What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Tales from Skydiving in the '60s: Part I
Do you think you have it bad, having to constantly reassure coworkers who know you’re a skydiver? Or answering the same questions over and over again to friends and family who don’t really understand what skydivers actually do? Imagine what it was like in the 1960s, when skydiving was a new sport. Today, almost every other stranger we run into has made at least one jump or knows someone who has. Parachutists back then—there were only about 4,000 to 8,000 in the entire country—really had some explaining to do.
This was an era when safety rules and regulations for skydiving were just emerging. The sport had nowhere near perfected its gear and the procedures for using it. It was a new world, and sometimes jumpers learned their lessons—the ones we take for granted now—the hard way.
In the 1960s, before commercial drop zones existed, skydivers would get together and form clubs, working together to find a suitable airstrip, landing area, airplane and a pilot willing to fly jumpers. Jerry Baumchen, D-1543, recalls that jumping at his skydiving club involved taking off from an existing airstrip and landing on the nearest available field—usually, a friendly farmer’s—10 to 15 miles away. He said, “Making 75 jumps a year was a lot for a regular weekend jumper due to lack of aircraft, lack of pilots and, of course, the weather.” Also, although the price of gear was significantly less than today, a jump ticket was far more expensive. A jump from 12,500 feet was $5.50, about $41 in today’s currency.
Some clubs were very strict; others were considered outlaws because they refused to follow the sport’s emerging regulations. Outlaws simply resented someone else setting rules without consulting with them first. Opening altitudes, size of canopies and use of altimeters or stopwatch instruments for gauging altitude were personal choices according to some skydivers, who thought these things should not be mandated.
“When I started jumping in 1959 in Chicago, our clubs in the Midwest were more safety conscious and very conservative compared to the wild West Coast jumpers,” Kim Knor, D-221, said with a smile. “There were established commercial parachute centers on the East Coast that had routine training courses before being allowed to jump, and even the clubs tried to follow those patterns and rules.”
Obsolete Games and Other Shenanigans
The 1960s was an era when flying to another person in freefall was an amazing ability. Exiting the plane was called “bombing out.” Skydivers packed their round canopies on tables. Someone with 250 jumps was extremely experienced, and the top jumpers in the United States had about 1,000 jumps. Baton passes demonstrated the ability to touch someone else in freefall. It was also a time when jumpers would “zap” someone, or pull someone else’s ripcord, in freefall.
The 1967 book “The Falcon’s Disciples” by Howard Gregory covers the history of sport parachuting and includes many tales about skydiving in the ’60s. In the book, one jumper claimed, “I’ve dumped a few guys, but I’ve lucked out myself. No one has dumped me yet.” He described one zapping incident with pride: “The cameraman went out and we all bombed out. This one jumper came up in front of the cameraman, getting his picture taken, and I came screaming by him, just under him. I never touched him, just reached up, got his ripcord and kept right on going. He was swinging at 13,000 feet.” He did the same to another jumper, proudly holding two ripcords in his fist, and was about to try for a third zap. “I started for another jumper, but by then we were down to 1,200 feet.”
“The Falcon’s Disciples” also relates a number of pilots’ stories. One jump pilot recalled an alarming prank jumpers played on him: “During night jumps at 7,500 feet, I’ve had them yell ‘Cut!’ reach over, take the (ignition) key, put it in their mouth and jump, leaving me there with no power. There is no problem … except it’s black and there are no lights on the runway and you only have one pass.”
A fad for quite some time was experiencing zero Gs on exit. Gregory’s book discusses a pilot who would pull into a climb, then “dump it over,” creating zero Gs so that the jumpers would just float out the door. Another pilot in the book explained, “I had a guy on the step one time who tried this and he went clear over the top of the wing and was looking at me through the windshield. We both got scared. I never thought this would occur, but he went clear up and over the wing on a high-wing airplane, and that’s hard to do.”
Jump pilots in the ’60s also played games that would be unheard of today. “The Falcon’s Disciples” describes a pilot’s carefully planned prank on a load of jumpers: “He had someone else take control of the plane. He ran down the aisle saying something was wrong with the plane and jumped out the door.” As the pilot stumbled over seated jumpers getting to the door, the jumpers also quickly jumped out, leaving behind helmets, gloves and goggles. “It was a mad scramble, and it didn’t dawn on them that somebody else was at the wheel. They just saw the pilot going out the door and they went out in a mob.”
Oranges, grapefruit and eggs were popular items to take up on skydives. Large oranges fall at about the same rate as people, and skydivers would toss them back and forth in freefall. Eggs, on the other hand, were good for air-to-air combat. “The Falcon’s Disciples” shares the memory of one jumper who had an egg fight with a friend: “I was kind of cheap and only bought two eggs, one for him and one for me. We were supposed to do it nice and clean and weren’t supposed to cheat. We were supposed to leave the plane at approximately the same time and work in on each other in relative work, nobody a little bit higher so that they could bomb down. It was supposed to be a gentleman’s egg fight.
“It was an accident that he left, and I waited about a second. I was dropping down in on him, and he thought I had reneged on our agreement.” This jumper was 30 feet above his friend, but the friend quickly threw the egg, thinking the other was now playing dirty. He went on to say, “If you’ve ever seen an egg thrown up at you like this, it really moves.
“I threw the egg and it was the most fantastic sight I’ve ever seen, because the egg actually went down in slow motion. The egg hit him on the left of his backpack and bounced off—without breaking— ricocheting like a tracer bouncing off something.”
Round canopies opened very quickly, and jumpers opened much lower than today. However, skydiving clubs and instructors did not tolerate very low openings and would ground jumpers immediately after the dangerous behavior. Still, a few jumpers engaged in the risky (and fortunately, obsolete) game of low-pull.
In the 1960s, Bud Kiesow was an instructor and stuntman with more than 1,000 jumps who worked on the cutting-edge skydiving TV show “Ripcord.” In the “Falcon’s Disciples,” he said, “For over 200 jumps I doubt if I opened above 1,000 feet. I think this is one of the reasons I was asked to jump for the ‘Ripcord‘ program, because the original plans called for doing all kinds of daring feats of bravery and guts. But it turned out that everything was done within reason.”
Kiesow saw nothing wrong with opening low, jumping without a reserve or trying new stunts. It was his choice, his judgment, and he was responsible only for himself. That is, until one day, while on the ground, he watched one of his students deploy at 500 feet. The student had a Mae West malfunction (a line-over on a round canopy) and threw out—literally, with his hands—his belly-mounted reserve. The reserve wrapped around the student. Kiesow described the student as “screaming toward the ground.” Just six feet away from Kiesow, the student’s reserve inflated 10 feet off the ground.
The student walked up to Kiesow with a grin on his face and asked, “Can I get in your club now?” Shaken, Kiesow reformed his low-opening habit right then and there. “It was time I got squared away, because I made impressions on people. And someone was going to kill himself on account of me,” he said.
In the early days of helmet-mounted filming in the 1960s, cameramen felt they could not look down or check their altimeters or stopwatches because they wanted to keep their cameras aimed at the other jumpers. They relied on their subjects to indicate that it was pull time. When the skydivers they were filming pulled, they pulled immediately after.
In Gregory’s book, one cameraman related a serious incident using this method. It was in Europe during a world meet in front of a huge crowd and a CBS television crew. He was filming a former world champion and said, “When I’m filming I’m never aware of the altitude because I’ve got the camera right on her, and when she pulls, I know we’re at altitude. Then I come in and pull.”
The cameraman said he subconsciously ticked off the time in freefall and knew it was time to pull or getting close to it. But his subject continued her routine. When she finally pulled, so did he. “We were about 300 or 400 feet off the deck.” This incident frightened the crowd and infuriated the meet committee. Both the cameraman and jumper were called before the meet director. Both were immediately grounded; the female competitor grounded for life in that country. The cameraman pleaded his case, nearly lost his contract with the television stations and was grounded for the rest of the meet.
Jumping in Clouds
The ’60s were a time of trial and error … and lessons learned. We now know why jumping through clouds is prohibited, as the following story from Kiesow, related in “The Falcon’s Disciples,” illustrates. It was a very cloudy day, but the pilot and two jumpers agreed to try to find an opening. Kiesow planned to deploy at 3,400 feet in order to open in the clouds, but his friend wanted to open below the clouds. At 8,500 feet, everyone in the plane was arguing about the spot. Nonetheless, they exited at what seemed the best point. The jumpers entered a cloud. Kiesow explained, “No longer in sight of each other, we didn’t know where the other was. The altimeter was wet with moisture, you could hardly read it. The goggles were getting all wet.”
Kiesow deployed his main. He recalled, “I looked up to check the parachute, and all I saw were 28 lines disappearing into the clouds above me. That was one of the first times I experienced vertigo.” Kiesow said there was turbulence and he couldn’t see the other jumper, couldn’t see where he was headed and couldn’t even tell if his canopy was fully inflated. Several times his canopy felt as if it were about to collapse. He nearly deployed his reserve twice because he just didn’t know the condition of his main.
Kiesow continued, “I looked down below me and saw a spot of white. So I let out a yell, figuring it was my compadre’s chute below me. I yelled at him, and I’m leaning forward in my harness. And at about this time, this enormous rock that I was yelling at hit me.”
Next thing he knew, Kiesow was falling over the side of a 50-foot embankment. Landing in a heap at the bottom of a hill, he remembered that his friend had said he wanted to open below the clouds. Kiesow thought, “And if he did, good-bye!” He yelled for his companion in the mist. After a few moments a voice floated through the mist: “What the h#@* do you want?” His companion had landed about 300 yards down the hill from Kiesow.
More stories, lessons and historical facts from the 1960s will continue in part 2 of “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?—Tales From Skydiving in the ’60s” in next month’s Parachutist.
Gregory, H. (1967). The Falcon’s Disciples. New York, NY: Pageant Press, Inc.
About the Author
Musika Farnsworth, A-20569, is a regular contributor to Parachutist magazine. She has been jumping since 1992 and has a Bachelor of Arts in social sciences. She lives in Vancouver, Washington.