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The Amazing Story of Jacques-André Istel, Jumptown’s Original Founder

The Amazing Story of Jacques-André Istel, Jumptown’s Original Founder

Published: February 14, 2017

"The Father of American Skydiving" Is Our Dad, Too

The Amazing Story of Jacques-André Istel, Jumptown's Original Founder

Ask any skydiver, and they'll tell you: this sport is a highly international phenomenon, and few examples of this are clearer than the story of Jacques-André Istel--our original founder, and one of skydiving's living legends. He's a perfect case-in-point for the argument: though he's the man widely considered to be the father of the sport in America, Jacques-André didn't start out American. He was born in 1929 in Paris.

In fact, Istel's parentage is chest-thumpingly French. His mother, Yvonne Istel, served her country as a prominent volunteer in both world wars. His father, André Istel, worked as both an investment banker and French diplomat. (In the latter capacity, the elder Istel represented the de Gaulle government at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944--which, among other items, established the International Monetary Fund [IMF].)

By the year of the conference, however, Jacques-André, Yvonne and the Istel siblings were no longer in the country. They fled to America to escape the German incursion. Upon arriving in the U.S.A., Jacques-André was plunked into upstate New York's prestigious Stony Brook boarding school without the benefit of any English fluency. Even so, he graduated with salutatory honors in 1945, moving on to study economics at Princeton. By then a naturalized citizen, Jacques-André entered the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War and rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel.

Luckily for all of us, it was at this point that Jacques-André happened to discover parachuting. Jacques-André made his first jump in 1950.

The sport was in its absolute nascence, so its horizons were conspicuously bare of experts; Jacques-André very soon became one of the first. His early contributions to the sport pop up all over the history books, in fact. Firstly, he was one of the sport's first public faces, touring American college campuses with chalkboard presentations and demos. Secondly, he influenced military parachuting in a big way. As a Captain in the reserves, Jacques-André wrote to the Marine Headquarters to recommend a particular methodology of parachuting for reconnaissance--and that became the "HALO" (high altitude, low opening) method used even today in combat situations. Thirdly, he contributed to the policy conversations between sport parachuting and government, writing the first original safety regulations for the sport for the Civil Aeronautics Administration. Finally, he was the father of American YouTubery: the very first American sport parachutist to wear a helmet-mounted camera in freefall. (That's a legacy that pretty much everybody in the sky these days is a part of.)

In 1956, Jacques-André organized and led the American team to the World Championships. That was, essentially, American parachuting's debutante appearance on the global scene--and she's been the life of the party ever since. In 1958, he captained the U.S. team that won the French Coupe du Monde in 1961. There, he led the team that set the nation's first day and night world records.

With that history behind him, it's not surprising that Jacques-André Istel decided to make it official and co-found a company with fellow legend Lew Sanborn: Parachutes, Inc. Officially "in the business of designing innovations & refining safety features," the Parachutes, Inc. offerings soon included training, as well: the first parachuting schools in America. In 1957, Istel and Sanborn officially trained the United States Army in their very first forays into freefall. Jacques-André Istel's students became the first members of the U.S. Army's famed "Golden Knights" parachute team.

So: It's clear that Jacques-André has had an enormous impact on the sport of skydiving at large. For all that, he has had an even more enormous impact on Jumptown. After all, he's the reason our beautiful dropzone has such an important place in the world of American sport skydiving. In 1959, he founded us as the country's very first sport parachuting center. Until Jacques-André founded the Orange Sport Parachuting Center at our Orange airfield, parachuting was only taught by the military and--in Europe--subsidized by governments.

At the time Jacques-André Istel founded us, sport parachuting was anathema to non-military airfield operations. The idea terrified them; no airport would even allow parachutists in the vicinity. However, after hearing Jacques-André lecture at Harvard, Crocker Snow--the Director of the Massachusetts Aeronautic Commission--became convinced that sport parachuting could have a place in aeronautics. He stepped forward to offer Jacques-André Istel two location choices for the first civilian sport parachuting school: Plymouth, MA or Orange, MA. While Plymouth was the best option from a fiscal standpoint--with a higher population density and in a much closer position to Boston--the weather was, to use Istel's word, "awful." Based on that key difference, Orange was the clear choice. Jacques-André Istel negotiated a 25 year lease of the entire airport with the Orange Airport Commission. History was made.

Jacques-André remembers many things that came to pass in those years, but a few things stand out. He sentimentally recalls the "excitement and close comradeship of the first two years" as the dropzone was taking root. He remembers riding an elephant to lead the Orange Sport Parachuting Center's 10-year anniversary parade in 1969 (escorted by the Golden Knights, naturally). He also remembers "the particular fun of jumps into the tiny lawn at the Inn at Orange." He happily recalls "fetching from the nearby trees those who missed the field, then enjoying great steak and beer in personalized Inn mugs."

The Inn isn't there anymore, unfortunately, and a lot of other things have changed on and around the Orange airfield--as one might imagine over the course of 25 years. We've grown enormously since then, adding facilities and equipment and aircraft to an extent that Istel and Sanborn probably couldn't have imagined back in 1959. Jacques-André Istel saw a lot of the earlier changes firsthand, as--even though he moved his office to the Time and Life building in New York City--he kept an apartment in the little red house at the Orange airport for more than two decades, and the facility kept Istel's original name--"The Orange Sport Parachuting Center"--until he left in 1985. At that point, we officially became Jumptown.

Jacques-André Istel made his last jump in 1972 and left Orange to pursue another dream: the have-to-see-it-to-believe-it History in Granite monument that he created in Felicity, the California desert town that he founded (and named for his wife). Even though he's across the country, we still feel his presence here at Jumptown every day. We're proud to carry Jacques-André Istel's torch--and to share his story with the world.

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