Janesville79°

Janesville woman marks 75th birthday with a skydive

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Catherine W. Idzerda
July 27, 2009
— In January, Donna Henning turned 75.

To celebrate, her daughter and son-in-law offered to have the tiny, silver-haired lady thrown from a plane.


She was delighted to oblige.


On Sunday, Henning parachuted out of a plane into the sunny skies over the Fort Atkinson Airport.


Sure, she was strapped firmly to the body of experienced skydiver Bo Babovic, but what kind of rational person wants to jump out of a plane at 10,000 feet and then free fall until the chute opens?


Well, it turns out that Henning, a Janesville resident who is both rational and brave, has wanted do it for a long time.


"Whenever I've been up in a small plane, I've always had the urge to jump," Henning said.


Hmmm.


Did that happen often?


"I worked at Parker Pen," Henning said. "We used to fly to the Menomonie plant, and I would take minutes of the bargaining meetings."


Rick Behm, Henning's son-in-law, parachuted out of a plane last year for his birthday.


"She was ready to go with me then, but she had sandals on, and you had to wear sneakers," Behm said.


So Behm and his wife, Teri, decided to buy Henning a gift certificate to AtmosphAIR Skydiving Center in Fort Atkinson.


On Saturday evening, less than 24 hours before the jump, Henning sounded ready to go—sort of.


"You know, I'm excited about it, and I'm apprehensive about it, too," she said seriously. "I think I'll enjoy it a lot more when it's over."


Then she laughed.


On Sunday, Henning was more than ready to go. Dressed in an electric blue jump suit and matching blue-lined goggles, she looked like a cross between an extremely cute elf and Tom Cruise in "Top Gun."


As Babovic discussed such anxiety-producing details as backup straps, where to put her arms during freefall and how to step out on the plane's wing, Henning listened in a state of suppressed excitement.


Meanwhile, her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, her pastor, and a dozen or so friends from her church, looked on with admiration or teased her about her outfit.


"Better check those seams," one lady said, as she pulled at the jump suit.


Henning's family came from across the country to see her jump. The perfect hostess, she asked if she could go up in the first plane in order to get back to the house and attend to a party that included nearly 60 people.


"We prayed for her in church this morning," said the Rev. John Grice of Roxbury Road Church of Christ in Janesville. "We prayed that the Lord would bring her back to the earth safely. She was smiling the whole time."


And then Donna Henning, 75, mother of four, regular churchgoer and all-around respectable citizen, went up into the blue sky and sunshine.


Then there she was, a barely visible dot, falling through space, tucked beneath the experienced wings of Babovic.


When their red, white and blue chute opened, her friends and family whooped and cheered.


They swung through the sky, circling, drifting, sailing on the unseen air currents.


As they neared the ground, the crowd waved, and she waved back with both her arms and her legs, causing another round of cheers.


Henning was beaming when she landed and hardly knew how to describe the experience.


"We passed right through a cloud," Henning told her family and friends gathered around her in the grassy landing area.


The hardest part was stepping out on to the wing.


"The wind was blowing so hard, it takes your breath away," Henning said, still smiling.


Jumping out of a plane was one of the items on Henning's "bucket list"—the list of things she wants to do before she "kicks the bucket."


What's next? Fire eating? Sword-swallowing? Walking across hot coals?


"Well, I've traveled a lot of places," Henning said. "I've been to 48 states, except for New Hampshire and Maine. Those two are next."



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