TUPELO • To commemorate his 50th birthday on July 1, Russell Chumley decided to do something he’d not done before.
He’d thought about skydiving plenty, but just never took the plunge.
“It was this milestone of facing 50 that prompted this craziness,” he said.
By the time his plan turned into action last Sunday, it had become a family affair.
He knew his wife, Shari, would likely not participate.
“We had a deal a long time ago,” Russell Chumley said. “She told me the minute I sky dive will be the minute she gets a tattoo. But a year ago, she relented and said if I wanted to skydive, I could.”
Shari Chumley said even though she now has permission, no tattoo has been gotten – “I think that was more talk than anything.”
While planning his pre-50 skydive, the father of three offered the opportunity to his kids.
“My oldest son said, ‘No, that’s crazy,’” he said. “My daughter initially wanted to do it, but decided not to.”
But 19-year-old Scott, a junior at Ole Miss, jumped right in.
So did Russell Chumley’s younger brother, Robbie.
“Russell asked if I wanted to be a part of it and I’d always wanted to do it, so I signed on,” said 42-year-old Robbie Chumley of Birmingham.
Debbie Ingram of Eclectic, Alabama, completed the skydiving foursome.
She’s the mother of Russell and Robbie, and grandmother of Scott. She’s 68.
At first she thought she’d just watch from below, but Ingram and her two sons are tight. They even plan a mother/sons retreat several times a year when they just spend time together.
So, she decided to be a part of the family experience.
The Alabama family members drove to Tupelo June 1, spent the night and loaded up Sunday morning to travel to West Tennessee Skydiving in Whitesville.
“We’d been doing a lot of talking on Saturday, but when we got in the car Sunday morning, we were all kind of quiet,” she said, laughing. “And the closer we got, the quieter we got.
“Then we saw the sign that said skydiving and I think we all realized, ‘This is real.’”
‘What are we doing?’
The folks at West Tennessee allayed any fears the family felt, even after the future skydivers watched the video explaining all the risks.
“They made it clear that the risk was death,” Russell Chumley said. “We all knew that all along, but they put it right out there and let you know you could change your mind at any time.”
Each participant was paired with an individual instructor who stuck with them until their dive was completed.
“Mine was perfect,” Ingram said. “She was a former kindergarten teacher, very patient. I have to ask 15 questions about one single thing. She was a perfect match for me.”
At some point, the family suited up and headed outside, each with their tandem instructor and a cameraman to video the experience.
Then they boarded the plane.
“It was crowded,” Ingram said. “We were sitting like ducks in a row.”
The Chumley family matriarch said she was still asking questions pre-jump.
“There were so many things to remember, so many instructions to keep up with like keeping your chin up, arching your back, staying alive,” she said laughing. “They’d asked if we wanted to do any tricks, any spins while falling. I did not. I never let go of the emergency straps – it was like I was molded to them.
“I’m not a spring chicken any more. I was trying to remember everything about everything. And when it was time, we waddled like a duck to the open door, attached to the instructor, and then tumbled out.”
The Chumleys tapped into their Scottish heritage as each family member hollered the family motto – “freedom” – just before free falling.
Without exception, but using different descriptors, each family member said the brief moments from plane to ground were powerfully spiritual.
“It was an amazing, wonderful way to experience God’s creation – in serenity and peace and quiet,” Russell Chumley said. “It did not feel like you were falling. And it was not at all like a roller coaster ride. There was so much resistance with the air, it almost felt like you were swimming, just floating to the bottom of a pool.”
Brother Robbie called it a “spiritual, Godly experience – everything was amazing. It was super peaceful and relaxing.”
Scott Chumley said the skydive was “hard to describe” before he shared his very intuitive description.
“It was the closest a person can get to flying, though it doesn’t feel like you’re flying,” he said. “It’s not at all what you’d expect but everything you’d hope for. And a very cool thing to share with your family.”
His grandmother was in awe of the silence.
“It was like nothing I’ve experienced before,” she said. “The beauty and stillness. I am strong in my faith and I know without God, I never would have done this. But I am glad I was able to share it with my sons and grandson.”
Ingram was the first one out of the plane but the last one to land.
“And guess who landed the best?” she said. “It was perfect. The others ran to me and we had a huge group hug.”
Russell Chumley expressed pride in his mother’s free fall.
“Watching her land, was heartwarming and wonderful,” he said. “She raised her arms and hooted and hollered. The best part was when we were all safely down and hugging one another as a family. We will have a lifetime of memories.”
Future free falls?
Plans are already in the works for a repeat skydiving experience for some of the Chumley family.
Once aground, the adventure seekers were told by West Tennessee Skydiving they could sign up that day for a future skydive at a discount.
“I looked at Russell and Scott and told them both, ‘You have to do that,’” Shari Chumley said.
Father and son are signed up for another go at it. Robbie Chumley said when his 14-year-old daughter turns 18, the two of them will skydive together.
Ingram shared her feelings for a replay of the day before being asked.
“I don’t want to do it again,” she said. “That was my last yahoo. It was great to have that experience with my sons and grandson, but no, not again.”