Florida Keys News
Friday, November 8, 2013
Taking the leap of faith at age 80
'Either way, my kids think I'm nuts,' local skydiver says

It's been nearly a decade since former President George H.W. Bush celebrated his ascent to octogenarian status by jumping out of a perfectly good airplane -- twice.

Yet the 41st president's two post-80 birthday leaps in 2004 and 2009, celebrating his birth on June 12, 1924, have continued to inspire other would-be jumpers, including Ron Tartaglia, of Key West.

Like Bush, Tartaglia first got a taste for sky diving while serving in the military. Also like Bush, Tartaglia decided that an 80th birthday jump would be the best way to celebrate this milestone.

"The first jumps I did were 50 years ago, when I was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, at Fort Bragg, N.C.," said Tartagalia, who has lived in the Keys for 25 years. "Then, I jumped about two years ago, up on Sugarloaf. This year, I decided I wanted to try it again, on my 80th, to see if I could still do it without breaking any bones. I saw it as a challenge, and also a bit of an ego trip. Either way, my kids think I'm nuts."

Due to strong winds, Tartaglia wasn't actually able to jump on his Oct. 30 birthday. But the next day, Halloween, he received a call from Sky Dive Key West manager Bertus Geldenhuys advising him that the conditions were now perfect, and it was time to fly.

Before long, the pair was tandem jumping out of a small Cessna airplane, two miles above Sugarloaf Key, descending at a rate of 120 miles per hour.

To the relief of both men, the dive went off without a hitch.

"I have a whole lot of respect for this gentleman," said Geldenhuys, who has 10,000 jumps to his credit. "Jumpers have to be in a certain physical shape, as I can only do wo much. We're not picking flowers; we're jumping out of a plane. Fortunately for me, Ron is a big, strong guy and weighs over 200 pounds. He didn't hold back."

Tartaglia certainly isn't one to sit still.

A widower for the past six years, he keeps busy as an employee at both the Home Depot and West Marine stores, and keeps in close contact with his family. He hopes to one day do a jump with a son who lives in Maine, as well as his 24-year-old first lieutenant grandson, who is following in his footsteps as a paratrooper, also stationed at Fort Bragg.

"At my age, all my family is up north, so I had to find something to do to get out of the house," Tartaglia said. "I didn't want to just sit around watching TV all day."

Tartaglia plans to make his birthday jumps an annual event.

"I really enjoy the rush I get from jumping," he said. "Plus, the view of the Keys from up there is fantastic. It's so quiet and peaceful, but it's still a lot of fun."

As the population of the country -- and county -- ages, it's likely that Tartaglia will have lots of company, as he carries on with his new hobby.

"The jump that Bush made, and that movie 'The Bucket List,' definitely made a difference in our business," Geldenhuys said. "After Bush, we had a couple of calls. But after that film, you wouldn't believe how many people have called us and said, 'This is on my bucket list.' Ever since then, we've been getting a lot of calls from older people, from senior citizens. Of course, it's always a privilege for me to jump with a veteran like Ron."

tschmida@keysnews.com

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