'Jumping Jay' lives for the free-fall

Walking through the Sparr Heights Community Center in Glendale on Thursday, Jay Fragoso was interrupted mid-stride.

“Jumping Jay,” a guest called out, beckoning him over for a handshake.

It is an appropriate moniker for a man who, at 72, is as comfortable interacting with his peers at the senior center as he is hurtling through the air at 120 mph.

On Jan. 18, Fragoso was part of a 15-person free-fall formation that set a world record for the largest skydiving formation of jumpers over the age of 70.

“What I enjoy is the free-fall,” the veteran skydiver and Highland Park resident said. “The parachute is just a means to get back down to the ground.”

Fragoso joined the Army in 1957 with aspirations of jumping with the Airborne Division. He was disqualified due to flat feet, and didn’t get his chance until decades later. But after making his first jump in 1980, skydiving quickly became a lifestyle.

He has made 2,504 jumps, all logged in neatly kept journals. They include jumps from a hot air balloon and a DC-9 plane, which was traveling at 160 miles an hour and required the skydivers to sprint out the back hatch.

“It’s 40 at a time,” Fragoso said. “When that door drops down and you start running, you hope you don’t fall down because you are going to get trampled.”

He and teammates from the Golden Stars Skydiving Team jumped into a middle school assembly, a rodeo arena and the Rose Bowl. They’ve been the featured entertainment at Memorial Day and Fourth of July events, and shaken hands with their share of powerful politicians upon landing.

There have been a few near disasters. In December 1990, Fragoso and 19 other skydivers survived a plane crash that occurred shortly after takeoff. During a jump the following year, his main parachute failed to activate, forcing him to cut it away and use his reserve. The secondary chute failed to fully deploy, so Fragoso had to manually manipulate the risers.

“When I landed, I got really bruised up,” Fragoso said. “But I went back a week later because I knew if I did not jump then, I wouldn’t jump again, I would quit.”

The recent world record jump proved to be a highlight after more than three decades of skydiving. Fragoso joined 19 others, all members of a group called Jumpers Over Seventy, in Eloy, Ariz., where they made 16 jumps during five days. The first six jumps were used to finesse their skills, the remaining 10 to attempt the record.

Between each jump, the participants reviewed video footage, strategized and reconfigured their formation. On the 16th jump, 15 of the 20 skydivers held a free fall formation for eight seconds, beating a 14-person formation record set last year.

The new record was certified by their parent organization, the Parachutists Over Phorty Society.

Fragoso’s skydiving intertwined with a 27-year career as a faculties and maintenance worker at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. He began working part time at the Sparr Heights Community Center five years ago in order to finance his hobby in his retirement.

“He is amazing,” Maggie Kavarian, community services supervisor, said. “He exemplifies what we love to see in seniors — that passion, that excitement.”

Fragoso planned to travel to the Dominican Republic this weekend to participate in the 64th anniversary celebration of that country’s air force. He and a fellow jumper have helped train the nation’s special sky diving team for the last five years.

“It is a passion,” Fragoso said. “It keeps me going.”

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