May 24, 2006
A Day In The Life
Chuting Ahead: Ray Maynard, Skydiver
July 20, 1969. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon; Ray Maynard jumped out of an airplane for the first time.
|Independent / Courtesy Ray Maynard
Maynard skydives into a ceremony in Rocky Point with a flag that was recovered by a member of the 106th Air National Guard from the rubble of the World Trade Center. (click for larger version)|
"I thought I was going to make one jump just to satisfy my curiosity, and that day I knew that I would be doing this for the rest of my life," he said.
At the encouragement of his sister, the-then 22 year-old Maynard went skydiving in southern New Jersey. He jumped alone and landed in tall grass, far way from the dropzone. "They didn't have the winds figured out correctly and I got out where they told me to get out and I just drifted off," he said. "I didn't mind at all."
Maynard has been freefalling ever since. When he was the manager of the Oak Beach Inn, he occasionally avoided the tedium of the commute by skydiving into work. He delivered an engagement ring to a man preparing to propose and a bottle of champagne to a birthday girl, both via parachute. He has jumped out of a 727 and off the 3212-foot Angel Falls in Venezuela. And after more than 3000 jumps he says he still gets a rush of nervous adrenaline when he stands at the open door of the airplane, preparing to give gravity the chance to do its job.
For the last 20 years, Maynard has been operating drop zones on Long Island, and since 2000 he and his band of 25 instructors, parachute packers, and photographers have operated Skydive Long Island in Calverton. Last year his company supervised more than 14,000 skydives, compiling one of the best safety records in the business in the process, according to Maynard. "It's a very controlled sport. People might think we're just a bunch of crazies — you don't have to be crazy, though it helps — but it is much more controlled than you would believe," he said.
When a day on the job involves diving out of a plane at 13,500 feet and freefalling at 120 miles per hour "there is no such thing as an average day around here," Maynard said as he sat in a golf cart near the company's planes last Saturday, hoping for a break in the low clouds that were preventing the gathered group of would-be skydivers from taking to the air.
From "Freefallin' Frank," a 92 year-old first-time skydiver, to the girlfriend who couldn't quite bring herself to say yes even when the ring was delivered via parachute, Maynard has completed his fair share of memorable jumps. Frank, who did a tandem jump with Maynard, briefly held the Guinness World Record for oldest skydiver, only to have the glory snatched away by a 93 year-old daredevil. "Frank came back to me and said 'When I turn 94 we're going to get the record back, Ray,'" Maynard said.
Frank's wife saw the situation a little differently. "His wife said 'If you take my husband again I'm going to kill you,'" Maynard recounted with a laugh.
The engagement story goes like this. Maynard and a friend parachuted onto the beach, expecting to be met by the happy couple. Perhaps as an omen of things to come, the couple arrived late and the girlfriend was less than impressed by the trouble her hopeful boyfriend had taken. "I give the guy the ring and he asks the girl to marry him and she says, 'I don't know,'" Maynard explained. "I thought how could you do this to the guy? At least mull it over a little bit. I never knew if they got married."
Maynard also participated in competitive skydiving events as a five-time member of the national Para-Ski team, a sport that combines precision skydiving with giant slalom skiing, including the team that won the world championship in 1983. There is a mannequin of Maynard in the Cradle of Aviation museum at Mitchell Field wearing his national garb. "I'm in a museum and I'm not even dead," Maynard said with a touch of amused pride.
While dedication to a profession such as skydiving may require a touch of madness — "you are jumping out of a plane and it's inherently dangerous," as Maynard put it — he said that people should have great faith in the 400 square-foot canopy of ripstop nylon that turns a heart-pounding freefall into a graceful float. "I tell everyone that's the last thing that you've got to worry about," he explained. "The chances of your first parachute not opening are very slim. The chances of your second parachute not opening are nearly impossible."
If such a thing did come to pass Maynard said that he figures that fate had sealed the deal long before the person strapped the parachute on. "You're name was in the book that day," he said. "I don't care where you were or what you were doing, if you were fishing, then you were going to get hit by lightning or the shark was going to eat you."
And so he keeps jumping, year after year, dive after dive, enjoying "the great camaraderie" of the sport, feeding off the adrenaline and excitement of the first-time jumpers. One of his next jumps will be a housewarming dive into the yard of his soon-to-be completed house that he and his wife Joanne are building in Hampton Bays.
"I don't think a lot of people in the world have a chance to really enjoy what they do for work. I am fortunate . . . it's a great gig to come here and make people happy," Maynard said
But on this particular Saturday the clouds continued to threaten. No one has jumped, but Maynard knows his parachute and the thrill it represents are safely packed for another day. "It is very difficult to put that feeling into words. You really have to experience it," he said of skydiving. "I just couldn't imagine not jumping."