Ottawa, Illinois — At 104 years old, Dorothy Hoffner fell.
Then she kept falling, and falling, and falling. And when the lifelong Chicagoan finally touched the ground Sunday, she landed in the history books and became the oldest person to ever sky-dive.
“Age is just a number,” Hoffner told a cheering crowd moments after touching the ground at the Skydive Chicago Airport in Ottawa.
As the centenarian prepped to board the white Skyvan plane, she slowly pushed her red walker out into the skydiving resort’s hangar. She took off her light blue cardigan and lifted her black loafers a few inches off the ground one at a time to work her way into a harness. She declined a jumpsuit but accepted an altimeter.
She left the walker just short of the plane, where two expert instructors helped her up the steps into the hold.
“Let’s go, let’s go, Geronimo!” she said, finally seated.
The plane quickly rose, Hoffner all the while looking calm and confident. She was the only passenger not wearing ear plugs as the propellers loudly buzzed.
When the aft door opened to reveal tan crop fields far below, she and the U.S. Parachute Association-certified instructor she was tethered to stood. Hoffner insisted on leading the jump. When she first sky-dived at 100 years old, she was pushed out, she said. This time, she wanted to take charge.
She shuffled toward the edge and leaped into the air.
The plane beat her to the ground. Seven minutes after her jump, she drifted in for her historic landing. The wind pushed back her white hair. She clung to the harness draped over her narrow shoulders, a look of excitement and wonder spread across her face.
She picked up her legs as the ground approached. And finally, she plopped onto the ground.
The crowd gathered along the skydiving resort’s landing strip roared. Friends rushed to share congratulations. Someone brought over Hoffner’s red walker. She rose fast, and a reporter asked how it felt to be back on the ground.
“Wonderful,” Hoffner said. “But it was wonderful up there.”
“The whole thing was delightful, wonderful, couldn’t have been better,” she said.
Her mind quickly turned to the future. She might ride in a hot-air balloon next, she said.
“I’ve never been in one of those,” Hoffner said.
The Guinness World Record for oldest skydiver was set in May 2022 by 103-year-old Linnéa Ingegärd Larsson from Sweden. Hoffner’s record has yet to be certified. The Chicago senior is set to turn 105 in December.
She answered quickly when asked what it feels like to hold the age-based record.
“Like I’m old,” she said.
But the record didn’t seem to interest Hoffner ahead of her attempt to break it. Before her jump — originally scheduled for early September and delayed three times because of bad weather — her mind was focused instead on the peaceful descent through the sky, she told the Tribune last month.
She first tried skydiving at 100, when her dear friend Joe Conant of Andersonville told her he was planning to sky-dive. She wanted to join, she told him, because “it sounded interesting.” It became one of her favorite experiences.
“Floating down, it’s so smooth,” she said.
She encouraged everyone to try skydiving and has advice for those who want to give it a try.
“When you’re coming down, make sure you’ve got someone with you. That’s the important thing,” she said.
“I often thought, if I were to do this alone, I would pray when I pulled the parachute cord,” she continued. “If you pulled it too soon and got caught on the plane, then what would you do when you got caught on the plane? How could they land that plane with you hanging on it?”
The 104-year-old has spent her whole life in Chicago. She was raised in Garfield Park, where she lived for 50 years before moving to Jefferson Park. She has spent the last decade at the Brookdale Lake View senior living community. She raves about the facility’s three daily meals.
She worked for Illinois Bell throughout her working years, beginning in 1938 as an operator, she said. She never had any husbands or children — an essential ingredient she in part credits for her long life.
Hoffner, who describes herself as an “unclaimed treasure,” never had to deal with the “responsibility” of kids, she said.
“Or the pettiness and the mess of a husband,” she said. “I never had to take care of anyone but me.”
The biggest secret to her old age and health is her God, who has been very good to her, she said.
“He kept me really going. I can’t say that I’ve ever had any real terrible pain,” she said. “My life has been very dull.”
She wasn’t much of an adventure-seeker for most of her life. For fun, she’d go out for a weekly lunch with two girlfriends. Sometimes, they’d visit the Garfield Park Conservatory. She traveled too — to England, Panama, Italy twice and France.
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She’s filled her life with chosen “grandkids,” including Conant. The two met when Conant worked as a caretaker for one of Hoffner’s friends. Though the friend has since died, Conant and Hoffner still talk daily and share dinner every week.
It was Hoffner’s idea to jump again this year, said Conant, who jumped right after Hoffner and landed before her. She clutched his hand as their plane rose. The wind caught their feet when they leaped from around 13,500 feet and pushed them into a backflip, he said.
“She’s just a great friend,” Conant said on the ground. “I’m incredibly proud of her.”
Hoffner strongly encourages others to sky-dive like her. It’s surprisingly affordable, she said, and “so peaceful.”
But she isn’t sure she’ll do it again. She doesn’t know what the future holds, she said.