In 1962, I was in winter training with the U.S. Navy Parachute Team, the Chuting Stars, in El Centro, California. One day, we were quite surprised to see Jacques-André Istel, president of the Parachute Club of America (USPA’s predecessor organization), arrive in his shiny new Cessna 182. He was a friend of our training officer, Chief Warrant Officer Vinson, who was also an Area Safety Officer for PCA. He informed Vinson of a PCA conference to develop guidelines for instructor licenses and asked whether Vinson could send someone. I was given the assignment and flew to Deer Valley Airport near Phoenix, Arizona, for the event. There, I joined a number of high-level parachutists from around the nation, including General Joseph W. Stilwell Jr. Several of the U.S. Army Golden Knights—the best of the best—were there, but I was the only Navy guy. Lewis B. Sanborn, D-1, was also in attendance.
Part of our work at the conference—titled the Examiners’ Conference—included training jumps where one of us played the role of the student, one the observer and one the instructor. It was a full load for the Cessna 182. When my turn came to be the instructor, I waited at the aircraft for my “student” to show up. I waited and waited and waited! There wasn’t a jump list posted, so I had no idea who it would be. I was shocked to see General Stilwell come walking out from the hangar. His condition told me this was an Army vs. Navy set up, and they had me! The general had his helmet on sideways, and he peeked out through an ear hole. One of his leg straps hung loose, and he had his chest-mounted reserve on upside down. About the only thing he didn’t do was put his jump boots on the wrong feet. I should have sent him back to the hangar, but I was an enlisted man, pay grade E-7 at the time, and didn’t think I could tell a general he couldn’t jump.
It took some doing (with no cooperation from the general), but I finally got his gear all squared away. I went over the checklist of basic procedures for the jump, but he didn’t seem to pay attention. We finally boarded the 182 for what was to be a simple hop-and-pop from 2,500 feet. When approaching the drop zone, the instructor is supposed to give a hand signal to the student to climb out on the step and hang onto the strut, and then give a slap on the leg to tell the student to push off. When I gave the general the hand signal to climb out on the step, he fell out of the plane on purpose. I immediately dove out after him thinking, “What next?” Our pilot chutes popped about a second apart, and my mind was in a whirlwind during our short ride to the ground. We didn’t land far from the hangar, but they sent a truck for him anyway. You just don’t make a general walk. Afterward, he was kind enough to sign his name and license number (C-345) in my logbook, marking the most memorable jump I ever made.
On July 25, 1966, General Stilwell and a friend were flying a C-47 from California to Hawaii but didn’t make it. Several Coast Guard and Navy ships searched a wide area for days but no trace of them was ever found. Far more was lost than two flyers and a leftover aircraft from World War II. Having since crossed the waters between California and Hawaii many times on aircraft carriers, it is very possible I’ve passed over his resting place.
Ed Kruse | D-121