Grandfather jumps at chance to skydive with granddaughter
SALISBURY — When Heather Ellis told her grandfather she was going to jump out of an airplane, she didn’t expect him to offer to tag along.
But that’s exactly what 72-year-old Kenneth Wallace did Saturday to celebrate his granddaughter’s 30th birthday. Both are Landis residents and first-time skydivers.
“I said I wanted to do it, and he said, ‘Would you want me to go with you?’” Ellis said. “I thought he was joking at first, of course, but he wasn’t.”
Wallace said he asked if Ellis’ mother or father would be joining her, and she told him they wouldn’t jump.
“I think she caught me at a weak moment,” Wallace said, chuckling. “I didn’t want her to go by herself.”
Ellis said her grandfather has always been by her side to support her, especially when she was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 3. Fortunately, doctors caught it early, and she has been cancer-free since she entered remission the next year.
While she was little - whether sick or healthy — Ellis’s grandparents often babysat her. She and her grandfather would spend a lot of time together playing with dolls, said Wallace’s wife, Judy.
“He sat and played with her for hours on end with her Barbies, and they’d play ‘Miss America’ and all that,” Judy Wallace said. “They went from Barbies to skydiving.”
Ellis said skydiving has always been on her “bucket list” of things she wants to do before she dies. She was excited to find out that there was a skydiving company so close to home — Piedmont Skydiving, based at the Rowan County airport.
“It was the best way to celebrate my birthday,” Ellis said. “I said if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it now, while I have the opportunity and the nerve to do it.”
Wallace said he and some friends had talked about going skydiving in the 1970s, but they never did.
About 40 years later, he finally made the leap.
“My grandfather was rock solid through the whole thing,” Ellis said. “He jumped first. On his video — it was incredible — you could tell he really enjoyed it.”
She called it a “huge moment,” and she said she’s glad she and her grandfather shared that experience and made memories together. Ellis’ birthday was last month, and Wallace will turn 73 at the end of September, so it was a celebration for them both.
Wallace said preparation for the dive at Piedmont Skydiving included a brief instructional session.
“I asked, ‘We don’t have to climb out on a platform on the plane, do we?’” he said. “She said, ‘Oh, no, you’re right beside the door.’”
Later, Wallace got a glimpse of the airplane.
“When I saw that little bitty plane, with a board on the side of it, I thought, ‘Oh, no,’” he said.
But he kept his word to his granddaughter and got on the airplane.
As they flew higher and higher toward 10,000 feet, Ellis said, the anticipation she felt was the worst part.
“I was super excited for the weeks leading up to it,” she said. “Once I got on the plane, it became very real at that point.”
Ellis said they could have backed out at any point before they reached the door, but she wasn’t going to miss out on this chance to conquer her fear.
Once she jumped, the fear went away.
“Honestly, it was the most incredible thing I’ve ever experienced,” she said. “It did not feel like anything I expected. I expected it to take my breath away and that I’d have that butterflies feeling in my stomach. But I felt like I was floating the entire time. It was great.”
In a tandem skydive, each participant is strapped to the front of a skydiving instructor, who operates a two-person parachute and helps the diver move his or her body through the air.
“They’ve got the door open, put your feet out on board, and tell you how to arch your back and split your legs and all so you won’t keep rolling,” Wallace said. “It’s, ‘One, two, three, arch,’ and they take you out that door.”
Wallace said they took the first 5,000 feet or so in free-fall before the parachutes deployed for the second half.
“It don’t hurt, but you’re going from I think 120 miles an hour to about 30,” he said.
A couple days after the jump, Wallace said he was feeling a bit sore from the harness — likely from that sudden slowdown.
The divers floated the rest of the way down, enjoying the view, and they started circling as they got closer to the landing point. This made Wallace a little queasy, he said, but he was assured that was normal.
“You land on your rump,” he said. “To me, that’s the best way, because you ain’t going to break a leg or something like that.”
Wallace said the experience was scary, but a lot of fun. He’s even thinking about joining Ellis for another dive in the fall, now that he knows what to expect.
“I think if we do it again, I’ll enjoy it a lot more,” he said. “It was fun, it really was.”
Judy Wallace said she would have gone skydiving with her husband and granddaughter, but health problems kept her on the ground.
“When he first said he was going to do it, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness,’” she said. “But it was fantastic, it really was.”
She said she was nervous at the beginning, but somehow, she started to settle down as she saw the airplane take off.
“I watched them go into the clouds and then come out of the clouds. I was standing there watching, figuring out which clothes they had on, seeing the parachutes, watching them come in and scoot to a stop,” Judy Wallace said. “They had a really good time. It’s something they’ll never forget - and I’ll never forget.”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.