First Commercial Skydiving Center in the United States
Published: November 22, 2016
Did you know that the Orange Municipal Airport is the home of the very first purpose-built skydiving center in the entire USA? Yep. Early sport parachutists Nate Pond, Lew Sanborn, Jacques-André Istel and George Flynn got together and founded it as "Parachutes Incorporated," all the way back in May of 1959. More than three thousand spectators turned up for that grand opening--and we've been a happenin' place ever since.
Skydiving, of course, was a very different pursuit in 1959 than it is today. First of all, it was brand-new--but growing, and fast. Just three years previously, in 1956, only two hundred sport jumps had been made in the entire country. In 1959--our dropzone's first year--that number grew to over ten thousand.*
When they opened that brand-new dropzone, the four skydiving brothers-in-arms had a long shopping list to work their way down. At the top of the list, of course, was parachutes. Since there was no such thing as a "sport parachute" in 1959, they had to buy what was available: round parachutes, based on the designs used by the military up to that point.
Parachutes Incorporated-- Jumptown dropzone's original name, if you remember the story--purchased an unprecedented fifty parachute systems for their new facility. Since they had to get so many, so quickly, they ended up having to purchase a combination of types--mostly, Air Force surplus and factory-fresh "LoPo's." Each parachute in the stable had a matching reserve (stored in a belly-mounted container, as it was done before the advent of the two-parachute, single-container system we use today).
In 1959, the "LoPo" was a major technological advancement, and the dropzone was very proud of their acquisitions. The LoPo--which stands for "Low-Porosity," referring to the carefully coated fabric of which it was built--had a markedly slower rate of descent than previous parachutes and was built to withstand serious damage while retaining the ability to convey its jumper safely to the ground. (In those days, sustaining major parachute damage during deployment wasn't uncommon at all; now, it's an extremely rare eventuality that few skydivers ever see.) Though parachutes today look nothing at all like those original LoPos, the same kind of porosity-reducing technology is used in ram-air parachutes to keep inflated airfoils flying efficiently.
Also a pride-and-joy of the infant dropzone: the harnesses and containers that these gorgeous new parachutes went into. All of these were custom-built for Parachutes Incorporated by one of the first skydiving equipment manufacturers: Pioneer Parachute, of the Pioneer Aerospace Corporation. At the time, Pioneer was also a young company, albeit with several more years under its belt than Parachutes Incorporated: Pioneer, after all, started building parachutes for the US military in 1938. The company is still around to this day, albeit under a different name (Zodiac Aerospace), building all kinds of systems for aircraft and spacecraft alike.
Of course, this right-at-the-cutting-edge equipment at a brand-spanking-new, tailor-made facility cost money to jump. The price list at the front desk of Parachute Incorporated on the day it opened described the charges in clear, block print: to rent one of the brand-new LoPos, it'd cost you $5. (The military surplus versions would set you back a dollar less.) You'd definitely want a reserve, as main parachute malfunctions were very common--and reliably catastrophic--in 1959. To add a reserve to the rental cost a dollar (as did cushioned "paraboots," a helmet, an altimeter, and coveralls, respectively). At that point, you'd be geared up and ready to go.
Then, of course, you'd be interested in jumping that gear. At that point, you'd be laying down $2.50 for a static line jump; $3 for freefall of one to ten seconds. If you wanted a little more freefall, that'd cost you: Add fifty cents for every five seconds of additional freefall. (I'm fairly certain that one of the dropzone owners was on the ground with a pair of binoculars to keep the system running honestly.)**
As you might imagine, round parachutes--even ones that were at the very top of the technological line back in 1959--dumped jumpers into the ground pretty mercilessly. Today's square, ram-air parachutes convert downward speed into forward speed, but back then it was pretty much all retained as downward speed (much to the chagrin of early jumpers' ankles, legs and pelvises). Since the dropzone at Orange was purpose-built for parachutists, the facility was able to offer a huge perk to its sport jumpers: a huge, sandy landing area that was much softer than the ground around it.
Today, Jumptown takes the same pride in its equipment as those founders did almost sixty years ago. Our equipment is still the best of the best, our facility is still proud to cater to our community of sport jumpers and we're still all about skydiving. There's a lot of history here, but there's a lot of future, too. Come and be a part of it!
*On an interesting side note: The United States was a little late to the parachuting party. France had 20 skydiving centers by the time Jumptown's first iteration was open and our cold-war adversaries, it is estimated, had "hundreds" open for business all across Russia.
**To today's jumpers, those numbers all sound laughably low. If you adjust for inflation, though: if you were to rent the full kit and make a jump with just ten seconds of freefall, it'd cost the equivalent of just over a hundred dollars. Even the cost of a pack job--$2.50, in 1959--adjusts to $20.50 in 2016. That was plenty of motivation to learn how to pack your own parachute as soon as possible.