Without Jacques-André Istel, the sport of parachuting would not be what it is today. Indeed, if he hadn’t learned the latest techniques, promoted parachuting as a hobby and created the Parachute Club of America (USPA’s predecessor), skydiving as we know it may not have existed at all. Istel established the first Basic Safety Requirements and the sport’s licensing and instructional programs. He brought stable freefall techniques to the United States after learning about them in France in 1955. He founded Parachutes Incorporated, which operated five drop zones, including the first professional drop zone in the U.S. These DZs used the latest equipment, much of which Istel developed himself. In 1956, he organized and led the first U.S. Parachute Team at the world championships, and he captained the 1958 team. He also popularized sport parachuting in America by touring college campuses, and in 1957, he founded the National Intercollegiate Parachuting League. He taught the United States Army freefall parachuting techniques, and many of his students became the first members of the U.S. Army Golden Knights. These are just a few of his achievements on behalf of the sport, which are too numerus to list. He graciously agreed to be interviewed for USPA’s 75th anniversary Profile column in issue 741 of Parachutist magazine, a publication that he founded and of which he was the first editor.
Birthplace: Born in Paris, France, in 1929 to André and Yvonne Istel
Marital Status: Married to Felicia. I named Felicity, the California town I founded, in honor of her.
Occupation: Founder of the Hall of Fame of Parachuting and the Museum of History in Granite. Mayor of Felicity, California.
Education: The Stony Brook School, salutatorian for the Class of 1945; economics degree from Princeton University in 1949
Military Service: Lt. Colonel, U.S. Marines. Served during the Korean War.
Pet Peeve: When skydivers use the word “load.” My 1959 instructions at Parachutes Incorporated: “One loads cattle and offers flights to our respected clients.” Vocabulary matters.
Favorite Food: With all the marvelous foods around the world, this question is inapplicable.
Favorite Music: Bach’s “Inventions” and Georges Brassens
Home Drop Zone: I founded Parachutes Incorporated, which operated the Orange Sport Parachute Center in Massachusetts, the world’s first professional drop zone. (The airport is now occupied by Jumptown/Massachusetts Sport Parachute Club.) The Orange center was the first of five DZs that PI owned and was the site of the 6th World Parachuting Championships, the first championships held in the U.S.
First Jump: A three-second freefall and ripcord deployment from a two-seater Piper J-3 Cub using gear borrowed from former paratrooper Dean McAlpine in 1950.
Year of Last Jump: 1972
Licenses/Ratings: B-17, C-28, D-2 and I-1. I issued the PCA C licenses. In order to boost the sport, I created the Instructor and D licenses. As first instructor, I took I-1 and issued D-1 to Lew Sanborn, whose first jump had seniority over mine.
Parachuting Honors: A. Leo Stevens Parachute Medal, 1958; elected Lifetime Honorary President of the International Parachuting Commission of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, 1965; Fédération Aéronautique Internationale Paul Tissandier Diploma, 1969; USPA Lifetime Achievement Award, 2007; International Skydiving Hall of Fame Class of 2011. Unusual item: Honorary Master of Sport of the Soviet Union.
Total Number of Jumps: 600-plus
Largest Completed Formation: Never interested me, as I enjoyed being alone in freefall.
Total Number of Cutaways: Back in my day, the cutaway did not exist. My first reserve ride was on my 10th jump after the 1951 Detroit Air Races. I have had several reserve rides.
Most people don’t know this about me:
In 1985, I wrote a children’s book entitled “Coe, the Good Dragon at the Center of the World.”
What was your role in the development of parachuting in the U.S.?
Without false modesty, the sport occurred in America because I analyzed the obstacles and, using innovations both mine and those of others, reduced greatly both opening and landing shocks of the parachute, and then solved the problem of accuracy in landing. (An interesting story, by the way.) With approval of close friend Joe Crane, who with most in that era laughed at the idea, I created the Parachute Club of America (writing the charter as a non-profit sport organization) by modifying the National Parachute Jumpers-Riggers he founded. I then created the Intercollegiate Parachuting League, the I and D licenses, the insurance program that removed most landowners’ objections to parachuting, the first Basic Safety Regulations, Parachutist magazine, first sport parachuting school, first jump from jet aircraft with sport chute (to convince governments to buy; they did), first jump with camera on helmet. (I turned freefall photography over to Lew [Sanborn], a better parachutist than I, who made huge contributions.)
What positions did you hold in the sport?
Competitor, team captain, team leader, team trainer, instructor, national champion, world record holder, head of delegation, organizer and president of a world championships, delegate of the United States and president of the International Parachuting Commission. At the time, I was the only person to have held all of these positions, and perhaps still am.
Is it true that you developed the Basic Safety Requirements?
My “Parachutist Log #2” contains the original 10 brief and concise safety regulations, which I wrote. (The number remind you of anything?)
Setting up the first sport skydiving facility must have been a serious financial gamble. Was it a bonanza or a financial headache?
First jumps were $30 and we needed 1,000 first-time jumpers a year to break even. It took us several years to break even at Parachutes Inc. I was willing to lose money to provide a first-class service. Similar to what Amazon has strived to do.
How much resistance met you when you went to D.C. to lobby for the purpose of making parachuting a sporting activity?
At your original parachute school, what training method did you use?
The Army took several days to train for the first jump. I taught my students in 45 minutes, and I only taught five things:
- How to exit the aircraft
- Check your canopy
- Emergency procedure
- How to land
- How to collapse your canopy after landing
A first jump is a scary occasion. Principle: Teach as little as possible, emphasize five vital points. I took a lot of grief over this, but we didn’t have a fatality for 11 years, and that was not a first-time jumper. Staff wore different colored jumpsuits: Red were for ground crew; blue were for pilots; gold were for instructors. (They were gold because they were the most respected.)
Why did you name your drop zones “parachuting schools” and not “skydiving schools”?
Because skydiving sounded like a circus stunt at a time when parachuting was scary and exotic. Again, vocabulary matters.
Do you stay involved in the sport today?
My profession, editing and ensuring the engraving of history in granite, is time consuming and an awesome responsibility. Like parachuting, mistakes have serious consequences. Hence, I have had nothing to do with actual parachuting in well over 30 years. Exceptions: Some work on the Hall of Fame and the pleasure of hosting the Pioneers of Sport Parachuting reunions. Note: Parachutists are always welcome at Felicity, California.