Meet California’s 88-year-old skydiver — who plans on jumping at 90 – San Francisco Chronicle

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Each year on Dec. 29, Pat and Alicia Moorehead travel to Lake Elsinore in Southern California to celebrate a friend’s birthday party — in midair, while freefalling at terminal velocity. It’s a group skydiving affair made up of seemingly unlikely adrenaline junkies: senior citizens.

“There was a guy there this time who was under 30,” Pat Moorehead, who lives in Burlingame, said after the jump. “I don’t know how he snuck in.”

Among the group of jumpers was a 58-year-old German tourist, 72-year-old Alicia Moorehead, a 78-year-old retired Marine captain and an 80-year-old member of the group Latin Skydivers. At the high end of the aging curve was Pat Moorehead at 88 years old.

“The German said to me he hoped he’s still jumping when he’s 88,” Pat Moorehead said. “I says, you will if you plan to!”

The Mooreheads, who live in the Bay Area and Long Beach, have nearly 9,700 skydives between them and several records involving large group formations. Alicia, retired from a career in marketing and quick-witted, has been jumping for 42 years. In his 51 years in the sport, Pat — tall with wispy white hair and a well-kept mustache — completed 80 skydives on his 80th birthday (in under 7 hours, with the help of a large team of pilots and jumpers).

Pat Moorehead jumps out of an airplane over Lake Elsinore on his 80th birthday in 2011

(Tom Sanders | San Francisco Chronicle)

Skydiving brought them together — they met during a jump in Mexico in 1984 — and has since brought them to New Zealand, Japan, Jordan and across Europe. When they’re not lining up jumps with friends internationally, they’re chasing other adventures. In December they returned from a trip photographing king penguins in Antarctica. In February they’re going on an expedition in Chad.

Moorehead has become something of a figurehead of a global subcommunity of aging and elderly athletes who are pushing the limits of extreme sport into old age. These are grandparents and, in the Mooreheads’ case, great-grandparents who routinely launch themselves out of airplanes and perform acrobatic maneuvers in free fall.

“I call it the world’s largest dysfunctional family,” said John Dobleman, a 71-year-old San Francisco-born jumper known in skydiving circles as Mad John. “Pat is totally well respected within it. He and Alicia are in the upper tier. They’re role models for everybody.”

Pat Moorehead packs his parachute at a skydiving center in Arizona in 2017. Photo: Courtesy Pat & Alicia Moorehead / SFC

Pat Moorehead packs his parachute at a skydiving center in Arizona in 2017.

(Courtesy Pat & Alicia Moorehead | San Francisco Chronicle)

The umbrella organization for this global skydiving family is the Parachutists Over Phorty Society, or POPS — a cheeky nod to the perception that skydiving is a young person’s game. Today, there are 28 chapters in countries around the world and upwards of 12,000 members.

The group was founded in 1966, back when 40-year-olds in the nascent sport were scarce. Now jumpers like Moorehead are pushing skydiving way beyond middle age.

His first skydive, in 1969, took place at Lake Elsinore in Riverside County on a whim. Moorehead, then a firefighter in Vernon (Los Angeles County) and his crew had seen a program on their black-and-white TV depicting a radical activity in which people jumped out of airplanes for fun. They psyched each other up to do a group jump.

“It was a macho thing,” Moorehead recalled recently in his Burlingame apartment.

The firemen completed a static-line jump — meaning their parachutes opened automatically — from about 2,500 feet, a disturbingly low altitude for beginners by today’s standards. Moorehead was the only one to go up for a second jump. He remembered taking note of the ages of his fellow jumpers.

“At 37, I was the oldest guy at the drop zone. I still am, by the way!” he said recently with a laugh.

Alicia Moorehead shows the emblem of Parachutists Over Phorty, or POPS, at her home in Burlingame. Photo: Gregory Thomas / The Chronicle

Alicia Moorehead shows the emblem of Parachutists Over Phorty, or POPS, at her home in Burlingame.

(Gregory Thomas / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Today, aging jumpers are more numerous, and they organize under clubs with amusing acronyms, some of which Moorehead helped establish: Skydivers Over Sixty (S.O.S.), Jumpers Over Seventy (J.O.S.) and, more recently, Jumpers Over Eighty Society (JOES) and Jumpers Over Ninety Society (JONS). Alicia Moorehead served as POPS’ volunteer leader, called Top Pop.

The Mooreheads jump at least once a month, often in Perris (Riverside County), and always in groups. For them, skydiving is an excuse to travel, a way to stay in touch with friends, a way to stay in shape and a means of contributing to a growing community. “It’s our sport and our social life,” Pat Moorehead said.

“With most sports, you probably don’t have that many 70- to 80-year-olds, like you do with skydiving,” Dobleman said. “Probably it’s because once you leave the airplane all you have working on you is gravity. So you can still do it actively into old age.”

Pat Moorehead parachuting from a skydive during his 80th birthday in 2011 near Lake Elsinore in Riverside County.

(Randy Forbes | San Francisco Chronicle)

With some chagrin, Pat Moorehead has grown into a poster child (poster octogenarian?) for a generation of Americans who are living longer and more active lives than any that have come before.

About eight years ago, Campbell’s Soup featured him jumping out of a plane in a TV spot — the idea being that Silent Generation soup-slurpers are still getting after it, living life to the fullest. Later, he skydived for a life insurance commercial.

“A long time ago, he did stunts in commercials. Then he got too old,” Alicia Moorehead said. “Now we’re in a period where they want old, so he started all over again.”

In the past decade, Pat Moorehead has found himself increasingly bombarded with interview requests for articles (not unlike this one) that seek to exalt him as a case study of active living into old age. He appreciates the consideration and the platform, but he is conflicted about the implications of being singled out as an oddity.

“We’re not trying to set an example for anyone,” he said. “If what we do helps inspire people to realize that getting older isn’t an early death sentence — that it’s a gift that you take and you make something out of it — that’s great.”

The Mooreheads don’t have any secrets for staying healthy — nothing exciting, anyway. They try to avoid TV and dependence on daily meds. They go on long morning walks. Pat pushes free weights; Alicia prefers yoga. They’re “basically vegetarians.”

“I’d like us not to be seen as an unusual couple but representative of a lot of people,” Pat Moorehead said. “The problem is that when we get profiled like this, they do this thing about, ‘We’re unusual.’ In the huge population, yes, we are. But there’s a huge segment of this group that keeps on keepin’ on.”

That’s a classic Moorehead-ism — one of many sayings he deploys in conversation — meant to convey an attitude that is less concerned with gracefully slowing down than mindfully pursuing new experiences. Relaxing comfortably into a sedentary existence — whether old or young — is a death blow to people’s innate energy and passion, Moorehead reasons.

Alicia Moorehead (left) and Pat Moorehead at home in Burlingame. Photo: Gregory Thomas / The Chronicle

Alicia Moorehead (left) and Pat Moorehead at home in Burlingame.

(Gregory Thomas / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

“People are always looking for ways to make their lives easier,” he said with a twinge of disgust.

He has a metaphor he likes to roll out for questions about his lifestyle choices. The Mooreheads’ Burlingame apartment is up two flights of concrete stairs. “When I come up those stairs, I never grab the banister,” Moorehead said. “Because if you grab the banister today, pretty soon you’re going to have to grab the banister.”

Or, if you’d prefer another Moorehead Motto, which he adopted from a former Top Pop: “You don’t stop skydiving because you get old. You get old because you stop skydiving.”

Making a jump at age 90 is Pat Moorehead’s next milestone. The 90-and-over club, JONS, has only about a dozen members, but Moorehead and a few of his late-octogenarian buddies are already planning their free-fall foray into their next decade.

“I guarantee we’ll find a way to make it happen,” he said.

Gregory Thomas is the Chronicle’s Editor of Lifestyle & Outdoors. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @GregRThomas

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