Return to the Center of the World—The 2021 Pioneers of Sport Parachuting Reunion
Wednesday, May 19, 2021
Photos by Mike McGowan.
During the weekend of March 4-7, many of the earliest pioneers of sport parachuting converged in Felicity, California, for yet another grand reunion. Nate Pond, D-69, first organized the annual Pioneers of Sport Parachuting Reunion in 1997 at his family’s Good Hill Farm in Woodbury, Connecticut. Since then, the event has occurred nearly every year, most frequently at the Official Center of the World (according to Imperial County, California) and the Museum of History in Granite, which are owned and operated by Jacques-André Istel, D-2 and I-1. (The Parachute Club of America, USPA’s predecessor organization, used to number instructor ratings, and Istel holds the very first of those, I-1). Due to the pandemic and the health, age and travel concerns of many of the potential attendees, there was no reunion in 2020, so everyone was eager for a 2021 event.
Kim Emmons Knor, D-221, a member of the 1962 U.S. Women’s Parachute Team—the first full female team to compete in an international parachuting championship—organized this year’s event. She worked tirelessly for months to make it happen, but uncertainty persisted until the very last minute. Frazzled by the constant challenges of booking and rebooking hotel room blocks, cancellations, indecision by prospective attendees and the logistics of safely feeding a large group, Knor was ready to pull the plug. However, Istel, who had recently celebrated his 92nd birthday, insisted that the festivities continue, since a growing number of pioneers had received vaccinations and the event would take place outdoors with social-distancing protocols.
Nearly 100 pioneers signed up. They began arriving on Thursday, reuniting that first evening at the Landing Bar and Grill located a few miles down I-8, in Yuma, Arizona. Many of these pioneers, who are in their late 80s and 90s and had isolated for nearly a year, were full of celebratory joy and very much ready for a good old-fashioned party … and party they did. A good time was had by all.
On Friday around noon a Pilatus Porter and Beech 99 arrived from Skydive Arizona in Eloy, with DZO Larry Hill driving the fuel truck to Felicity himself! Longtime instructor Jay Stokes, who usually conducts tandem skydives and flag jumps at the reunion, was temporarily grounded due to a shoulder injury, so he took care of gear checks and waivers instead. Knor’s daughter, Tara, handled manifest duties. The weather could not have been more cooperative, with warm temperatures and a light breeze, and the air above the Felicity was filled with colorful canopies the whole weekend.
Pioneers gather for a group photo in front of the steps leading to the Church on the Hill, which overlooks the museum from its perch on the 150,000-ton Hill of Prayer, built to be the highest spot in town.
Jim Rinder, D-165, hosted Friday night’s barbeque outside his Yuma home for a huge crowd of more than 70 guests. Rinder, one the original performers in the 1960s hit TV show Ripcord, was suffering lingering symptoms following his own battle with COVID but was still in prime joke- and story-telling form while his daughters and granddaughter held a raffle of vintage parachuting memorabilia.
Saturday’s jumping began early but paused at 11 a.m. for a memorial to those pioneers lost since the 2019 get-together. Stokes spoke words in tribute while James Davis, TopPOP of the Parachutists Over Phorty Society, made a flag jump. Then jumper Tony Peralta played “Taps” on his trumpet, leaving many in tears. Afterward, Istel escorted the assembled crowd of dignitaries, pioneers and guests to unveil “The Works of the Renaissance,” the latest section of his 1,000-panel granite history of the world. Istel also honored the latest inductee into The Hall of Fame of Parachuting, Cliff Dobson, D-1193.
Jumping continued until early evening. Tandem Instructors Davis and Aaron Jacobs made a total of 15 tandems skydives, in some cases taking three generations of the same family into the sky. Afterward, all gathered for a banquet hosted by Istel and his wife, Felicia. At the banquet, Lt. Commander Scott Laverty of the California Highway Patrol and members of Yuma city government honored Istel for his contributions to the development of sport parachuting in America and for his dedication to the preservation of the history of humanity through his Museum of History in Granite.
Sunday began early with more jumping and reminiscing, then the planes flew their final loads a little past noon, marking the end of another joyous boogie. Photojournalist Bob Russell and writer Linda Collison, along with Mike McGowan and his ever-present camera, were there to document the weekend for an upcoming documentary on the evolution of sport parachuting.
This year’s Pioneers of Sport Parachuting Reunion was a smashing success with no injuries or mishaps (with the exception of a little spilled wine). After being confined in isolation for over a year, these early jumpers were once again free to fly with their friends, share their memories and enjoy their time at the center of the world.
Bob Lewis | C-29597
Cedar City, Utah