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Great-Grandmother Jumps From Airplane on 80th Birthday

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

GULFPORT, Miss., Dec. 12, 2002 – Some people's wildest life-long dreams never become reality. By her count, Marian Ditzler Powers' dream took 20,984 days to come true. She finally did what she'd been hankering to do since World War II -- jump out of an airplane!

"I did it on my 80th birthday, Nov. 3, 2002," exclaimed the mother of two, grandmother of three and great-grandmother of four. She jumped tandem with an instructor of the Palatka (Fla.) Skydivers Club. She and her husband, retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Jules "Skeets" Powers, are residents here at the Armed Forces Retirement Home, formerly the U.S. Naval Home.

Skeets said he was "a nervous wreck" as he watched his wife of more than 57 years prepare for the jump. He anxiously watched as she donned a lavender and hot pink jump suit, put on the harness, stepped into the straps and secured them snugly at her thighs.

"My arms went into two more loops; each was tightened to a snug fit," the great-grandmother recalled. "The four buckles that would keep Ralph (Nichols, her instructor) and me together would be secured in place when we were on the plane."

"My oldest grandson, Chris (Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Chris Anderson), was there to watch granny jump, but made a last-minute decision to go along and jump, too," she said. "He did his tandem jump with an instructor first." Anderson is a drug and alcohol counselor at the hospital at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla.

Noting that she doesn't know how she made it to the aircraft's doorway, Powers said, "Over the cold, brisk wind blowing in my face, I heard, 'One two three Go! Jump!' I'd done it -- at 13,500 feet! After free-falling for about 9,000 feet, I felt a sudden jolt. The chute opened, just as I knew it would. We did a spin. One was enough of that!"

Powers said she wasn't far behind when her grandson landed. "I bent my knees and stuck my feet out in front of me," she recalled. "We had landed! Wheels-up landing? No wheels. Belly landing? Not quite that, either. I guess you would have to call it a two-butt landing."

The 80-year-old skydiver said her dream of skydiving blossomed during World War II when she was a Navy parachute rigger. At that time, the Navy wouldn't allow women riggers to jump.

She enlisted in the Navy on Nov. 27, 1942, a few weeks after her 20th birthday, and reported for active duty on Dec. 22. After boot camp in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Powers and 26 other women reported to parachute rigging school at Lakehurst, N.J. Hers was the second class at Lakehurst to accept women.

There's no room for error in parachute rigging. "A twisted shroud line, an undetected rip or tear could ultimately mean the difference between life and death," Powers pointed out. The students, men and women, were taught upkeep and maintenance of all aerial lifesaving equipment, including repair of flight clothing, chute packing and a practical knowledge of chute construction. They also studied all phases of lifesaving work connected with aviation plus the theory of parachutes.

Training for men and women riggers was the same, except the men were required to jump using their handiwork, but the women were not. That was the disappointing part of the course for Powers. She'd wanted to jump, too.

She never got to jump, but became the first female chief parachute rigger on Jan. 11, 1946. She and Skeets married on Feb. 21, 1946, in the chapel at Naval Auxiliary Air Station Kingsville, Texas. They were the first two Navy chiefs on active duty to be married. She became pregnant, however, and was discharged on June 12.

Could this mean her love for parachutes was over? "Not really, just put on hold," Powers said. "My dream of jumping someday never went away. Skeets decided to make the Navy a career, and being a Navy wife with two children to care for made the dream unthinkable then."

Skeets retired from the Navy in 1961, and he and Marian obtained civil service jobs. They retired in 1985 at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., and traveled throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia before settling down in May 1997 at the Naval Home. A member of the Parachute Riggers' Association, Powers attended the 2001 reunion in Pensacola, Fla., where she met riggers she had known long ago. Her dream was aroused.

She saw some skydivers while she and Skeets were visiting their daughter Beti and her husband, Mike Anderson, in Palatka last August. That rekindled the fire to finally go skydiving. They went to the airport and arranged for her to jump on her 80th birthday.

"When an 80-year-old person has a dream to fulfill, it's time to get really serious," Powers said.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMarian Ditzler Powers realized her life-long dream when she parachuted from an airplane on her 80th birthday. The Navy parachute rigger had been hankering to skydive since World War II. Photo courtesy the Palatka Florida Skydiving Club.  
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