Free falling

Cd'A man has had record-setting career as a skydiver

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Emmett Florea began skydiving when he was in the Navy working as a parachute rigger. The career and hobby would eventually allow him to participate in a record-setting skydive in which 55 jumpers over the age of 60 took part in creating a formation.

The hard part of being a Navy parachute rigger, Emmett Florea learned at the ripe age of 19, is the graduation test: Jumping from a plane in a parachute you packed yourself.

"Sure, I was nervous and apprehensive," he remembered. "It was all new."

But in 1962, with theLakehurst, New Jersey, base spread out beneath him in miniature, Florea steeled himself and sprang into the chilled atmosphere for the very first time, nothing but his pack to save him.

He was hooked.

"I wanted to go right back and do it again," he said. "Which I did."

Florea, known to his pals as Tim, hasn't stopped since.

Now 68, the Kootenai County native hasn't gone a year since he was 19 without jumping out of planes a lot. Besides his regular, casual skydiving outings with fellow adrenaline junkies, the Rathdrum area resident has competed in several national and world formation skydiving competitions.

He has also helped set world records for formation skydiving. The most recent was on April 16, when he participated in the record for the highest number of individuals over 60 to make a formation in free fall.

That was 55 senior citizens clasping onto each others' ankles and arms as the Earth rushed up to meet them.

"We were trying for 60 people over 60, but we couldn't find enough talent," he said.

Still, it was magical, he said. Especially for lifers like him.

"When you get those records, it's almost like there's a shock of electricity that goes through the group. You just know you did it, because the jump is so good," he said. "I've never been on a record jump that hasn't been perfect."

The fewest jumps he has made in a year totals at maybe 30, he said, like when he was caught up in building his house.

The most: About 300.

"That's when I was really heavily into competition," he said. "We jumped every day it was possible."

Florea just loves the freedom of it, he said. It's unusual. And plummeting through empty air never gets dull.

"The sky has been the most major thing in my life," he said.

The retired building contractor admits it takes a lot of time for a serious skydiver to hone his skills. It can get a little expensive, too, at $25 a jump at the skydiving center in Ritzville, Wash., where he practices with his friends.

"We normally do four jumps in a day," he estimated. "I guess it could be compared to golf. I hear golf is about $100 a day."

The thrills of golf aren't quite the same, though.

A good day for Florea, for instance, was helping set a world record for skydiving formation in 1998, when he was among 246 skydivers forming a polygon in the sky over Chicago.

It took 13 planes full of jumpers, he said. They had to start at 20,000 feet, where the air is so thin that folks were armed with supplemental oxygen.

It took 10 days, he said, including "dirt diving" where they choreographed on the ground, and then days of practice jumps.

"We broke that record on the 24th jump," Florea said. "That particular record was just grueling. I guess the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat drives us to accomplish this."

His competition days were rigorous, too, when he worked with formation teams of eight or four individuals.

The competitions have a simple setup: The group members jump and try to make as many formations together as possible in the 60 seconds before landing. A photographer - also in free fall - videotapes their progress, which judges will review to rate their performance.

"I wanted to know how good I was, I guess," Florea said with a chuckle of why he went competitive.

He must have been decent. He was on teams that won three national championships in the '70s, going on to world competitions.

Paul Taylor, who has skydived with Florea for 20 years both for records and in competitions, said their 8-man team could move through a sequence of formation patterns several times in under a minute.

"It's involved. It keeps your mind burning," Taylor said.

Florea always kept a steady head through it all, added Taylor, who lives in Yakima, Wash. And he has enough experience that folks would be comfortable sending their mother up with him.

"He's fun to jump with, but he's also very dedicated. He doesn't want to screw up," Taylor said. "I'm the same way. We have fun, but we take it really seriously."

Florea's wife, Lynn, remembers heading out with their daughter to watch the group's practice jumps.

"There were always lots of wives and kids. It was a big social event," she said.

She admitted strong marriages are rare with committed skydivers, because of the immense time commitment.

"Most wives are not willing to share," she said.

But she has enjoyed watching her husband succeed, she said. And she's grateful for the opportunities it has given her, like accompanying her husband to world championships in France and South Africa.

"These events were spectacular. There were people from all over the world, who had this skydiving in common," Lynn said. "It (his skydiving) has enabled me to do a lot."

Florea admitted skydiving today is a whole different beast than his early days.

When he helped form a parachuting club during his Navy days in Japan in the '60s, he remembered, the equipment wasn't close to as reliable as it is now.

"We were real pioneers in those days, because nobody really knew anything about skydiving. That was the infancy of the sport," he said, adding that no parachuting instructors existed to show them the ropes. "Nobody knew much about what happened in free fall. People had different theories about whether you would lose consciousness."

It's maybe a little miraculous that he has never been injured, he said, except for a broken ankle during a rough landing in his early years.

"It's a high risk sport, and we accept that," he said.

Taylor said it isn't rare to see men of Florea's age still skydiving.

Those who have been in it for so long, he said, are in it for the camaraderie.

"It's like anybody who's been through battle, or on any big sports team where you can hand a ball off to someone else and know you can rely on them," he said. "When you're up in the air and jumping, you have the same trust with your fellow person."

John Pollard, who has skydived with Florea since the '80s, said Florea's name is recognized among the skydiving community across the country.

"He's a legend," said Pollard, who lives in St. Maries. "He's been at the forefront of relative work, making formations and competing in skydiving competitions."

Florea's other hobbies include restoring old cars and woodworking. He made every stick of furniture in his house, and has two 1950 DeSotos parked in his backyard that he restored himself.

"My wife says I can't do another one until I sell something," he said.

His reflexes are fading a bit, Florea conceded. He will probably have to quit skydiving someday.

But not yet.

Especially when he's only two years from helping set the formation skydiving record for individuals over 70.

"Old skydivers have a saying: 'You don't quit skydiving because you get old. You get old because you quit skydiving,'" he said. "Its just been such a big part of my life. I don't know what I'd do without it."

When he's not skydiving, Emmett Florea spends his time restoring classic cars and woodworking at his home near Garwood.

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