Subscribe|Advertise|Contact Us|Order Photos

Voyageur's Best Features of 2006

Carol Gilgenbach

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… super grandma
Daredevil Carol Gilgenbach celebrated her 80th birthday by skydiving
by Angie Johnson  |  July 25, 2006

If Carol Gilgenbach is getting old, nobody told her.

She celebrated her 80th birthday on July 20 and decided to go overboard—literally—by skydiving. “I’m ready for anything,” Carol said before the jump. “If it’s that good, I might do it again.”

After all, George H.W. Bush did it on his 80th birthday. “Anything he can do, I can do better,” Carol said with a laugh.

Adventure is no stranger to Carol. “I used to race cars in the Twin Cities at Powder Puff Derby,” she said. “Not too often though, because I kept rolling cars.”

Carol’s courageous side came through even before she made her jump. She arrived at the McGregor Airport on the back of a Harley Davidson driven by her boyfriend’s son, Pat Doelz. (Carol drove a red car with a spoiler to her interview with the Voyageur Press the following day.) Numerous family members and friends came to watch Carol make her very special jump, including all six of her children, two grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, one niece and one brother.

Carol made her jump with Skydive Superior out of Superior, Wisconsin. Dan Fees was the instructor who made a tandem jump with Carol—from two miles in the air. Pat, a very experienced skydiver, jumped on his own. “He’s had close to 150 jumps,” Carol said. Another skydiver from the company went first to videotape the experience.

Even though she was a first-time jumper, Carol’s jump required very little training. With the plane still on the ground, Dan showed her how to jump out of it. He also told her to keep her arms crossed over her chest and head up as she jumped, then to open her arms in the freefall position once he tapped her on the shoulder. The Skydive Superior experts also made sure Carol got plenty of water before and after the jump so she would stay hydrated.

Her brother, Mike Groven, offered her his own advice. “Don’t drink too much water… You’ll pee your pants up there!” he joked. Mike traveled all that way from Kadoka, South Dakota, to watch Carol jump.

Skydivers need to be at least 18 years old to jump with Skydive Superior, but there is no age limit as long as jumpers are healthy. Not surprisingly, Skydive Superior doesn’t see too many 80-year-old skydivers. “Usually, they’re 20 to 30 years old,” Dan said. Still, Carol can jump with the best of them.

“She was very enthusiastic,” Dan said. “She had no hesitation, very little fear, and did a nice job. She really enjoyed the ride and said she’d do it again.”

“I just wanted to do something different,” Carol said about her amazing birthday feat. “It was really exciting. I wasn’t a bit scared. It was just something I wanted to do, and I did it.”

Fear, for Carol, never really set in. “I was so relaxed I couldn’t even believe it. Even the night before I slept so well.”

The only minor complaint she had about the whole experience was the plane ride up. She enjoyed looking over the country, but said it was mildly uncomfortable to be in such a small airplane with no seats (except the one for the pilot). It took quite some time for the plane to circle high enough for Carol and her crew to jump.

“She’s gutsier than I am,” Mike said. “But then, someday, I might do it too.”

“It’s an experience,” Carol said, “a really fun experience. You freefall for a while, for what seemed like a second, then the parachute opened.” According to Skydive Superior’s website, the freefall actually lasts almost 50 seconds, with jumpers averaging speeds of 120 miles per hour (about 200 feet per second).

Even though Dan could communicate with Carol during the jump, she needed little instruction from him. “He told me, be sure and smile at the camera,” she said.

Afterward, the family gathered for a meal at the Fireside Inn. They were also sure to watch the ten o’clock news on Duluth’s channel 10, which aired the story of her jump. 

“I’m just me,” Carol concluded. “I enjoy life. I enjoy doing different things. The kids would say that’s ‘crazy grandma!’”

This article first appeared in the July 25 issue of the Voyageur Press.