Parachutes Incorporated: The Genesis of Commercial Skydiving

Where would skydiving be without innovation? Take a look at where you jump and the equipment you use and you will begin to understand how innovators have shaped every aspect of our sport.

Where would skydiving be without innovation? Take a look at where you jump and the equipment you use and you will begin to understand how innovators have shaped every aspect of our sport.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “innovation” as “ushering in a new method, device or idea.” By that definition, one of skydiving’s first major innovators was Jacques-André Istel, D-2, whom many call “the father of modern skydiving.” In 1959—when skydiving was in its infancy and populated primarily by military and ex-military jumpers—Istel and his equally innovative partner, Lew Sanborn, D-1, formed Parachutes Incorporated and opened the Orange Parachute Center in Massachusetts to tap into the civilian market. Stakeholders Nate Pond and George Flynn soon joined the staff, and the first commercial skydiving center in the United States was up and running.

OPC began advertising skydiving instruction to colleges and universities and soon attracted students and others from nearby Boston, as well as the rest of the Northeast and Canada. Future USPA Executive Director Bill Ottley was a frequent jumper at OPC in the early years (Istel personally taught him how to skydive in 1958), and he used the experience he gained there to begin what was to be a lifetime of travel and advocacy on behalf of recreational parachuting.

Both Istel and Sanborn were military veterans and knew how difficult and lengthy military parachuting training was—it often took three weeks to complete—and this was the way most people made their way into the sport. To make learning to skydive more attractive as a recreational activity, the men developed the Telsan training method (the name came from combining the “tel” in Istel with the “san” in Sanborn), which could prepare a student to jump in just three hours. Since prospective parachutists could train and make their first jump (or jumps) in one day, Telsan proved to be a huge draw.

Parachutes Incorporated also equipped its students with the latest in gear, adding to its professional reputation. Pioneer Parachute Company built custom harness-and-container systems for PI’s student program, and students wore a standard uniform: white jumpsuits, thick-soled boots, helmets and goggles. The instructional staff also wore uniforms: blue and white PI T-shirts and yellow jumpsuits.

As befits a commercial operation, the drop zone used a fleet of jump aircraft emblazoned with the PI logo. These included Cessna 180s and Canadian-made World War II-era Noorduyn Norsemen that held 10 jumpers. The Norseman was popular for low-altitude jumps but took a long time to reach 10,000 feet and above, so when higher-altitude jumping increased in popularity with the rise of formation skydiving, the drop zone brought in supplemental aircraft such as the DC-3.

OPC’s top-notch facilities also attracted potential jumpers and enhanced the drop zone’s reputation as a professional operation. The facilities got even better in 1962 when the drop zone added infrastructure—hangars, classrooms, training areas, restrooms and outdoor and indoor tables on which jumpers would pack their round parachutes—to host competitors from 14 countries at the Sixth World Parachuting Championships. The site boasted a 52-acre landing area situated between three 5,000-foot-long runways, which contained the “Para-Bowl,” a huge sand area (for landing comfort) surrounded by an elevated rim and loudspeakers. On top of that, students could end their day of thrilling adventure with a stop at Mike’s Bar or the Inn at Orange and rub shoulders with skydiving’s emerging luminaries.

The 1962 World Championships (which the U.S. Team dominated) proved to be a publicity bonanza for PI and sport parachuting. Joe Crane—who founded the National Parachute Jumpers Association (a USPA predecessor) in 1933 and was president of Parachute Club of America (USPA’s direct predecessor) at the time of the meet—served as head of delegation. Though no longer jumping, Crane was an ardent supporter of the center and the event. The nationwide attention Crane and the U.S. Team brought to the meet helped attract hundreds of first-time jump students to OPC. The business of parachuting increased dramatically.

Following in the footsteps of the successful world meet, PI opened its second full-time drop zone, the Lakewood Parachute Center in New Jersey, in 1963. LPC was ideally situated between New York City and Philadelphia and attracted thousands of students over the years. Instructor and engineer Condon McDonough surveyed, marked and cleared a 60-acre landing zone for the new DZ. PI brought on Lee Guilfoyle to manage LPC, and while working there he test jumped a number of pioneering parachute designs, including the Barish Sail Wing. Additionally, after a student accident at the DZ, Guilfoyle invented the pilot-chute-assist system that helped ensure students had safe and quick canopy deployments, an invention that earned him the A. Leo Stevens Medal (an award that Istel and Sanborn also won) for promoting safety in parachuting.

Some of skydiving’s brightest stars walked through the doors of the two PI drop zones over the years. Dan Poynter—a USPA Lifetime Achievement Award winner and author of numerous books, including “The Parachute Manual: A Technical Treatise on the Parachute” and “The Skydiver’s Handbook”—worked as PI’s equipment sales manager in 1966. Ted Strong—founder of Strong Enterprises, co-inventor of the tandem skydiving system and recipient of the USPA Gold Medal for Meritorious Service—was a part-time instructor and frequent jumper at OPC in the 1960s. Curt Curtis—a world champion formation skydiver, USPA President and recipient of the USPA Lifetime Achievement Award—made his first jump in 1966 at LPC. LPC was also the home drop zone of Nick Piantandia, whose Project Stratos ballooning and skydiving world record attempts brought him international fame. Piantandia earned worldwide attention (but not a record, for technical reasons) when he flew his balloon to more than 123,000 feet over Iowa in February 1966. Sadly, Piantandia died later that year from injuries sustained when his helmet depressurized at 57,000 feet when attempting to set a world record for highest skydive.

PI not only inspired students to become skydivers, it inspired skydivers to open their own DZs. In the early 1970s, Curtis and Tim Saltonstall opened the Pope Valley Parachute Ranch in California, bringing with them the Telsan training method, Pioneer parachutes and LPC veteran Bill Hammell to manage the center. Connecticut Parachutists Inc. formed at OPC, and its members jumped there for many years. Gradually CPI’s membership grew so much that the members voted to start their own drop zone, and CPI relocated to Ellington, Connecticut, where it remains in operation today. PI itself opened other centers in locations such as Indiana and California—in part to take advantage of better weather—but those never had the impact that the original centers did.

In the late 1960s through the ‘70s, skydiving underwent a historic change as relative work (now known as formation skydiving) surged in popularity. Skydiving was expanding nationwide, particularly in Southern California. New parachuting clubs offered lower rates, bigger airplanes and a lot less regimentation on the flight line. This new generation of skydivers liked their DZs to be operated in a casual fashion.

PI eventually hired relative work pioneer Jerry Bird to teach the discipline and appeal to this new generation, and while successful to a limited degree, it was too little and too late. PI was still primarily a student enterprise, and its leadership role in parachuting was beginning to take a back seat to the newly emerging drop zones. Gradually, many potential OPC first-jump students started looking elsewhere to begin parachuting. LPC closed in 1972, and Istel sold OPC in 1982. By then, PI’s equipment sales had dropped and the DZ’s glory days had come and gone.

Nevertheless, Parachutes Incorporated had forged the standard for first-jump students and drop zone management during its glorious tenure as skydiving’s leader. Thousands of skydivers—from first-time jumpers to world-class competitors—made hundreds of thousands of jumps at the centers. Many of its staff members—Bird, Curtis, Istel, Ottley, Poynter and Sanborn—have been inducted into the Skydiving Hall of Fame for their countless contributions to the sport. The skydiving community owes a large debt of gratitude to PI for its enduring legacy: the growth of skydiving beyond most early jumpers’ wildest imaginations.

About the Author
FEATURE201411-10Mike Horan, D-881, was a jumper and instructor at Orange Parachute Center in the 1960s and personally witnessed much of Parachutes Incorporated’s history. He is the author of the book “Parachuting Folklore.”

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Joe Duncan USPA #347
Thu, 05/21/2015 - 20:43

Mike,
Thoroughly enjoyed your article in this month's Parachutist...My instructor in 1962 was a student of Jacques Istel at OPC sometime
in the late 50's or early 60's...His name was Vince Gannon D-959
and the gentleman in the picture titled "Istel speaks with student"
wearing the red pioneer dbl zipper jumpsuit and the amber goggles
bears a resemblance to Vince........Could it be ?
Feel free to E-Mail me @.....joed02@optilink.us

Blue Skies !
Joe Duncan

Rob Pellington
Thu, 07/14/2016 - 15:13

Mike,

LPC did not close in 1972. I made my first jump there on 12 October 1973. Istel was still the owner and Vic Valli was in charge of PI aircraft. We had a 180 Cessna and a DC-3. On 18 Sept. 1974 Vic Valli and Rick Krull flew to the DZ in Illinois and brought back a Twin Beach. I Jump-mastered the first jump from it the next day, 19 Sept. 1974. I made my 55th jump there on 24 May 1975.
I returned to Lakewood Airport in 1988 and found the DZ closed. The buildings were still there, but someone at the airport on the other side of the runway said the DZ had closed the previous year.

Rob Pellington

Peter Eisenklam
Thu, 10/26/2017 - 13:07

Good for you Rob. I was instructing and jumpmastering at LPC in October '73. I may even have been on the DZ the day you jump there.

sarah drake
Tue, 12/27/2016 - 17:09

I purchased one of Bob Gross's helmets at his estate sale. Its from the 1960s. Is this significant to the company or its history. I've been trying unsuccessfully to contact the company with pictures, can you help?

Webmaster
Tue, 01/03/2017 - 13:10

Sarah,

Your best bet would be to reach out to the International Skydiving Museum & Hall of Fame at skydivingmuseum.org.

-Webmaster

Peter Eisenklam
Thu, 10/26/2017 - 12:58

Delighted to see this article on line. I was part of staff at Lakewood in the early 70s with Vic Valle running things. Still have my Inn at Orange mug from my first jump onto the lawn as well as a "Superstaff" mug given out in '73. Would love to find out if any of my old jump buddies are still around.

paul tarr
Thu, 11/02/2017 - 04:49

MIKE ARE YOU THE SAME GUY THAT JUMPED WITH ME AT TAUNTON MASS.DAVE AND GAY EISNORE RAN THE PLACE. YOU HELPED ME BY MY FIRST PC YOU WERE IN THE NAVY T THAT TIME. I STILL HAVE PARACHUTE BAG YOU GAVE ME. I JUST STUMBELED ON TO THIS PAGE WHAT A COOL VIBE I GOT THINKING OF THE PAST. BLUE SKYS PAUL TARR

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