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70-year-old celebrates life of skydiving with birthday jump

Don Solberg, shows how skydivers climb out of the jump plane Thursday, June 19, 2014, at Skydive Fargo at the West Fargo Airport. Solberg plans to skydive Saturday to celebrate both 50 years of skydiving and his 70th birthday. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

WEST FARGO - Finding words to explain the unreal sensation of strapping on a parachute and stepping out of an airplane isn’t easy, even for a man who’s been skydiving for nearly 50 years.

“I don’t know how to describe it,” Don Solberg said. “It’s just free flight.”

Solberg, with his white hair and 5-foot-4 frame, soared through the sky over the weekend to mark his 70th birthday. Just after storm clouds passed through Saturday evening, he made a jump from 10,000 feet before safely landing at West Fargo Municipal Airport as his purple-and-aqua chute billowed above him.

It was the 2,476th jump for Solberg, who’s been hooked on the adrenaline-pumping exhilaration of skydiving since he was a young man. Over his lifetime, he’s logged 20 hours, 26 minutes, 16 seconds of freefall time.

“I just love skydiving,” he said. “It’s the greatest sport there ever was, as far as I’m concerned.”

Solberg, who spent about 30 years as a skydiving instructor, is a founding member of Valley Skydivers, a club that’s been based at the West Fargo airport since 1984. “For many years, he was the heart and soul of the club,” said Clifford Cornelius, a former skydiver who received his first lesson from Solberg more than 20 years ago.

Raised in Hunter, N.D., Solberg made his first jump at age 21, stepping out of his dad’s Cessna 170 in the summer of 1965. It had rained the day before, and Solberg touched down in a soggy field and stuck the landing in ankle-deep mud. “Not too many people do a standup landing on their first jump,” he said.

Solberg said his first skydiving experience was petrifying, and in many ways, that fear has stayed with him for every jump he’s done.

“Anybody who tells you they’re not scared to make a jump, they’re lying to you,” he said.

Solberg, who can flip, turn and spin while in mid-air, said making solo jumps bores him. Instead, he’d rather do what skydivers call “relative work.” That’s when several jumpers meet in the air and join hands and feet to create shapes.

These days, Solberg makes about 20 jumps a year. But there was a time when he did 100 per year, spending much of his free time at the airport. “I felt like a widow,” said Solberg’s wife, Donna, who’s never jumped from a plane.

“I keep my feet firmly on the ground,” she said. “He wants me to take a tandem (jump), and I won’t do that.”

In 1995, Solberg, then 51, reached the 2,000-jump milestone, and as tradition dictates, his fellow jumpers pelted him with cream pies upon landing. The jump also earned him a set of diamond wings from the U.S. Parachute Association.

Given North Dakota’s frigid winters, most of Solberg’s jumps have happened between May and October. But about 10 years ago, he and a group of other skydivers made a point to do a jump in every month of the year.

Solberg, who lives in West Fargo, recalled the 8,000-foot jump the group made in January when the temperature was minus 10. “My fingers were so cold that I couldn’t even feel them,” he said. “Someone said, ‘Want to make another one?’ and I said, ‘No, I’m going in the hangar, and I’m going to drink beer.’ ”

Along with cold jumps, Solberg has also made some high-altitude ones. In 1992, he and others jumped from 22,000 feet during a skydiving convention in Quincy, Ill.

“We had to breathe oxygen all the way up from 8,000 feet on up to 22,000 feet,” he said.  “Maybe it’s in my mind, but I could see a slight curvature of the Earth.”

Freefalling at speeds of close to 120 mph, Solberg finally opened his chute at 2,000 feet.

Over the years, Solberg’s parachutes have malfunctioned about nine or 10 times, and he’s had to use his backup chute. For the sake of survival, he makes a habit of opening his chute at 3,000 feet. “If something goes wrong, I want some space between me and the ground,” he said.

Solberg’s worst skydiving injury came in 1981 when he broke his leg in four places after he turned too close to the ground and made an abrupt landing. With good humor, he blames himself for what happened.

“I had brain damage before I hit the ground on that jump,” he joked. “I never made no low turns like that ever again.”

That mistake aside, Solberg is known as a confident, safety-conscious skydiver.

“You don’t make it through 50 years of jumping without being concerned with safety,” said Chris Gourde, who met Solberg 18 years ago on the day he made his first jump.

Gourde, a member of Valley Skydivers, credited Solberg with being a driving force in the club.

“We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for what he started and kept going in the ’70s and ’80s,” said Gourde, 43.

Solberg, a former office manager who now does custodial work at North Dakota State University, said he doesn’t know how long he’ll keep skydiving. “This might be my last year, it might not be,” he said. “My adrenaline still flows, but not as much as it used to.”

Except for some lower back pain, Solberg said, he doesn’t have any health problems that would keep him from his passion. During a physical in February, his doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with him.

“You get a gold star,” his doctor told him.