Bill Taylor sat in the doorway of a small single-engine plane, 13,500 feet over Calverton, his legs draped outside the opening as the wind whipped his patchy white hair.
He gripped the harness around his chest tight and glanced back at his tandem instructor. But, despite the deafening roar of the wind and the ground so far below, he wasn’t afraid.
After all, in just a few days, Mr. Taylor would turn 80 years old. In his mind, it was now or never.
“Your bones aren’t as strong as they used to be,” he recalled thinking before he leapt from the plane. “They’re brittle. Maybe I shouldn’t even think about it. But if you want to do something, your whole mind-set changes. It’s something I wanted to do. Let’s do it. Let’s go.”
The seed for Mr. Taylor’s skydiving adventure last June was planted decades ago, when he served four years in the U.S. Air Force as a crew chief in the mid-1950s.
He spent hours in a C-124 Globemaster II cargo plane transporting supplies and troops around the globe from Casablanca and Saudi Arabia to Alaska and Hawaii.
He would take the doors off the plane for other soldiers to make their parachute jumps but despite a few close calls and a blown engine or two, never had to use his own parachute during his time in the service.
He left the Air Force in 1957, settled down with his wife and started a family. For 28 years, he was a technical project supervisor at Brookhaven National Labs. He went parasailing and even sat in a stock car as it raced around the banked track at Dover International Speedway in Delaware.
But he couldn’t seem to shake the thought of skydiving.
“I’ve been thinking about that for a while,” Mr. Taylor said.
He checked with his doctor, who said he was healthy enough to jump out of a plane. As his 80th birthday approached, he made up his mind: Bill Taylor would go skydiving — and he’d do it on his terms.
That meant keeping the plan a secret from his family.
“I have a very anxious family,” he joked. “They would say don’t do it. Better to go and do it and tell them, ‘I did it,’ when it was over with.”
On the day of the jump, Mr. Taylor told his wife he was going to watch his great-granddaughter’s swimming practice in Riverhead. He stopped by the practice but told his granddaughter, Jasmine, that he had to leave for a doctor’s appointment.
They were fooled.
“We know now that the ‘doctor’s appointment’ was skydiving,” his daughter Nancy Taylor said in an interview.
Mr. Taylor said he “booked it” to Skydive Long Island in Calverton to make his reservation time. He met up with his tandem instructor, Duncan, and climbed into the plane after getting strapped into a parachute.
“I didn’t feel apprehensive or anything,” he said.
Twenty minutes later they were ready to jump. Duncan tilted Mr. Taylor’s head back and together they tumbled out of the plane.
Mr. Taylor couldn’t catch his breath at first; the wind was too strong. About 12 seconds in, he reached terminal velocity, traveling about 124 miles per hour toward the ground below.
Forty-two seconds after jumping from the plane, Duncan pulled the ripcord.
“It was quick, [but] it seemed long when you can’t breathe,” Mr. Taylor recalled. As the two floated back to earth, Mr. Taylor spotted the New York City skyline, Fire Island and the Connecticut shore.
“It was great,” he said. “It was glorious.”
He landed a few minutes later, no worse for wear, and picked up a DVD of his trip along with a CD of photos taken by another skydiver. But now came the hardest part: keeping the secret until his birthday, still a week away.
“I didn’t tell a soul,” he said with a grin.
During his 80th birthday party at the family’s house in Mattituck, Mr. Taylor called his relatives into the living room. He fiddled with the DVD player for a moment. Then the video of his skydiving trip began to play.
He laughs as he remembers his family’s reaction.
“They went crazy, yelling and screaming,” he said.
“We were in shock,” Nancy Taylor said. “Mom watched with her hand over her heart. We watched the video of him getting into the plane, giving a thumbs up, jumping out — free-falling — watching the parachute open, the descent and landing. We made him replay it a few times. It was too much!”
Sure enough, Mr. Taylor’s children told him they would have never allowed it had they known he was going skydiving. But he has no regrets. In fact, he’d like to do it again; he’s convinced he could land on the ground better if he had another go.
But would Mr. Taylor tell his family next time?
“No, no, I wouldn’t tell,” he said, smiling. “They worry too much.”