Ophthalmology Times

The Sky’s The Limit

February 1, 2003
By Jennifer Hanni

Fort Bragg, NC—As a reward for helping a colleague with a difficult postoperative situation, Robert K. Maloney, MD, got thrown out of a airplane, literally.

Dr. Maloney, one of the Directors of Maloney-Shamie Vision Institute in Los Angeles, wanted to do just anything else in the world but parachute-jump. That was until he was convinced that this was an opportunity he would not want to pass.

Scott Barnes, MD, lieutenant colonel, U.S. Army, invited Dr. Maloney to jump with him.

“Dr. Maloney is a very talented doctor who has provided many of his services so graciously to the military,” Dr. Barnes said. “We wanted to offer an opportunity of a life-time as a way of saying ‘thank you’.”

Dr. Maloney was doubtful when he was invited.

“My first reaction was that it was too dangerous,” Dr. Maloney said. “However, after Dr. Barnes explained that a jumpmaster from the Golden Knights would be tandem jumping with me, I realized I was in good hands”.

The Golden Knights, a military parachute team considered the best in the world, are often used as a recruiting tool for the U.S. Army. Many famous figures have jumped attached to a Golden Knight, including President George Bush Sr.

Parachute-jumpers are an essential part of the U.S. Army.

“Parachute jumping is often the only means to get a large number of soldiers down into a hostile environment,” Dr. Barnes said.


Although Dr. Barnes is not a member of the Golden Knights, he has had many years of experience in parachute-jumping. He began jumping in 1988 in military parachute school. He has been on several military missions serving as a parachute-jumper, as well as a doctor. Of the thousands of professional parachute-jumpers, very few are doctors.

“As an ophthalmologist in military, I often treat jumpers,” Dr. Barnes said. “By being a jumper myself, I am better prepared and oriented toward the hazards and concerns from an ophthalmic stand-point. For example, through my experience, I can determine whether a patient could jump following a cataract surgery.”

In February 2002 he became one of the few doctors ever to enroll in military free-fall school. “Free-fall is one of the ways to sneak a few guys into an area without being detected. The training is difficult because we carry a lot of equipment and the landings are anything but gentle,” Dr. Barnes said.

“I wouldn’t want my skills to get rusty,” Dr. Barnes said. “And I have to admit, I thoroughly enjoy it. Once in a while I say to myself, ‘I get paid for this?’”


After Dr. Barnes was able to convince Dr. Maloney to participate, they set the date for June 4, 2002, to meet in Fort Bragg, NC. Dr. Maloney arrived after attending the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery annual meeting in Philadelphia.

“I was given about five minutes of training and was quickly loaded up in the plane”, Dr. Maloney said. “To say I wasn’t nervous would certainly be a lie!”

Dr. Maloney was attached to Sergeant First Class Dave Herwig, a Golden Knight jumpmaster. The plane ascended to13,500 feet(about 2.5 miles), fairly high for a first time jump.

“ I looked down to see farms the size of postage stamps and thought to myself, ‘this is a perfectly good airplane, why would I want to jump out of it?’” Dr. Maloney said.

The first jump was to Dr. Barnes. Dr. Maloney thought that jump might help with his nerves, but he was mistaken.

“He fell like a stone!” Dr. Maloney said. “It was a little unnerving to think I was next!”

Dr. Maloney put his toes over the side of the airplane, as if he was getting ready to dive off a diving board—and took the jump.

“I felt a total adrenaline charge – like I had just drunk 50 cups of coffee.”

Different from most parachute jumps—when a ripcord pulls the chute immediately upon exiting the plane from 800 to 1,500 feet above the ground—the Golden Knights often freefall a good portion of the descent. On this particular trip, they dropped approximately 8,500 feet at 130 miles per hour before opening the parachute.

“Imagine standing on top of a car driving 130 per hour!” Dr. Maloney said. It felt very violent. However, I found it absolutely riveting to watch the ground come closer. I couldn’t take my eyes off the land below. I have never felt that level of excitement before.”


At 5,000 feet, the jumpmaster opened the parachute, and what was once a turbulent ride, became a very peaceful one.

“From then on, it was like a Sunday in the park,” Dr. Maloney said. It was very peaceful. This particular parachute had wings, and the jumpmaster showed me how to turn and glide.”

Dr. Maloney enjoyed his experience so much that he would consider jumping again.

“It was the most exciting thing I have ever done!” Dr. Maloney said. “You know, since I’ve become a parent I’ve been a more risk-adverse person. But now I realize it is worth the risk to have fun if it is a reasonable risk. I know I was safe with the Golden Knights.”

Dr. Barnes continues to be impressed with Dr. Maloney.

“I have rarely seen a first-time jumper as cool and collected as Dr. Maloney. I’ve seen people more experience than him that were much more nervous,” Dr. Barnes said. “He is a first class guy. He is incredibly generous with his time, never asking for anything in return. He deserved this thrill.”

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