Three days after he turned 17 years old in 1963, Mike McGowan left Manteno and followed in the footsteps of his older brother by joining the Navy.
“It seemed like the thing to do. The Navy was great,” McGowan recalled this week in a telephone interview with the Daily Journal.
It was the starting point for him to work in a career involving his life-long passions of skydiving and photography.
“I saw I could sign up for parachute rigging. It was a no-brainer,” McGowan said.
At the age of 18, McGowan made his first parachute jump from the Naval facility located at Lakehurst, N.J., in 1964.
Now more than 15,000 jumps later, the 73-year-old Arizona resident will be inducted into the International Skydiving Hall of Fame. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ceremony originally set for this October was postponed until April 24, 2021.
McGowan is one of 11 individuals from across the world being inducted.
“I have two loves and I’ve lived the life. It can’t get any better when you are able to experience that,” McGowan said.
As a child, McGowan said he wanted to be able to do what Peter Pan did — fly. The wrinkle he added was his passion for photography.
“Photographers were my heroes,” McGowan said. “I found I have an eye for it when it comes to composition, lighting and being in the moment. I’m at ease when I am free falling. It is my form of release.”
Over the course of 54 years of making jumps, McGowan has captured the sport as the artform it is.
According to a release from the International Skydiving Museum and Hall of Fame, McGowan is one of the world’s premier free-fall photographers and videographers. Numerous national magazines have printed McGowan’s photos and countless commercials and videos have featured his work.
The United States Parachutist Association’s (USPA) Parachutist Magazine, alone has run hundreds of his photos, many on the cover.
McGowan was responsible for filming the first air-to-air video used for scoring purposes at a 20-way meet at Skydive City Zephyrhills in Florida in the mid-1980s. USPA adopted the system the following year for its sanctioned competitions.
McGowan was a principal videographer on the world’s first 100-, 120-, 144-, and 300-way formation skydiving world records, as well as numerous women’s world records.
“That 300-way jump took a year to design and prepare,” McGowan said. “It took 15 jumps to learn and accomplish the record. The hardest part was having enough spacing into the landing area with 300 people involved.”
To capture history on film, McGowan used a wide-angle fish-eye lens for the jump.
Videography is another area McGowan has excelled in and helped with training.
McGowan collaborated with fellow skydiving pioneer, Al Gramando, to direct, film and edit the first training video for all seven levels of the Advanced Freefall Program.
When he began using the technique of telling a story with his tandem skydiving videos, camera flyers at drop zones around the world adopted it.
He is also a Federal Aviation Administration Master Rigger and USPA National Director.
The journey to this being a full-time job started after four-year stints in both the Navy and Air Force. McGowan came back and worked at a steel-making facility in Kankakee County.
His love of skydiving took him to the state of Missouri before he landed in Texas in 1981 and made this his full-time job.
The last time he was back in Kankakee County was three years ago. During his career, McGowan has made jumps at the Greater Kankakee Airport and Koerner Aviation. He still has friends in the area.
Manteno is near and dear to McGowan’s heart.
“I miss home,” he said. “You can live anywhere but there is only one place that you truly call home.”
Now, McGowan lives in Eloy, Arizona, the home of Skydive Arizona, known as the world’s largest skydiving center.
Since having an ankle replaced, McGowan said he no longer jumps.
After a great career, McGowan said he is thrilled about his induction into the hall of fame.
“Not many get in,” he said.
McGowan is also appreciative of all he has been able to do.
“I am happy it happened,” he said. “I’m a pretty lucky guy.”