Poppenhager gathers his gear after making a jump in 2014. Photo by Tom Plonka.
Longtime Florida drop zone owner and instructor Paul “Pop” Poppenhager, D-47, was born in June 1934 and became interested in skydiving at a young age while watching his father jump at airshows. Poppenhager made his first jump—a military jump prior to the Korean War—at age 19. As part of the 82nd Airborne Division, he became a military parachute rigger and test jumper. In the following years, Poppenhager became a well-known instructor and trained countless people to skydive both inside and outside of the military. He joined USPA in 1960, and in 2015, the Skydiving Museum & Hall of Fame inducted him as a member.
Birthplace: Miami, Florida
Marital Status: Married to Marie Poppenhager
Children: Six kids, and they have all made jumps
Pets: Two dogs and six cats, all in the same house
Occupation: Aircraft mechanic and inspector
Education: 10th grade
Pet Peeves: Getting old
Favorite Food: Steak with beer
Life Philosophy: I don’t know yet.
Would you rather swoop or land on an accuracy tuffet? Accuracy tuffet
Jump Philosophy: Make lots of jumps.
Container: Piggybackv Main Canopy: 190
Reserve Canopy: 160
Home Drop Zone: Skydive Palatka in Florida
Year of First Jump: 1953, with the military before the Korean War
USPA License: D-47
Championships, medals and records: Not many
Total Number of Jumps: 7,008 FS: 5,000 Accuracy: 4,000 Camera: 150 Test Jumps: 100 CF: 20 Demos: 20 Balloon Jumps: 15
Largest Completed Formation: 50-way
Total Number of Cutaways: 12
Would you rather have a hard opening or line twists?
Either one, as long as it opens.
Are you a neat packer or a trash packer?
Going back to student status, what was your canopy progression?
Did not have any canopy progression. When I started jumping in 1953, we didn’t have any of this stuff.
Of all of your skydives, does one particular jump stand out most?
The jump that scared the s**t out of me was a combat jump into Cuba. It was a night jump during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. I was doing some work for the CIA at the time.
How long do you plan on skydiving?
I am slowly starting to slow down this year because of my age, and the wife and kids are ready for me to retire. I love the sport, just getting a little old.
What do you like most about the sport?
I like the people more than anything. And it’s something I have always done since age 19.
What do you like least about the sport?
That is a hard one. I can’t think of anything. I just fell in love with it.
Who has been your skydiving mentor?
Lew Sanborn. I have known him for many, many years. I had about 10 freefall jumps at the time we met at Fort Lauderdale. Lew taught me a whole lot. Lew had also jumped in the 82nd Airborne.
What safety item do you think is most important or most often neglected?
Make sure you have a decent airplane and a good pilot.
How did you become interested in skydiving?
It became my favorite thing to do during and after the military. I would have jumped every hour of every day if they would have let me.
What is your favorite jump plane?
C-47s and C-119s were fun in the 1950s, but if I had to pick one today, it would be the Cessna Caravan.
What kind of skydiving student were you, the typical flailer or a complete natural from jump one?
Yeah, pretty natural. Just more or less wanted to do it so bad. My dad made some jumps in the 1930s at airshows. I wanted to be like my dad.
Of all your thousands of skydives, is there one jump you would like to do again?
There are too many to list. I have never been hurt. Never broke anything. They have all been good.
Do you have any suggestions for USPA?
They are doing a fine job. It is a hell of a lot better than it was 25 years ago. I am really proud of them now.
What are your future skydiving goals?
I have a demo jump coming up at an airshow.
How did you motivate yourself to continually skydive since 1953?
I loved it so much and just kept at it. I love the people. I know other jumpers my age who are no longer jumping but still go to the drop zone every weekend to be a part of it.
Some notable skydivers like to say to the younger generation, “There are no sky gods under the age of 70.” (Meaning longevity in the sport makes someone a sky god). You have skydived in seven different decades, which most cannot claim. What are your thoughts for the younger generation?
The biggest thing is the equipment, and it is improving every day. It can lead to complacency. There are now people with 100 jumps who can do amazing things, but if they had to jump the crap we jumped back in the ’50s, there wouldn’t be much jumping going on.
What would you like those of us who never experienced skydiving in the 1950s and early 1960s to know?
When we skydived in the 1950s, we were worried about being arrested after making a jump. I was careful and had a spotter on the ground, but many jumpers during that time were arrested. Jacques Istel went to Washington, D.C., with his lawyer to get things straightened out.
Are you happy with the way the sport has turned out?
I am happy. Never would have believed it would have turned into what it is today.