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40 years later, anchorman skydiver recalls fall from 3,000 feet

While skydiver and TV anchorman Arch Deal was plunging 3,000 feet out of the clouds at what he estimates to be about 120 miles per hour, he spent much of the time trying to get his parachute and a reserve chute to open.

He jokes that just before he hit the ground he thought, “Well, there goes my whole day.”

“You never feel like you’re falling in skydiving, you’re floating on this big column of air. I tell people that falling 3,000 feet doesn’t hurt, it’s that sudden stop after you see the ground rushing up that hurts,” says Deal.

It happened 40 years ago today on June 22, 1975.

Deal, now 83, says he still skydives and has taken up ballroom dancing. He also continues to work in broadcasting, doing voice-over work and a weekly radio talk show on WTAN (1340 AM).

Deal planned to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his “Big Bounce” at Saturday night party with friends and on his Sunday radio show which repeats at 7 tonight.

He calls it the “Big Bounce.” But he didn’t bounce as much as he sank or slid several inches deep into the soft sand at the base of a grapefruit tree. He was nearly a half mile off his target, a summer festival at the former Cypress Gardens attraction in Winter Haven.

He says rescuers took about a half hour to find him. “They weren’t in a rush because they thought I was dead and they were looking for the body,” he says. “I don’t think I ever lost consciousness. I was wide awake when the ambulance crew got there and they looked so glum, thinking I was about to die, that I told them jokes to cheer them up.”

Deal survived a fall that resulted in cracked ribs, a broken neck, a broken back and a broken pelvis.

Don “Ski” Chmielewski, who was on Deal’s skydiving team that day, remembers seeing the fall. Chmielewski and his wife Donna, and another skydiver, Pat Moore, were supposed to follow Deal out of the airplane but they watched in horror as the parachute and reserve chute tangled and twirled in the air as Deal went down.

“It didn’t take him long to go down and we saw him go into a grove so the pilot circled back to the airport and we rushed out to find him,” says Chmielewski. “We were running through the grove calling ‘Arch, Arch’ and then we thought ‘why do that, because he’s probably dead.’ “

Chmielewksi says the spinning chutes may have slowed Deal’s plummet and the lines from the chutes were caught in the tree, possibly helping break his fall.

“We were surprised to find him alive,” says Chmielewski, who continues to sky dive. He and his wife organize the annual Jumpers Over 70 skydiving event at Skydive City in Zephyrhills.

Deal was not only alive, he quickly recovered and was back at the anchor desk within a month. He continued a career in broadcasting and eventually became a professional skydiver.

“It’s been 40 years and I’ve just now started to get some arthritis in the joints,” he says.

One year after the “Big Bounce,” Deal repeated a dive into Cypress Gardens. “There are no photographs or film footage of that first fall,” he says. “If it happened today, it would be all over the Internet.”

Neither the TV stations nor the newspapers got a shot of the fall. But there was plenty of media coverage when Deal repeated the jump in 1976 and this time he landed perfectly.

Since then, he’s made more than 6,000 jumps, including 50 jumps in one day. He even survived a second skydiving accident at age 70 in which both legs were broken and he suffered internal injuries.

When people ask him why he still jumps after two near-death experiences, he jokes, “What else can go wrong?”

Deal credits his ever-optimistic outlook for getting him through just about anything. In his 2011 autobiography “Corporate Fall Guy: The Ups and Downs of a TV Anchor/Skydiver,” he writes that he said some quick prayers as he struggled with the chute and wondered, “How much is this going to hurt?”

In the book, Deal recalls intense pain upon impact followed by a peacefulness and inner calm accompanied by a brilliant light that lasted a brief time until the pain came back.

When Deal survived that fall he was the top anchor at WFLA,Channel 8. He came to Tampa in the 1950s after broadcasting jobs in Hickory and Charlotte, N.C.

He first worked at WTVT, Channel 13, and for 18 years he was anchor at Channel 8. He also worked at WTSP, Channel 10 until the 1970s. He worked as a radio traffic reporter in the 1980s and was part of the Q Morning Zoo on WRBQ (104.7 FM).

A pilot first, he started skydiving for fun in 1968. The passion eventually developed into a professional stunt gigs by Arch Deal and the Fall Guys. He was offered a chance to join the Miller Brewing.Company’s skydiving team. The job that took him all over the United States and into foreign countries.

For more than 10 years, he skydived into major events such as Super Bowls and professional baseball games, including one where he handed President Ronald Regan a baseball to throw as the first pitch.

Deal also skydived into NASCAR events and became one of the Miller All-Stars, a select group of celebrities who promoted the brand.

“I have no regrets about taking up skydiving,” he says. “I’ve been lucky and I’ve been blessed. And I am grateful to have survived. I do motivational speaking and I tell people you have to keep moving and keep a positive attitude. You get knocked down, you have to get up again.”

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