Saturday, August 22, 2009

Hit the silk!

Members of the "Caterpillar Club" are entitled to wear the unique emblem shown below.

Before April 20, 1919 there was no way for a pilot to jump out of a plane and then deploy a parachute. Early parachutes were stored in a canister attached to the aircraft and if the plane was spinning, the parachute could not deploy. Leslie Irvin developed a parachute that a pilot could deploy at will from a back-pack using a rip-cord. Successfully testing his design in April of 1919 (though he broke his ankle during the test), Irvin was the first person to make a premeditated free fall jump from an airplane. He went on to form the Irving Airchute Company which later became Irvin Aerospace.

An early brochure of the Irvin Parachute Company credits William O'Connor on 24 August 1920 at McCook Field near Dayton, Ohio as the first person to be saved by an Irvin parachute. But this feat seemed to go unrecognized. On 20 October 1922 Lieutenant Harold R. Harris, chief of the McCook Field Flying Station, jumped from a disabled Loening W-2A monoplane fighter. Shortly after, two reporters from the Dayton Herald, realizing that there would be more jumps in the future, suggested that a club should be formed. "Caterpillar Club" was suggested because the parachute canopy was made of silk, and because caterpillars have to climb out and fall away to escape their cocoons. Harris became the first member and from that time forward any person who jumped from a disabled aircraft with a parachute automatically became a member. Other famous members include General James Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh and retired astronaut John Glenn.

In 1922 Leslie Irvin agreed to give a gold pin to every person whose life was saved by one of his parachutes. By 1945 the number of members with Irvin pins had grown to over 34,000. In addition to the Irvin Air Chute Company, other parachute manufacturers also issued caterpillar pins for successful jumps. Airborne Systems Canada (formerly Irvin Aerospace Canada) still provides pins to people who made their jump long ago and are just now applying for membership. Another such company is Switlik Parachute Company, which though it no longer makes parachutes, still issues pins.

To become a member - Supply a bonafide account of your bailout.
Mail to: The Caterpillar Club
c/o Switlik Parachute Co. Inc.
PO Box 1328
Trenton, NJ 08607

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