Larry Pennington

It's a Bird, It's a Plane -- It's an Ex-President

George H.W. Bush, bottom center in 2004, autographed his ripcord for Larry Pennington after Pennington helped the ex-prez on a 1997 jump.
George H.W. Bush, bottom center in 2004, autographed his ripcord for Larry Pennington after Pennington helped the ex-prez on a 1997 jump. (U.s. Army Photo Via Getty Images)

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By Jon Goldberg
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

VIRGINIA BEACH -- The scribbled inscription on the back of the laminated photograph simply reads: "Thanks for saving my bacon those many years ago."

That photo is the connection between Skydive Suffolk drop zone owner Larry Pennington and Blue Angels pilot Bob Fiedel. Their close call happened more than 10 years ago, but still it's fresh in Pennington's mind.

"She was flying a 152," Pennington said of the young pilot in training. Fiedel, flying a Tomahawk in the same airspace, received a radio call from Pennington. " 'Bob, look out your right window. There's an aircraft closing on you hard.' "

The woman's plane had closed to within 30 feet of Fiedel's aircraft before disaster was averted. "It could have been real bad, but it wasn't. [Everyone] landed, talked about it and that was it," said Pennington.

Pennington's recent trip to Pensacola, Fla., which is home to the Blue Angels, brought the two men together for the first time since their high-flying adventure.

"When I got there, we went to dinner. [Fiedel] asked me if I recalled the incident," said Pennington. "He said of all his years of flying, like 35 years, that was the closest he had ever come to getting hurt or killed flying."

Pennington, who has made more than 9,500 jumps and been part of four world record freefall formations, has operated his USPA accredited drop zone since 1988. In his nearly 20 years in Suffolk, he has collected a lifetime of memories and memorabilia.

His collection of thank you items includes a framed picture of a Navy SEALs Special Boat Team that he trained and an engraved paddle from an instructional class of the U.S. Army's Golden Knights.

But his prized possession came from George H.W. Bush following a 1997 jump. Two Golden Knights broke away from the 41st president after his freefall, and it was Pennington's job to guide Bush to the ground through radio transmission after he deployed his parachute. Pennington helped Bush land right on his target and got an interesting memento: an autographed ripcord from Bush's parachute.

"Not too many of those around," said Pennington. "He hadn't jumped since he was shot down by the Japanese in his war bird in World War II. . . . There aren't a whole lot of times when you get to tell a president what to do and he listens."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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