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Skydivers’ Town—DeLand, Florida, Celebrates 60 Years of Jumping

By Mike Johnston

Features | January 2020
Wednesday, January 1, 2020

On December 26, 1959, Dr. John Gaffney (“Doc” to his skydiver friends) led the Central Florida Sky Divers Club to the DeLand Municipal Airport to jump from a Tri-Pacer flown by the airport manager, Bob Lee. Doc soon moved to DeLand and established a new club, the Falling Angels Inc., at the airport. As a result, 2019 is the 60th consecutive year of skydiving on the DeLand airport, and the drop zone held a celebration of this anniversary on November 9.

The K2 event Peak Performance, the successor to the Kaleidoscope events (which featured 100-way sequential formation skydives at DeLand for many years), coincided with the party. In honor of the 60-year celebration, this year’s K2 event featured 60-way sequential dives. Other DZ activities included a Fly4Life angle-flying camp with more than 80 participants and the Qatari Demo Team flying 45-way canopy formations. And, of course, daily fun jumps and AFF and tandem training continued throughout.

Off the DZ, about a dozen local parachute equipment companies provided a one-day exhibit of their products and services at the DeLand Community Center. The display was open to the general public, as well as skydivers and visitors from far and wide, and included seminars from Bill Booth of United Parachute Technologies and aerial photographer Norman Kent. The community center also hosted the evening banquet.

At the community center, visitors could look at displays of historical photos and memorabilia, a collection of national and international gold medals in every competitive discipline won by local jumpers over the years, a display of some of the many Parachutist covers featuring DeLand, pictures of the many celebrities involved with DeLand and a multimedia art show.

John Rostoks, with assistance from Nicole Bureau, Dick Higley and Dean Nordsted, organized the celebration and compiled an impressive history covering the past 60 years. Rostoks produced and narrated a video that he presented to a full house at the banquet. The production started with Doc Gaffney and the Falling Angels, continued through the transition to the DeLand Sport Parachute Center (run by Gary Dupuis) and then Skydive DeLand (founded by Tom Piras and Bob Hallett) through its current operations. The documentary covered the successes and accomplishments amassed in training, competition and equipment in the Florida town.

Attracting Talent

Within months of moving to DeLand, the Falling Angels organized their student training program and hosted a meet that became one of the major annual competitions in the country. Competitions at the time were primarily for accuracy, but Doc Gaffney introduced style and tracking events. DeLand also hosted the National Collegiate Parachuting Championships for many years and the National Parachuting Championships twice, as well as numerous world record events.

Tim Saltonstall became DeLand’s first national champion, winning the gold medal in style at the 1963 Nationals held in Seattle, Washington. Since then, a long list of DeLand teams and individuals have gone on to win gold medals, earn slots on U.S. Teams that competed on the international stage and set world records in every competitive discipline. This legacy continues today. While canopy formation skydiving (then known as canopy relative work) has never had a wide following in DeLand, Mike Barber and Bobbie Gray flew the first canopy stack over DeLand in 1975. Then, in 2019, the Qatari Army team set the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale World Record for Largest Two-Point Canopy Formation at Night at the drop zone.

In 1973, Dupuis took a big step and added a DC-3 to the DZ’s flight line. It was turbo charged and fitted with carpet, tinted windows and a stereo system. The aircraft, known as Mister Douglas, more than tripled lift capacity when compared to the “large” planes flown at the time at relatively few DZs. This ushered in an expansion of relative work (now known as formation skydiving) activity. The DC-3 attracted the DeLand 10-way team Slots Are For Tots, who dominated the annual Thanksgiving Meet held at Skydive City in Zephyrhills, Florida, for years. Skydivers from around the world began moving to DeLand.

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Gear and Industry

The area soon began attracting skydiving industries. In 1975, soon after the introduction of Mister Douglas, Booth brought the Relative Workshop (now United Parachute Technologies) to DeLand. Booth became a renowned inventor who was responsible for the 3-ring-release system and the hand-deployed pilot chute.

Mike Truffer moved to DeLand in 1979 and established the internationally circulated magazine Skydiving that he published for more than 30 years. The magazine, published in a newspaper format, allowed for a short production schedule, and the magazine became the source for timely news in the skydiving world.

Ken Coleman came to the area at about the same time as Truffer. Before moving to DeLand, he and John Robbins had already begun developing an innovative approach to training skydiving students: the buddy system, a precursor to the current AFF system. After the move, further development proceeded with contributions from several locals, including Dupuis, who had previously made buddy jumps. The focused course that used Coleman’s curriculum and methods became known as “accelerated free fall” because it sped up a student’s journey to becoming a skydiver.

Although Dupuis made the first tandem jump in 1966, the gear of the day wasn’t suited to further explore this method. As rigs and canopy design progressed, Booth began to manufacture equipment for tandem jumping in 1983. Hallett became one of the early tandem instructors and continued to introduce the public to freefall for more than 30 years.

Leading the Way

When Dupuis’ DZ operation transitioned to Piras and Hallett’s Skydive DeLand in 1984, the DZ again led the way by establishing a permanent fleet of turbine aircraft that was key in providing the rapid turnarounds that drastically changed the training format for competitive teams. This, along with the availability of professional packers and coaches, created an innovative system that earned Skydive DeLand the moniker “Skydiving Capital of the World.”

Skydive DeLand’s focus from the beginning was to promote and foster the continuous improvement of skydivers and their personal skill levels. The instructional talent in the area led to the founding of organizations such as Skydive University, founded by Piras; the Performance Designs Factory Team and Flight-1; and Complete Parachute Solutions. Consequently, the U.S. military and many allies come to DeLand for training programs. In one instance, the instructional staff at DeLand trained 100 allied soldiers from zero experience to USPA B licenses in eight weeks.

DeLand also has a legacy of high-performing women. Sandy Williams established the all-female demo team the Misty Blues, and she organized three successive world records for the largest all-female freefall formation. Other successful women competitors at Deland include the DeLand Snoots, who competed in 10-way FS; members of the U.S. Style and Accuracy Team; and champion freestylists and canopy pilots. 

The development of the skydiving industry in DeLand continues to this day. In addition to the half dozen companies associated with the DZ and involved in skydiver training, about 15 companies design, manufacture, distribute, sell and service parachuting gear and components, as well as accessories, in the area. This local industry thrived during the 2007-2009 recession and was a major boost to the local economy. DeLand has also hosted two Parachute Industry Association Symposiums, as well as two DeLand Parachute Industry Exhibitions.

The 60th anniversary celebrations and banquet provided an enjoyable pause to review and reflect on the legacy of the past and to appreciate how it shapes the future. As it had every morning, year-round, for about 35 years, Skydive DeLand opened the next morning, looking forward to the 61st consecutive year of skydiving over DeLand.


About the Author
Mike Johnston, D-2638, holds USPA AFF and Static-Line Instructor Examiner ratings and is a PRO-rated skydiver. He is the general manager of Skydive DeLand.

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