Passion for parachuting

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Wilkerson plans to jump just as long as he can

By Scott Jenkins

Salisbury Post

ROCKWELL — How’s Johnny Wilkerson going to celebrate his 70th birthday?

Plans are up in the air.

Wilkerson recently went skydiving for the first time in six years. And he intends to do it again Jan. 1, the day he turns 70.

After years of fighting cancer and believing his parachuting days were over, three things made Wilkerson take the plunge again: his son, his grandson and the fact that he loves a flying leap.

It wasn’t always so long between jumps for Wilkerson. In fact, he’s spent the better part of his life making mid-air exits from perfectly good airplanes, about 500 or so, he estimates.

His passion for the plummet was sparked as a kid, when he watched commandos train near his home in Kershaw, S.C., during World War II.

“You could just look at the sky and see paratroopers everywhere,” he said. “I said, ‘When I grow up, that’s what I want to do.’ ”

So that’s what he did. After graduating high school in 1955, Wilkerson joined the Army. He made his first jump Oct. 5 of that year, a date he recalls easily.

Over the next dozen years or so, Wilkerson served with the 101st, 11th and 82nd airborne divisions and Special Forces — if they jumped from airplanes, he flew with “about all of them.”

After leaving active duty, he served out the remainder of his 27 years of military service with the N.C. Air National Guard, retiring at the rank of master sergeant.

Meanwhile, Wilkerson took a job with the U.S. Postal Service in Salisbury as a rural mail carrier and bought two airplanes that gave him a business and a way to pursue his passion.

“Anytime I could get somebody to take me up, I’d jump,” he said.

He taught his son, Kelvin, to jump and even set out to break a world record for skydiving in 1978, aiming for more than 232 jumps in a 24-hour period. The attempt, costly and elaborately planned, was rained out.

In 1979, Wilkerson helped a blind man from Winston-Salem fulfill his dream of skydiving.

But Wilkerson lost some of his passion for parachuting after a pilot crashed one his airplanes in 1980, killing the pilot and injuring two skydivers on board.

After the mid-1980s, Wilkerson didn’t skydive again until October 2000. His grandson, Kelvin Jr., was making his first jump accompanied by his father, and Wilkerson wanted it to be a three-generation event.

The men made the jump near Fort Bragg. Since it was Kelvin Jr.’s first, they used a static line, which opens parachutes as skydivers exit the airplane. It also prevents them from meeting mid-air, Wilkerson said, and that’s something he wanted to do with his son and grandson.

But he’d have to fight for his life, first.

Wilkerson was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001 and spent the next four years undergoing four operations and 33 radiation treatments to remove tumors.

“After the cancers, and especially the radiation treatments, my health has been very poor,” he said. “And I never thought that I would be able to get back up there and jump again.”

So when his son and grandson found a way for the three to parachute together again, this time at Carolina Skydiving in Jonesville, Wilkerson jumped at the chance.

On Nov. 25, Kelvin and Kelvin Jr. leaped from an airplane on their own. Wilkerson had help. He made a tandem jump with an instructor at the business who controlled their descent.

That was also the 20th anniversary of the day he married his wife, Katrina. She doesn’t like to fly, but supports him in his desire to jump.

“I was calling out ‘Trina, I love you,’ all the way down,” Wilkerson said. “I wanted to make sure she could hear me.”

The tandem instructor made sure Wilkerson had a happy landing. But he couldn’t ensure that he would hook up with his son and grandson during the dive, and they missed it again.

Wilkerson and Kelvin linked together, but Kelvin Jr. whooshed past them. “Naturally, you can’t come back up,” he said.

They hope to try it again Jan. 1. In addition to his son and grandson, Wilkerson said if he had his wish, he would jump with former President George Bush, who went skydiving for his 80th birthday. His wife would probably prefer Chuck Norris, who jumped with the former president that day, he said.

Even if no celebrities or world leaders show up, though, Wilkerson said he’ll be happy. And he hopes it won’t be his last skydiving experience, though he figures he’ll never jump solo again.

Wilkerson said some who know him think he’s a little mature to still be hurling himself out of airplanes. “Mainly my mother,” Mildred, who’s 89 years old.

But he believes if everybody tried parachuting once, most would fall in love with it just the way he has and “the world would be full of skydivers.”

“It’s just a wonderful feeling; I don’t think anything in the world can compare to it,” he said. “It just never lasts long enough.”

Contact Scott Jenkins at 704-797-4248 or sjenkins@salisburypost.com.

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