KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — Former President George H.W. Bush celebrated his 90th birthday on Thursday by making a tandem parachute jump near his summer home in coastal Maine, delivering on a vow he made five years ago even though he can no longer use his legs.
The nation's 41st president jumped from a helicopter at 6,000 feet harnessed to Sgt. 1st Class Mike Elliott, a retired member of the Golden Knights, the Army's parachute team, near Kennebunkport. Elliott guided Bush to a gentle landing five years ago.
On Thursday morning, the helicopter picked up Bush outside his home, known as Walker's Point. His family transported him from his wheelchair to the chopper, then sang "Happy Birthday" before it took off.
Bush could later be seen floating to the ground using a red, white and blue parachute. He landed safely near St. Ann's Church, where friends and family had gathered, according to a spokesman, out of the sight of reporters.
"He had a big smile for the crowd. You could tell he was exhilarated," said Diana Untermeyer, a family friend from Houson. "He's an amazing man. This is just another sign of that. I think that like most of America, our family loves him to pieces. It was just a real thrill to do this again."
Witnesses said Bush was greeted with a hug and a kiss from his wife, Barbara, and a hug from his son George. The family then left the landing zone without talking to reporters stationed nearby.
Hundreds of people had gathered on the rocky coast near the church to get a glimpse of the jump.
"He has a lot of courage. We need more like him," said David Morris, 79, of Melrose, Massachusetts. He's one of several onlookers gathered on rocky coast outside church to watch.
"I think it's wonderful. I hope I can jump out of a plane at 90," said Carol Schierl, 75, of Green Bay, Wisconsin,
The jump was kept secret partly to give Bush himself the option of bagging it.
Spokesman Jim McGrath said the former president likes both 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."
The first time Bush jumped from an airplane was when his plane was shot down in World War II over the Pacific. Later, he decided to jump from a plane of his own accord and marked his 75th, 80th and 85th birthdays by skydiving.
He said on his 85th birthday that he'd like to do it again on his 90th.
Other birthday festivities included a private dinner with more than 200 relatives and friends, including some from his White House days: press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, White House counsel Boyden Gray and political director Ron Kaufman, McGrath said. His children, including former President George W. Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, will be there, McGrath said.
Kennebunkport is a special place for the president. As a boy, he visited the family home at Walker's Point every summer, except during World War II. The retreat was later dubbed his "summer White House."
During his presidential years, Bush was known for jogging, tennis and fast-paced golf, but he now uses a wheelchair or scooter because of a form of parkinsonism that has robbed him of use of his legs. He signed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
"He's lost his mobility, but he hasn't lost his heart. He's still the genuine person that we've come to cherish," said Ken Raynor, a friend and pro at the Cape Arundel Golf Club.
While his activities are now limited, Bush still fulfills his need for speed on his boat, Fidelity. "He's always loved going fast. He loves the speed. He loves the adrenaline," McGrath said.