Friday, February 26, 2021

Before the memory fades: Windham’s high-flying high school senior

By Walter Lunt

Next to his graduation picture in the 1965 Windonian, the Windham High School yearbook, John Francis Mannette is portrayed as “high flying and free falling,” a description that might bring to mind various personal characteristics. The meaning, however, was quite literal.

As a rising senior in the summer of 1964, John nose-dived out of a Cessna-180 3000 feet above North Windham; a static line deployed his parachute and, to the fascination of open-mouthed spectators, drifted onto a golf driving range adjacent to Route 302 (Don Rich Plaza today). The stunt wasn’t entirely his idea.

John Mannette as shown in the 1965
Windham High School yearbook.
Marshall Libby was a family friend who was home on leave from the U.S. Army that summer.  It seems he had picked up an exhilarating pastime while serving in Germany: parachuting. John and his family listened to stories of Libby’s new-found hobby. With encouragement from his dad, who had served as a coastal reconnaissance pilot during World War II, John soon found himself under Libby’s tutelage learning how to bail out of the aircraft, control the chute’s steering mechanism and perform landing falls.

On the day of the jump, there was no grand announcement about what was going to happen in the golfing field. “But,” said Mannette, “there was word-of-mouth, you know, it was a smaller town back then.”

Mannette said he and Libby drove to a small airfield in South Portland where the Cessna and a pilot awaited to take them over North Windham. The golf range had been selected as the drop spot; a friend, Teddy Riley, had parked his convertible on the edge of the field, “I knew that car and it gave me something to aim for on the landing.”

Libby continued to give Mannette advice and pointers during the flight from South Portland. “I remember thinking,” said Mannette, “How the hell did I ever get talked into this?”

The weather was good, but Libby, fearing wind might cause Mannette’s fall to veer off course, called for two passes over North Windham. On the first, flying over Sebago Lake toward the shopping district, Libby dropped a streamer (ribbon strapped to a dowel) to test wind strength and direction. It dropped into Little Sebago Lake; the cautionary maneuver had prevented a potentially dangerous jump.

Mannette said that on the second approach toward North Windham, “…the door on one side of the plane had been removed. I was standing, one foot (inside the aircraft) and the other on the (wheel) fender outside the plane; I was holding on to the wing struts, waiting for Libby to signal me that it was time to jump.”

Asked what went through his mind when he finally took the leap, Mannette said he remembers being struck by the sudden sensation of silence. “Inside the plane was the noise of the engine, and rattling – then after the jump, all of a sudden, everything was calm and dead silent.” That’s what I remember most.”

“Also, looking down, there was only the ground – I could feel the fall, but as the chute opened, it felt like somebody was picking me up. Now my feet were below me. As I was drifting down it was quite beautiful. (The experience) was intimidating, but actually quite fun.”

Mannette said he was initially worried about hitting the ground in the right spot, “…but I was surprised at how well (the chute) could be steered.”

He landed within feet of Teddy Riley’s convertible. A crowd assembled, including his dad and other members of the family.

  Mannette said there was never another opportunity for him to soar out of an airplane, but that was okay because he’ll always have the memory of that wonderous, unforgettable day in 1964.

Looking back, Mannette says, “When I drive through North Windham today and pass that spot (where I landed) I always think about the jump, and wonder ‘How the hell did I ever get talked into that.”  <

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