The late George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush were fun loving couple. There was a time they playfully punked the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights parachute team after Bush talked his way into jumping out of a team airplane to celebrate his 80th birthday.
“They had fun with us,” Army Sergeant Major Bryan Schnell tells PEOPLE, as he still laughs at the gentle and good-spirited joke from 14 years ago.
“I was rigging him up planeside for his first jump,” says Schnell, who was slated to leap from a plane while strapped to the former president. “All of a sudden this black SUV starts rolling up the side of the airport. Bush looked at me and said, ‘Uh-oh. It looks like somebody found out about this.’”
The “somebody” was the former octogenarian’s wife Barbara, who made a beeline for the two jumpers.
“She gets out of the SUV and tells me I better not hurt her old man, and if I do, she knows people who will find me,” Schnell says, laughing.
“They were playing us a little bit,” he adds. “They were acting like nobody knew about the first jump.”
Many others, in fact, knew well in advance about the wild-seeming escapade.
The initial request from 41 to make the June 2004 jump found its way to John Fenzel, who at the time commanded an Army brigade that was in charge of the Golden Knights.
“I went to a three-star general and told him the former president wanted to do a tandem jump,” Fenzel tells PEOPLE. “He turned to me and said, ‘Don’t screw it up.’ “
There commenced an “extraordinary” amount of planning that included training the prospective parachutist, Fenzel says.
During one hands-on training session, Bush turned to the Golden Knights and said: “This isn’t my first jump.”
His first jump, of course, was during World War II when, as a young Navy pilot, Bush bailed out of a crippled warplane over the Pacific Ocean, and was rescued by a submarine.
The Golden Knights adventure was tame by comparison. Still, Bush kept the plan to himself and his Army confederates, until shortly before the jump.
“He didn’t tell anybody else about this,” Fenzel says. “Not his wife, and not the Secret Service.”
The secret skydiver revealed the news the night before a ceremony to mark the opening of his presidential library in College Station, Texas, on June 14, 2004.
That night, surrounded by various officials and Golden Knights, Bush casually remarked to Barbara that he was jumping into the ceremony.
“Without skipping a beat, Barbara turned to us and said, ‘If anything goes wrong, I’ll kill you all,’ ” Fenzel says.
“Everybody laughed,” Fenzel says. “Everybody knew he did what he wanted to do. This meant a lot to him.”
The Secret Service detail was nervous. “I told the Secret Service, ‘You have him on the ground, we’ll have him in the sky,’ ” Fenzel recalls.
On the day of the jump, Bush had even more ideas for the jump. He wanted to do it alone, including a free fall, Schnell says. If not for being a former president, he could have.
“He is a big man, and he was in great shape,” Schnell says. “You could tell right away he was in great shape, physically and mentally. He was ready to do it. He was flawless. He was completely able to do the jump by himself.”
Reason prevailed, Schnell says. “You don’t want to take a chance with the former president,” Schnell says. “We made the decision as a team to do it as a tandem.”
On the way up in the plane, Bush was happy and looking forward to the dive, Schnell says. The jump itself went smoothly and without a hitch.
“Barbara was very vigilant throughout the entire time,” says Fenzel, who waited on the ground alongside America’s Grandmother. “It was a poignant time. Afterwards, she walked quickly over to him and gave him a big hug and a kiss.”
Congratulatory hugs came also from Chuck Norris and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev (who declined an offer to jump with the Golden Knights).
“He had a great time,” Schnell says. “After he landed, he was excited.”
At lunch afterwards, Bush talked to Schnell about his first unplanned jump. “He said that being under a parachute at that time was surreal,” Schnell says. “He wanted to do it again in a different setting.”
He enjoyed the adventure so much, he arranged for more. “He loved it,” Fenzel says. “After each jump, he made a point of saying, ‘Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you have to sit in the corner drooling.’”