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Original Issue

More than just a one-way elevator

The parachute is a peculiar item, a star that was born too soon and played some super roles without really getting anywhere. The chutes used by paratroopers in World War II differed little from those used by balloonists 100 years ago to wow carnival crowds. For its first 150 years the parachute was, in essence, merely an air trap that slowed a falling body.

It was not until sportsmen turned to it after World War II that the chute became more than a one-way elevator. Today it is a high-performance machine. It is tractable, even docile, though when a novice's heavy hand is on the control toggles it sometimes becomes almost stubbornly human. The act of falling from a plane was once a simple spine-tingler, but as practiced now by sportsmen it is an elaborate art form, very precise and getting more so every year.

Such is the quickening pace that when the 20th World Parachuting Championships are held in 1990, one of the events might well be a musical exercise. In such a test each national team of 10 jumpers would take a grand piano up to 16,000 feet in a cargo plane, push it out and leap after it. As each chutist passed the falling piano, he would give the ivories a quick tickle, the object being to see which team could come closest to completing Chopin's Minute Waltz in the prescribed time. Penalty points would be assigned for missed bars and bonus points awarded for passages rendered with feeling.

A waltz played at terminal velocity, though fanciful, is altogether conceivable, considering how far the sport has come in so short a time; yesterday's miracle is tomorrow's ho-hum routine. In a magazine article 16 years ago Author Robert Crichton marveled at the feats of French jumpers who were adept at passing a baton during free fall. "No one in the United States," Crichton observed, "has as yet mastered that one."

Within a year—and only two years after the sport began over here—Americans not only had the knack of it but were soon improvising on the original theme, passing batons and a variety of items such as bottles of champagne and live snakes. For a while the gaudy stunts of parachutists upstaged the real sport. In 1965, violating FAA regulations and common sense, a daredevil inappropriately named Rod Pack jumped without a parachute pack, picked up one from a buddy while falling and landed safely. That same year Earl Davis, a Carolina tobacco worker, "taught" his two dogs to jump. That is to say, he frequently dropped them from a plane under a static-line canopy, claiming they enjoyed it because "they wag their tails on the way down."

More than 10 years ago French jumpers and their bonnes amies were holding hands and hugging and smooching in midair. Quite a few American Romeos and their jumping Juliets were married in flight and then stepped out of the plane together. To the sweet relief of the U.S. Parachute Association and similar world bodies, this silliness has subsided.

The proof of the sport's success—and a tribute to its common sense—is the ever-increasing popularity and improving quality of competitive jumping. The first World Parachuting Championships, held in Yugoslavia in 1951, attracted 15 men and two women from six countries. At the 11th world meet last summer there were 145 men and 42 women from 31 countries. Twenty-two years ago in Yugoslavia the accuracy event was won easily by Salvador Canarrozzo of Italy, who landed 26 meters from the bull's-eye. Nobody else came within two football fields of it. Last year in Oklahoma 111 of the 145 men and 23 of the 42 women made perfect scores at least once by touching down on a target disk 10 centimeters (roughly four inches) in diameter. A Czech jumper, Vaclav Kumba, made nine perfect scores in a row, then on his final jump blew sky-high, landing 1.72 meters off. The one bad jump dropped him from first to 10th place. The accuracy title went to a Czech teammate, Lubas Majer, who in 10 jumps had an average error of about half an inch.

Improvement in canopy designs accounts in part for today's pinpoint performances, but the excellence of the jumpers probably counts for as much. This is borne out by the advance that also has been made in the style event, in which a jumper is judged only on what he does before his chute opens. At the first world meet in Yugoslavia, competitors were scored solely on their ability to hold a stable, horizontal position in free fall. Two championships later stable fall was still the prime requirement, with bonus points going to anyone who could manage one or two figure eights in 25 seconds. Last year in Oklahoma the style winner was Frenchman Jean-Claude Armaing, who never needed more than 7.7 seconds to complete two sets of alternating figure eights and back loops and averaged 7.18 seconds for five tries. The overall world title went to Clay Schoelpple, a Hartwood, Va. jump instructor who beat out Anatoli Ossipov of Russia by .015 of a point. In accuracy, Ossipov beat Schoelpple by an average of an inch and a half for 10 jumps. In style Schoelpple made up the difference by averaging a 20th of a second faster. When men are willing to fall 10 miles in 15 jumps in quest of such slivers of time and space, they are hooked on a good game for sure.