A Perfect 10—The International Skydiving Museum & Hall of Fame Celebrates a Decade with 10 New Inductees
Features | Jul 01, 2019
A Perfect 10—The International Skydiving Museum & Hall of Fame Celebrates a Decade with 10 New Inductees

Doug Garr

 

Each year for the past decade, the International Skydiving Museum has inducted a select few men and women who have “defined, promoted, inspired and advanced the sport at the highest levels” into its Hall of Fame. This year’s induction ceremony and banquet for the 10 newest honorees will take place during the 2019 International Skydiving Museum & Hall of Fame Celebration October 17-19 at Skydive Perris in California.

Perris is one of the premier drop zones in the world, and with three Twin Otters, five Skyvans and a DC-3, it will be a perfect host for the event. This year’s weekend will include exhibits and skydiving events, including a no-show 10-way speedstar competition, which drew 10 teams last November at the Hall of Fame Celebration at Skydive City Zephyrhills in Florida.

The highlight of the weekend will be the annual Saturday night banquet with the induction of 10 new members into the Hall of Fame. Per tradition, they will don blue blazers signifying the honor. The incoming members of the 10th class of honorees—six from the U.S. and one each from Australia, France, Great Britain and Slovenia—bring this exclusive group to a total of 73 outstanding representatives of parachuting. All have made significant contributions to our sport. 

In alphabetical order, the 2019 honorees are:

 

A former gymnast, swimmer and underwater orienteer, Avbelj is one of the most decorated competitive European skydivers in the history of the sport. A Slovenian, she made her first jump in 1986 and quickly advanced to become a skydiving instructor. She was the commander of her country’s military parachuting training unit. Avbelj’s medal total on the women’s world stage—civilian and military—is a remarkable achievement: 20 gold, 11 silver and three bronze medals in para-ski and the classic events of freefall style and accuracy landing. At the European championships in Kikinda, Serbia, in 2011, she suffered serious injuries after a hard landing. It ended her career. Avbelj received Slovenia’s highest award in the field of sport —the Bloudek—in 2006.

Photo courtesy Slovenian Armed Forces

 

 

 

 

Chuck Collingwood, D-2712, was arguably the most accomplished male U.S. competitor in the classic freefall style and accuracy landing events during the 1970s. On the national and international level, he stood on practically every major style and accuracy awards podium. He competed in eight national championships and was a member of every U.S. Team in his era. Collingwood earned top-10 overall finishes three times at four Féderátion Aéronautique Internationale World Parachuting Championships and brought home gold and silver medals from the 1976 FAI World Championships. As a member of the U.S. Army Parachute Team Golden Knights, he made 5,200 competition jumps. In 1973, he won the combined overall USPA National Championship and the individual Conseil International du Sport Militaire Championships (the world military parachuting championships), and the Army named him Golden Knight of the Year.

As a Golden Knight, he set the FAI Day and Night Individual Accuracy World Records and participated in setting four FAI Team Accuracy World Records. Collingwood served 10 years in the Delta Force, the Army’s elite special forces unit. After his retirement from the Army, he joined the Las Vegas Police Department and served on its SWAT and NARCO teams. He remained active as a skydiving coach and team trainer after his Army retirement. He served as the U.S. Team’s coach at the 2016 FAI World Parachuting Championships and was appointed U.S. Team Leader for the 2018 FAI World Championships in Erden, Bulgaria, but died shortly before the event began.

 

 

Kate Cooper-Jensen, D-7333, started jumping in 1978 and quickly became a prominent figure in the sport. In 1983, she and Tony Domenico founded the skydiving equipment store Square 1, one of the first gear shops to sell through catalogs, as well as in person. In 1997, she began to organize women's formation skydiving world records with the goal of raising money for charity. Her group set four FAI Women's World Records for Largest Formation Skydive: a 118-way in 1999, a 132-way in 2002, a 151-way in 2005 and a 181-way in 2009. These Jump for the Cause events directed more than $1.9 million in contributions for breast cancer research and treatment. In October 2014, Cooper-Jensen and the organizing team P3 put together a two­-point 117-way jump that set the world record for sequential formation skydiving in the general category, as well as the women's category. Cooper-Jensen has also made skydives for numerous movies, TV shows and commercials.

In 2015, she was a recipient of the USPA Gold Medal for Meritorious Service. On hearing of her election to the Hall of Fame, Cooper-Jensen said, “I still have a massive case of imposter syndrome. I’m overwhelmed; I’m still in shock. There are so many qualified people around the world. I’m in awe of the past and present inductees, and I look forward to nominating deserving skydivers for future slots.”

 

Stuntman and inventor Patrick de Gayardon of France left an indelible mark on the history of skydiving by designing the modern wingsuit, which enables skydivers to fly enormous horizontal distances. For four years in the mid-1990s, de Gayardon tirelessly drew on concepts developed by experimenters from the 1910s through the 1950s, including Franz Reichelt, Clem Sohn, Leo Valentin and Harry Ward, all of whom experimented with a winged-jumpsuit design. De Gayardon made approximately 1,000 jumps with various designs in the process of developing a semi-rigid wearable airfoil that is the basis for the wingsuits in widespread use today. He was also one of the first jumpers to advance skysurfing, a discipline in which skydivers perform an aerial ballet while standing on a board. De Gayardon performed many famous stunts, perhaps most notably exiting a Pilatus Porter while wearing a wingsuit and flying back into the plane. He also made several wingsuit flights over the Grand Canyon. De Gayardon was the first person to attempt what is now known as "proximity flying," gliding in his wingsuit while wearing a BASE rig near mountain walls in the French Alps in 1997. De Gayardon died on a test jump in Hawaii in 1998.

 

 

 

Alan Eustace, D-7426, made his first leap in 1975 and had a fairly unremarkable career as a skydiver until he had logged around 500 jumps. Then one giant leap, number 569, vaulted him into the record books. Early in the morning of October 24, 2014, after some 65 training and test jumps, Eustace ascended, tethered to a helium balloon, from an abandoned runway in Roswell, New Mexico, for two hours and seven minutes. When he reached an altitude of 135,889 feet, he detached and descended for four minutes 27 seconds, reaching a freefall speed of 822 mph. Eustace set a world record for the highest freefall jump and total freefall distance of 123,414 feet. (He self-funded the skydive, declining sponsorship from Google, where he was a software engineer and a senior vice president.)

The jump also was an engineering feat, as the two prior record holders used a capsule. Eustace eschewed the capsule to save money, but an off-the-rack NASA space suit wouldn’t do. He and his team spent years designing one that would remove body heat and moisture on the way up, as well as being appropriate for a long freefall. And they had to come up with a way to keep the drogue chute from flopping around and entangling in the thin air outside the earth’s atmosphere. After his jump, Eustace told a reporter, "It was amazing. It was beautiful. You could see the darkness of space and you could see the layers of atmosphere." The custom jumpsuit Eustace used is now on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. On hearing of his election to the Hall of Fame, Eustace said, “If you look at the names in there, they’re all your heroes. The camaraderie, the managing of risk, the teamwork; it’s all there. It’s just magical to play a part in the history of skydiving.”

 

 

John Higgins, D-385, is recognized for excellence in the invention, design and manufacturing of complete sport parachute systems, from harnesses and containers to main and reserve canopies. He made his first jump in 1959 and has more than 3,600 jumps. Along with partners Ron Edwards and Harry Burlin, Higgins opened the Chute Shop in Flemington, New Jersey, and became sole owner in 1968. The Chute Shop was the first company to gain Federal Aviation Administration approval to modify the Army’s T-10 main canopy and the Navy’s conical reserve canopy to render them steerable. Higgins’ Mini-System was one of the first complete harness-and-container systems designed specifically for sport use. The company became North American Aerodynamics, which at its height had more than 500 employees. Higgins designed and manufactured the Parafoil accuracy canopy in the early 1980s, still the most popular parachute used for classic accuracy. He also designed and produced the Eagle main and reserve canopies and the Centaurus harness-and-container system.

Under his leadership, North American Aerodynamics was a founding member of the Parachute Industry Association. Higgins was chairman of PIA’s Membership & Development Committee from 1974-1975. In 2015, the association awarded Higgins with its prestigious Don Beck Memorial Achievement Award. 

 

 

Andy Keech is best known in parachuting circles for his books of freefall photography, but he was also a pioneering skydiver in his native Australia and an aircraft pilot who holds numerous ratings and world records. Keech made his first jump in 1959 in New South Wales. He and Laurie Trotter completed Australia’s first baton pass, and he also flew in the world’s first 4-way formation skydive (documented on film by Carl Boenish, also a member of the Hall of Fame). As an accuracy competitor, he won the Australian National Championships in 1961 and was his team’s top scorer at the 1964 world meet.

Despite his other achievements, skydiving photography became his passion. He took skydiving photos in Africa, Asia, Europe and the U.S., and his shots appeared in Time, Sports Illustrated, The London Times and many other publications. In 1970, Keech began a 10-year project to produce his iconic three-book series of skydiving photographs, “Skies Call.” His research brought him to several world meets and record attempts in Australia, Hungary, South Africa and the U.S. In 1980, he took his cameras to China to document the U.S. Formation Skydiving Team’s exhibition jumps.

Keech holds Australian expert parachute licenses E-1 and F-1 (the country’s highest) and held senior and chief instructor ratings. He was the 1979 recipient of Australia’s Master of Sport Parachuting award. Keech retired from skydiving in 1985 after more than 1,500 skydives. When notified of his selection to the Hall of Fame, he remarked, “It is a pleasure, a surprise and wonderful—all at once—to be considered favorably to join this pantheon of all-time greats. [It’s] an abundance to take in all at one time. The cup runneth over. A bit much for an ordinary fellow.”

 

 

Tom Sanders, D-6503, made his first jump in 1978 and started the first full-time photo concession at a drop zone that same year. Since then he has logged more than 8,000 skydives, the majority with movie cameras and one or more still cameras on his helmet. Perhaps the most prolific camera flyer of his era, Sanders’ aerial work has appeared in numerous films, TV shows and commercials worldwide, as well as hundreds of major national and international magazines outside of skydiving publications. He helped inspire a new generation of skydivers simply from his aerial cinematography on the films “Point Break,” “Drop Zone,” Terminal Velocity” and four James Bond movies (including the opening and closing sequences of “The Living Daylights”). In addition to his work for major clients, Sanders produced, directed and filmed the documentary “Over the Edge,” which won first place in every film festival it entered.

Sanders participated in several historic skydives, as well. He was in charge of the freefall camera team on the famous 1988 Olympic-rings jump at the opening ceremonies in Seoul, Korea, the first time TV audiences saw a live skydiving feed. More than a billion viewers saw the broadcast. He filmed President George H.W. Bush’s first sport parachute jump and also one of his later jumps during the opening of Bush’s Presidential Library in College Station, Texas. He was the cameraman for the legendary formation skydiving team Mirror Image. In 2015, the U.S Army Golden Knights inducted him as an honorary Knight. USPA awarded him its Gold Medal for Meritorious Service in 2005. Sanders is still an active skydiving camera flyer four decades after starting in the sport.

 

 

Deke Sonnichsen, C-35, was a major figure in the early development of modern gear, as well as an instrumental administrator in the formative years of the Parachute Club of America (USPA’s forerunner). After a stint in the Army as a paratrooper, he made his first freefall in 1953. He moved west and in 1956 formed the California Parachute Club, the first parachuting club in the U.S.

As a competitor, Sonnichsen was a member of the U.S. Team that competed in 1957 in the First Adriatic Cup in Yugoslavia (along with Hall of Famers Lew Sanborn and Jacques-André Istel). He was U.S. Team Leader at the 1962 FAI World Championships, which saw Jim Arender take the men’s championship and Muriel Simbro take the women’s. In 1964, he was the leader of the U.S. Team at the FAI World Championships when Dick Fortenberry (another Hall of Famer) took home the gold.

In 1958, Sonnichsen was elected president of PCA. He held several offices, including PCA President. In 1963, he was head of the team that developed Security Parachute Company’s first piggyback rig (with the reserve on the back rather than the belly). That new system assisted Fortenberry with his gold-medal win in 1964, and it revolutionized parachute-system design.

 

 

A major figure in the British Parachute Association, Lofty Thomas made his first skydive in 1967. He became interested in the gear right away and designed and built his own rig. A couple years later, he traveled to the U.S. to obtain a master rigger rating with renowned gear designer Ted Strong (also a Hall of Famer). Thomas and his wife, Grace, then formed Thomas Sports Equipment in England and began building rigs. At TSE, he and Ronnie O’Brien made a major contribution in gear design when they developed the deployment-bag system, which eventually replaced the deployment-sleeve system and is still the standard method of deployment today. During the mid-1980s, TSE developed the Tear Drop harness-and-container system, which utilized a one-pin pop-top pilot chute, the first of its kind. The Tear Drop became one of the most popular rigs in the world, arguably the most technically advanced rig at that time.

As a major figure in the British Parachute Association and a member for nearly 50 years, Thomas served as chairman and vice chairman during his 25-year tenure as an active officer of the BPA Council and Parachute Riggers Committee. During his tenure as an officer, Thomas led several British competition teams all over the world as his nation’s head of delegation. He also worked on many films as a consultant and occasionally appeared as a stunt performer. He spent many years working in several capacities at the Parachute Industry Association Symposium. Thomas made his last skydive on his 80th birthday with his two sons, Chris and Derek, and his grandson, Kyle.


 

About the Author

Doug Garr, D-2791, is an author, journalist and regular contributor to Parachutist. He made his first jump in 1969. Garr is now active with Skydivers Over Sixty, the Skydivers’ Resurrection Award group and the International Skydiving Museum & Hall of Fame, which is awarding Garr its 2019 Trustees’ Award for his many efforts on behalf of the organization.

 

 

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