Jumping out of an airplane 13,500 feet above the ground and plummeting 120 miles per hour toward Earth with the wind howling in your ears is not an exercise for the faint of heart. One local university president, however, found the experience to be fun and something he's ready to do again.

South Carolina State University President James Clark is no stranger to flying an airplane, but his participation in an Army Reserve Tandem Jump Camp held Sept. 7-9 at McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Hopkins marked the first time he had actually jumped from one.

Clark colorfully described his experience on Sept. 8 as one he’ll never forget.

“It was fantabulous! I was doing it with the world’s greatest parachuting jump team. If you ever go to jump, those are the people to jump with. You can’t do any better than that anywhere in the world,” Clark said.

He was among more than 40 education, business and government leaders who gathered at the Sumter base for the camp, which was sponsored by the U.S. Army Reserve and the 81st Regional Support Command. The camp is designed to build a stronger relationship between the public and the Army Reserve.

Clark and the other leaders took their tandem parachute jumps under the execution of the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team. Jumpers were made honorary Army Reserve Ambassadors.

Clark’s momentary free fall experience was soon followed by a peaceful ride back down to the ground.

“When you jump, you’re wearing goggles because of the wind. There’s a lot of wind noise. Once the chute opens, it's like you’re just sitting there just hanging out looking around. Everything is so peaceful and quiet as you’re floating down," Clark said.

“I did not have a sensation of falling. There was just wind noise and trying to see the camera guy and look at the camera and smile,” he said.

Clark is no stranger to airplanes and even led a formation of aircraft over the stadium during the playing of the national anthem when the South Carolina State University Bulldogs faced off against the Clemson University Tigers in September 2016.

Eight aircraft followed Clark’s lead, with the president having spent years participating in formation flying clinics and also teaching other pilots how to fly in formation.

The plane Clark flew was an RV-6 sports aircraft he personally built in 2002. The pilots flying alongside him were military and civilian friends who volunteered to join him for the occasion.

It marked the first time a college president had led a formation flight, said Clark, who was presented the opportunity by a Clemson grad and pilot he had flown with in the past.

“I did the same thing later at our homecoming. I’ve been in all kinds of airplanes all over the world. I’ve been in everything from those built by Boeing to those built by me. I’ve been upside down and in all kinds of weather in them," he said.

“But jumping out of a perfectly good airplane was something that I typically was not scheduled to do. I always thought about it in my younger years but when the opportunity presented itself, I said 'yes,'” Clark said, noting that he appreciated the time the team put into making sure everyone was safe.

“The most loved person there at that jump was the lady that packed the parachute. The parachute packers are the people that really are at the final checkpoint of safety," he noted.

"They have dual parachutes, and even if the instructor would have passed out, the parachute will open automatically, and I could have also pulled the rip cord myself. So you have three or four levels of safety with the parachute. I was excited about it."

As part of the U.S. Army Reserve’s focus on safety, the camp also featured a workshop in which the guests had the opportunity to drive a distracted driver simulator vehicle.

Along with safety, Clark said he also appreciated the service and skill the U.S. Army Reserves provide nationally, regionally and locally.

The Army Reserve maintains an active presence in hundreds of communities across the United States, including at 258 centers and 46 shops in the region. The Reserve also provides a multitude of educational opportunities, including the Minuteman Scholarship, the GI Bill, tuition assistance and technical job training.

The 81st RSC provides base support, equipment readiness and vital support functions for the 55,000 Army Reserve soldiers across the Southeastern U.S., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

The Columbia Recruiting Battalion has responsibility for recruiting activities within South Carolina, western North Carolina and six counties in northwest Georgia. The battalion is comprised of six companies across the region.

Lt. Col. Stephen Christian, commander of the U.S. Army Recruiting Battalion in Columbia, said Clark and other community leaders were invited to the camp for a purpose.

“We wanted to give the president and the other leaders a taste of the Army life and give back to the community. Ultimately, what we really wanted to do is build positive memories with the folks that attended and build good friendships and relationships within the community,” Christian said.

“The overall intent of the Golden Knights tandem jump is to build relationships between the American public and the Army Reserve. The same community leaders that we had at the event can take our message back and educate their peers and subordinates and inform their circles about the opportunities in the Army and Army Reserve,” he said.

Clark said, “We lose sight of that sometimes in that we have the people that are full time in the Army and are out there doing battlefield training all the time. But a lot of the people that we’re more likely to see are members of the reserve because when things happen locally, they get called up."

“They also provide special skill sets in support of the combat troops as well. Someone might be a physician or a lawyer or skilled in some other particular activity that the Army may need," he added. "Those individuals are called up and serve our country well.”

Clark said, “Being able to reach back and call upon these individuals on a moment’s notice is critical to our security.”

He said he participated in the tandem jump not just for fun, but to honor and support S.C. State’s own rich military history and continuing commitment to the armed services.

“The Bulldog Battalion has produced more African-American generals than any other battalion in the country – 19, including a couple of three-star generals that are out there. We have five in active duty right now. So in support of the Bulldog Battalion, that’s the least I could do for our cadets that are facing a lot more than that, that are going out there to serve our country,” Clark said.

The South Carolina State University Senior Reserve Officers Training Corps, also known as the Bulldog Battalion, has been a source of military education and mentorship since 1947, equipping adaptive leaders with critical thinking skills and the moral character to lead the nation's armed forces.

Lt. Col. Folden Peterson, a S.C. State military science professor who directs the organization, stated previously that the Bulldog Battalion has been recognized as one of the largest producers of minority officers for the United States Army and currently sustains an enrollment average of 135 cadets per year.

Christian said the U.S. Army Reserve is looking forward to conducting another tandem parachute jump in the future, something Clark said he would encourage others to participate in.

He said he's ready for another jump of his own.

“Right after I landed, I said, ‘I’m ready. Can we do this again right now?’” said Clark, who said “Nailed It!” was his self-imposed title for the video footage of his jump.

He noted, “I’ll do just about anything for our fellow Bulldogs, including jumping out of a perfectly good airplane."

Contact the writer: dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534. Follow "Good News with Gleaton" on Twitter @DionneTandD.

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Dionne Gleaton has been a staff writer with The T&D for 20 years. She has been an education reporter, regional reporter and currently writes features with an emphasis on health.

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