In the 16 years since he retired from law enforcement, former Erie County Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins has not been one to let any grass grow under his feet.
That was never more so than Friday when, Higgins estimates, 13,000 feet of air separated him from the ground below, as the 83-year-old South Buffalo resident made his first ever sky dive from a plane over the lush vistas of Niagara County.
“That Friday the sky was absolutely, perfectly blue,” Higgins recalled, in a phone interview a few days after his memorable jump.
“There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, not even a vapor trail from the big planes. It was an absolutely, incredibly beautiful day,” he added.
Jumping from a plane and then soaring above the Earth for several minutes, before gliding thousands of feet toward terra firma is something that Higgins said had long been planted in his mind.
“It’s a hell of a thing to do, but it’s also something I’ve always wanted to do, particularly after years of watching the guys who would parachute into special events and at football games and baseball games,” said Higgins.
He said he was encouraged to fulfill his dream by a lady friend who had taken the parachuted plunge from a plane twice. After talking it over a few times with the woman’s son-in-law – who also happened to her sky-diving instructor – Higgins finally decided last week that it was his turn to leap.
First, he made sure he was in reasonable enough physical shape for the planned adventure. Then, a mere two hours before his momentous jump, Higgins completed all of his ground and aerial training with sky-diving instructor Joe Eberhardt at Frontier Skydivers, a sky-diving center in Newfane.
Was he ready?
Well, having served as Erie County sheriff from 1985 to 1997, Higgins was certainly not averse to risk-taking. However, not even 42 years in law enforcement – half of that as a Buffalo police officer – could prepare him for the immense adrenaline rush, he said.
“It’s hard to compare the two,” he said of the difference between crime fighting and sky-diving. “A lot of times in law enforcement you’re more in control of the situation and you have a lot of training behind you. You’re trained in weapons, in tactics and in safety. But jumping out of an airplane for the first time in your life is just different.”
“It was something else – going out of the door of that plane at 13,000 feet, which would give anybody butterflies in his stomach,” he added.
Tethered to his instructor, Higgins recalled that his quick 7,000-foot descent from the plane occurred in a circular motion.
“You’re going belly down. You’ve got your arms out, sort of like you’re flying,” he said.
“The silence is unbelievable. All of a sudden the whole world is at peace. The view was just incredible. I could see the whole county from up there.”
When it was time to pull the rip cord, Higgins said, there was a swift jerk upwards as his parachute opened, which was followed by a 5,000-to-6,000-foot glide down to Earth.
“Somebody asked me if I would do it again, and I said yes. I suspect the second time I would know what to expect. I’m quite proud of it,” he said of his jump. “For my time of life, being 83, there are not many guys jumping out of planes.”