What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Tales from Skydiving in the '60s: Part II
Gear, attitudes and disciplines have evolved over the years. “We are experiencing an entirely different skydiving mentality today than was present during the last part of the 20th century,” says USPA lifetime member Charles Baldauf, D-3307.
Reportedly, the perception of sport parachutists in the 1960s was far from wholesome, but the public couldn’t get enough of it. Exhibition jumps were very common and popular, with ’60s flair. Exhibition jumps included smoke canisters, water landings, cutaways and fake malfunctions that caused crowds to scream, “Pull! Pull!”
Frightening crowds at exhibitions was sometimes part of the show. In the 1967 book “The Falcon’s Disciples” by Howard Gregory, one parachutist explained how he planned a special jump with three bright red canopies: “I would previously inform everyone that I was jumping a brand new canopy—a wild modification, something I dreamt up. Like, you know, ‘I’m not even sure this is going to work, so I’m going to open up high and kind of give it a tryout.’ ”
During the skydive, spectators and other jumpers would be watching for the special canopy, “When all of a sudden,” he said, “it collapses. A streamer. The spectators, of course, figure a jumper is going to be killed anyway, and so finally here comes one. One of the local women got so excited and worked up, she became hysterical and they had to take her home. She knew it was all over. Of course, I break away at about 2,000 feet, go on down to about 1,500 feet and then open my main.”
“The Falcon’s Disciples” also describes an exhibition jump for a bank performed by stuntman Bud Kiesow, who was on the load with inexperienced skydivers. On top of the lack of experience, the weather was poor with a ceiling of 1,200 feet, and the bank was near a lake. The jumper spotting the load crawled out onto the step but just stood there, transfixed. Kiesow explained, “So we tackled him off the strut as we went out.”
Unfortunately, Kiesow was distracted by the lake below and pulled too low. Under canopy, he knew he couldn’t make it back to the bank parking lot and picked a narrow alternate landing area. Kiesow landed hard, tumbled and started rolling down a hill. In his jumpsuit, helmet and jump boots and tangled up in his canopy, Kiesow came to a stop in a beautiful backyard. He rolled to a stop three feet from an elderly woman peacefully working in her garden. They stared at each other in shock. He recalled, “The only thing that could come out of my mouth was, ‘Take me to your leader.’ ” Fortunately he wasn’t injured, and the elderly woman enjoyed an enormous laugh.
Back then, skydivers didn’t have boogies. They gathered at competitions called meets, and just about every other weekend during the summer, a drop zone somewhere in the country would hold one. In Gregory’s book, one jumper shared his memories of a style practice jump from 7,500 feet. He said, “I lit up a cigarette. We got on jump run, and I wasn’t really thinking about it, and I put the cigarette in my teeth, stuck my head out the door, gave a few minor corrections and left the aircraft.
“I watched the aircraft leave, went into a tight frog, did a right-turn 360, stop. Left-turn 360, stop. A back loop, left-turn 360, right-turn 360 and another back loop. And I looked, and I was at about 4,500 to 5,000 feet still. So I just floated on down and opened up and checked my canopy. I looked, and I still had this crazy cigarette in my teeth. And I thought, ‘Well, it’s out; it’s got to be out.’ And I took a drag and was surprised to see the smoke curl up in front of my face. After a complete series, this thing is still lit! So I took out another one, lit it from the old one and smoked all the way down.”
Almost all parachuting gear in the 1960s was military surplus; that’s simply all there was available. Jumpers of the era experimented with the old military gear for sport jumping by changing out components or altering the canopies by cutting out panels to increase steerability. This do-it-yourself attitude produced jumpers who knew a lot about how their gear worked. Some of them eventually became riggers or gear manufacturers for the emerging sport parachuting market.
In the early ’60s, the round, belly-mounted reserve canopies did not have a diaper or deployment bag to slow down or stage the opening. Once air caught the round canopy at the base where the lines were attached (the skirt), the canopy would inflate even before line-stretch. The use of the diaper came about gradually by the late ’60s but was extremely controversial. Reserve deployment at terminal velocity was brutal and particularly dreaded by cameramen.
In “The Falcon’s Disciples,” one cameraman described how, while wearing a 16mm-camera helmet and battery pack on his belly-mounted reserve container, he couldn’t find his main ripcord and went for his 26-foot conical reserve. “I saw the canopy inflate between my legs and I bounced on the end of that reserve. For about 15 seconds, I saw stars. The thing that really startled me was that I was hanging upside down because of the weight of the camera and batteries. This was because I was suspended from my waist which is the center of gravity. So I reached up and grabbed some lines and pulled my feet down.”
Automatic activation devices in the ’60s (then called AODs, or automatic opening devices) were not as common as they are now, but there were a few out there. It may be hard for today’s skydiver to believe there was any debate about using AADs, but skydivers had their reasons. Many jumpers felt that the era’s AODs simply weren’t reliable. Others felt they could be reliable but using them could cause other problems.
Jerry Baumchen was one of the first people in the United States to install an AAD (of his own design) in a back-mounted reserve. He tested it at the local drop zone several times, “And it worked!” he said. Later, on a relative work jump after deploying at just below 1,400 feet, his Para-Commander main was taking rather long to fully inflate because its nose was rolled under. His reserve pilot chute flashed past his head. Instinctively, he reached up and caught the reserve canopy, preventing it from deploying into his main. He had his main ripcord in his right hand and his reserve in his left hand and was hoping that the Para-Commander would open, which it did. He said, “I removed the AAD immediately upon landing. I knew then that if things didn’t go as planned, the back-mounted AAD could cause problems.”
Even though AADs were available starting in the 1960s (Baumchen estimates that about 25 percent of the jumpers he knew at the time used them), they didn’t become truly popular until the early 1990s, after Airtec introduced the first electronic, self-calibrating AAD at the Parachute Industry Association Symposium in 1991.
In the 1960s, women were barred from many occupations. They were excluded from jury duty and were paid less than men for equal work. For some parachutists, it was literally years before they ever witnessed a woman in gear, in the airplane and jumping. Reflecting on how the few women in skydiving clubs were treated, Baldauf carefully thought back. After a long pause, he concluded, “It wasn’t a skydiver’s gender that made a difference. It was their size and weight. Female skydivers excelled in our sport because they were generally smaller and lighter than their male counterparts.”
While people in the United States engaged in protests, marches and debates about the status of women and how they should be treated, at the drop zone, female skydivers were simply … skydivers. Kim Knor recalled, “I started jumping in 1959 and was the only female in the new club we were organizing in Chicago then. The males were all encouraging and I always felt like ‘one of the guys.’ ”
She went on to say, “Most of the early club people were ex-military or on reserve, and they were very respectful, encouraging and helpful. I jumped all over the USA—East Coast, West Coast, Midwest—and in Canada and Europe, and all women were highly respected.”
Skydivers probably don’t see themselves as rock stars, but there were groupies: girls who would hang out at skydiving clubs but didn’t jump. Knor said, “The females that were not accepted were the ones that hung around the DZ looking for boyfriends but never jumped.”
Prior to the advent of commercial drop zones, one, two or a small group of jumpers—who often had just a few jumps—started skydiving clubs. Therefore, parachutists with as few as six jumps would train new jumpers.
In “The Falcon’s Disciples,” Kiesow, who also worked as an instructor when not employed as a stuntman, related a story about two female students. The first girl wouldn’t exit the airplane after two go-arounds. Kiesow said, “She sat in the door, legs hanging out, but refused the second time saying, ‘No, no!’ ” Kiesow pushed her, but she wouldn’t budge. The other girl in the plane jumped on Kiesow and started beating him. “So I grabbed her by the back pack and shoved them both out the door, and dove out behind them.” He landed before them and met up with them on the ground. Kiesow said with a grin, “And they both were very appreciative.”
Skydiving instruction became more professionalized as the decade drew to a close. Baldauf recalled one instructor who made a strong impact on many jumpers of the era, particularly those in Southern California: Gary Douris. Douris began jumping in 1966 and became one of the Parachute Club of America’s (USPA’s predecessor) very first Instructor/Examiners in 1970. As a leader in the sport, Douris did not tolerate unsafe practices, such as flying too close to telephone wires. But in addition to Douris being extremely strict, Baldauf described this tough instructor as being extremely considerate: “He was very unjudgmental. He never offered advice unless asked, and if he was asked, he tempered his judgment so as to not insult anyone.”
Then vs. Now
Baumchen was 23 years old when he started jumping in 1964. Recalling whether his parents objected to his new sport, he said, “They never said a thing. We never talked about it. They didn’t discourage me or encourage me. They just never said a thing.” It was more than 20 years later, as Baumchen was talking to a couple of commercial painters on a construction site, when he found out how they truly felt.
Baumchen told one of the painters, “My dad, Harold Baumchen, retired from the local painters’ union.” The worker’s eyes grew wide. Pointing his finger he nearly shouted, “You’re... you’re Jerry Baumchen! You’re the skydiver! You’re the skydiver with the awards and trophies! Your father used to talk about you and your skydiving all the time!”
Deciding whether he feels like a real pioneer in the sport of skydiving, Baumchen became serious before explaining what he thinks today’s skydivers should understand: “No jumper from the ’60s thinks they’re special or pioneers. Today’s 23-year-old would do the same exact thing we did in the 1960s. It’s just a different calendar than today, that’s all.”
Today, we can look back and learn what skydiving was like in the 1960s. But what do parachutists from the ’60s think of skydivers today? Kiesow let out a breath of wonder at all the equipment and opportunities skydivers have today and said, “Oh, you have wingsuits, all the different types of canopies, all the different types of skydiving now.” He then shook his head as he summed up his thoughts on today’s skydivers: “Oh, you lucky devils, you.”
Gregory, H. (1967). The Falcon’s Disciples. New York, NY: Pageant Press, Inc.
“The Falcon’s Disciples,” which recounts the history of skydiving and contains several entertaining tales of the skydiving community in the 1960s, is currently out of print. Readers can find used copies on online auction sites such as eBay and in used bookstores.
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.