson. Lehr reported that the temperature was 14 degrees Fahrenheit on the ground, 10 below at 10,000 feet, and “heaven only knows what the wind chill was” in freefall.


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