December 17, 2018

My oh my, what a sport Jacques Istel created!

Another group goes up high to float down so gently. But the cost of it!

Another group goes up high to float down ever so gently. But the great big thrill isn’t cheap.

By John Guy LaPlante

Orange, Massachusetts—Some 50 years ago I came here to write a magazine article about something brand-new—strapping on a parachute and jumping out of a plane for the pure thrill of it.  It would become a big sport, I heard. How  crazy! And about Jacques Istel, its daddy.  What in the world possessed him?

I came, I met him, and I saw his rough and tumble operation on the back side of the tiny airport here.  He was my age, a short, muscular guy, and he was a Frenchman with the accent to prove it.

He was teaching a small group of novices. All young guys. He was a pleasant fellow but a demanding teacher.  He’d explain a bit about the physics of jumping through the sky hanging on for dear life under a big parachute. How and when to pull the rip cord.  How and why to pull this line of the parachute or that one. And so on. They’d practice jumping off  a barrel and tumbling.

At the end of all this,  they’d strap on their bulky chutes, get into a small plane while doing their best to veil their jitters, and fly up to a certain spot and altitude. At a command, they’d leap out one after another and hope for the best.  And they’d pay good money for this fun!

Safely on the ground, they’d beam with satisfaction and pose for photos.  They could have chickened out at any point, no problem. But few did, if any.

When I showed up, I was asked if I was here to jump. No, no, no, not me!

My piece was the big story in Feature Parade. It was the magazine of the Worcester Sunday Telegram. It attacted a lot of readers because of the dramatic topic, of course.

The Telegram was the morning paper.  My paper. Its companion in the same company was The Evening Gazette. Each had its own editorial staff. We’d compete against each other.A few weeks later on the front page of the Gazette,  I read a story by Carolyn Foisy. She was a young writer for the Gazette’s women’s pages.  She had read my piece, contacted Jacques Istel, signed up, and made a jump!  I believe she was the first woman in the U.S. to do that. I’m sure absolutely everybody read her story. Quite a writer and quite a woman, Carolyn!

I don’t remember why Istel chose Orange for his first school. Just as it was the first sport-parachuting center in the U.S.  I believe my story was the first by a big paper.

He went on and started jump centers here and there.  Made a name for himself. Proved that this new sport could be safe—well, reasonably safe—and in time came up with the term “sky diving,” which is what it’s called now.  He is recognized as the founder of the sport.

Anyway, all that faded from my memory long ago. Last week I was driving through here on my way north toward Quebec when I noted a sign, “Jumptown!” It showed a parachutist coming down. Jumptown meant nothing to me but the parachutist did. The sign had an arrow pointing left.

I snapped to attention. I took that left. The little airport had been out of sight.  Within three minutes I was back at the very spot on that little airfield where I had come to see Istel and his fledgling operation!

Surely this was the same hangar. A dozen cars were parked there. This was a Thursday. All those cars impressed me. And I could see people in the hangar, and around it.

My timing was perfect. This was now Jumptown’s whole operation—the office, the training room, parachute rigging center, pre-jump lounge, even a cozy little eatery. Out front, just a few paces away, was a twin-turbine plane. Far  bigger than the tiny plane Jacques Istel used back then.

I was just in time to see some 15 people fully outfitted and waiting to jump. There seemed as many women as men, which surprised me but it shouldn’t have, things have changed so much. Some were young and some not so young.

I’m sure they were quivering inside and struggling not to show it. Human nature doesn’t change much.  Some  were kidding and laughing. Some were totally quiet.  There were other people around, too. Friends and family, I’m sure, and a few bitten by curiosity. Like me.

In the office, I saw two men and a woman behind the counter. Very busy. A guy in his 50s and a guy and gal around 30, I’d say.

Aloud I said, “Does anybody here remember Jacques Istel?”  The older guy nodded but didn’t pick up on it. Just kept working. The other two just shrugged and kept working. They gave me scant attention.

Finally the gal broke down and asked if she could help me. About 30, very pretty, in T-shirt and shorts—I was amazed how many tattoos she had, and all on her legs. Oh, well.

“I came here a long time and wrote a newspaper story about what you’re doing here. That was brand-new in the country.” Mentioned I might like to write an update.

“Great!” she said, but with no enthusiasm. I got the message. She—and the two men—were used to seeing writers like me coming in and taking a lot of time asking questions, not to sign up and plunk down money, but to walk out with a good story.

She answered some basic questions and when I prodded gave me details about herself. She was the “manifest person.” I had never heard that expression. I got the feeling she was the Gal Friday. This was more than a business, she emphasized. It was a club run by a board of directors.  It was open Thursdays through Sundays and on holidays, spring through autumn.

She dropped the tidbit she herself  had made 400 jumps, but that really wasn’t much. Some members had jumped a thousand times, even more. Finally she picked out a couple of brochures for me.  “You’ll find everything you need right in these,” she said. And went back to what she was doing.

The older guy was very busy. He finished his numerous tasks and hurried into the room where the jump group was waiting for their big moment. She told me, “Billy is the pilot. He’s going to take them up.”  And she added nicely, “Go out to the fence out there in the front. You’ll get to see everything. Take pictures if you like.”

She was right. A perfect view. There were 8 or 10 onlookers there, waiting. It was a gorgeous day. Blue sky. Nice sunshine. Big fat clouds drifting by.

The airport had a lot of acres, but that was a mowed field out there right in front of us. About the size of a football field. I asked a lady next to me and she said, “Yep. That’s where they’ll land. The whole deal up and down will take about 20 minutes, tops. It takes them just a minute to come down.”

A guy about 50 had sidled up next to me. White hair. Sunburned. Hadn’t shaved for a couple of days. Wearing a Jumptown T-shirt.

He said pleasantly, “I heard you asking about Jacques Istel.  I knew about him. I’ve been here a long time…since I was a kid…but he was gone by then. Was a legend.”

This guy’s name was Danny and he was on staff here and he did just about anything that needed doing, except flying people up for their jumps. That’s the impression he gave me.

He loved jumping, he told me.  “I’ve made about a thousand jumps, but that’s not much compared to some others.”   I had heard the same thing just a few minutes earlier

Danny was terrific. He took it upon himself to brief me. I asked hardly a question. He kept giving me one interesting detail after another.

This group would fly up to about 14,000 feet.  Gosh, that’s two and a half miles up—much, much higher than those early groups. True, he told me, but this gives jumpers a better ride down and more control. Which makes jumping safer.

Some in that plane were experienced jumpers, he said. Credentialed. They’d jump alone.  Others—the beginners—would jump tandem, meaning with an instructor, both under a single chute, with the instructor doing everything and the novice looking and learning.

Of course I asked Danny whether he had ever seen anything bad happen.

“Oh, these days, maybe a twisted ankle. But that’s rare. Way back I did see a couple of fatalities.  The reason being they did

A first-time jumper lands with an instructor under a single paachute. It looks so easy!  But my, how different the chutes look now.

A first-time jumper lands with an instructor under a single parachute. It looks so easy! But my, how different the chutes look now.

something wrong, well, that’s my opinion.

“Now the training is so much better. So are our procedures.  And so is the technology. The parachutes are incredible.  Much smaller. You can fly them down, so to speak. A little bit like a plane.  You can’t make them take you up higher, but you can steer them and control your speed and adjust your slope to land where you want to.

“Those folks up there will jump one after another. This is a big, big field, but they’ll all land right there,” he said, pointing. “Right in front of us. Watch and see. It’s quite a sight.”

I saw a young fellow dressed to jump but with a big camera get on the plane.In fact, the camera was mounted atop his helmet.

 “He’s our photographer,” Danny told me. “He’ll take pictures as they come down. That’s an optional service we offer.”

I was interested in this money part.

“This is an expensive sport!” Danny said. “There’s no way around that.  There are different plans. Basically a  first jump will cost $220.  We provide the jumpsuit and helmet. If you sign up for a lesson plan, you’ll face many expenses.  Have to buy your helmet, gloves,  jumpsuit, other stuff.  Have to pay the club membership. Just driving here can set you back a lot. Some people come a long way. So can the time you take off from work.

” A beginner’s parachute will cost $6,000. And you can pay a lot more. You can even buy a gizmo that will open your chute for you at any altitude you decide—no need to pull a cord.  That’s terrific if somehow you don’t get to pull the cord! Or if you’re  busy taking pictures.”

Now the plane was up so high I had a hard time spotting it. So tiny. Danny had to keep pointing to it  for me.  “The first jumper is out!” he said.  “And there goes another!”

I couldn’t make them out. Finally I saw a parachute open. Very small. It was much farther down in the sky than I expected. It had dropped a long way fast! Then I made out several floating down.”

The lady at my left was excited.  “My son’s is one of them up there!” she told me.  “This is his 25th jump! He’s getting his first certification.  That’s a big deal.”

And she kept talking—she saw I was interested. “He  goes to college but this is what he lives for.  It’s so, so expensive! But it’s worth it  to him. But I help him as much as I can. What can I say?”

  She was so enthusiastic.“Do you jump, too?” I asked.

“No, no, no!  Never! But I come here and watch. It’s so  important to him.”

Now I saw the first jumper land. It was nice and easy. Very quiet. Nothing dramatic. Right there in front of us, as promised. And the plane had been way over there in the east when the drop began. I found that amazing. These jumpers could really steer themselves down.

Then a tandem pair landed.  One landed on his feet, the other fell onto the ground–you know which one as the rookie. Then the others landed. It was all very calm  and routine, or so it seemed to me.  The lady next to me had been right. Just one minute to come down!  I whistled when I thought about how much that one-minute thrill had cost.

The jumpers scooped up their parachutes and walked toward us. They were all smiling.  People were yelling to them, “How was it? Did you like it? Were you scared?  Was it worth it?”

The jumpers nodded and waved back and gave us a thumb’s up. Except the instructors who came down with them. This was just routine. Normal business.  The gal in the office had told me four plane loads would jump today. More on weekends, of course. These instructors and the videographer would have a full day.

Most were young, but others, as I mentioned, not so young. Two women came by, smiling and chatting excitedly, their arms heavy with gear. Danny told me, “They’re mother and daughter!”

“I wonder how many were  very nervous?” I asked him.

“Every beginner is nervous! Plenty nervous! If you’re not nervous, there’s something wrong with you.”

The videographer strode by.  He seemed in his young 30’s.  “They all did great!” he yelled to us. “Just great!”

“It’s all in the day’s work for him,” Danny said. “Nothing to it.”

And I thought to myself, If only Jacques Istel could see this!

It was over. I had been there about 45 minutes in all. I said goodbye to Danny. Gave him a pat on the back. He had made it all so much more interesting for me. And went on my way.

Later I looked up Jacques Istel online. I had lost track of him, of course. He was still alive. I learned some things I never knew.

He was born in Paris. His family moved to the U.S. in anticipation of Germany’s invasion in World War II. He went to high school here. Went to Princeton and graduated with a major in economics. Served with the Marines in Korea.

Became interested in parachuting then. Visiting in France in 1955, he saw how some jumpers there were doing it for fun and getting very good at it. Felt inspired. Took it up seriously. Became its big missionary. Made it his business for a lot of years. Started numerous jump centers.  Got many people jumping. Organized national and even world competitions.

Then quit and became an investment banker. Made a lot of money. Married a Chinese lady. They settled in California. And when he retired, he started a tiny city way out in the desert there.  Called it Felicity, for his wife. Became its mayor. It’s all so interesting.  Sorry, if you want to learn more, Google him.

Oh, one more important detail.  Not long ago, the U.S. Parachute Association—the sport’s big organization that has become so powerful in every aspect of it—gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award. He certainly deserved it. If anything, it was overdue.

I’m so glad I spotted that Jumptown sign!


  1. Joan Perrone says:

    Hi John….You have met some extraordinary people in your lifetime. Somehow I can see you jumping in your earlier days….but I’m with you. I want my feet planted firmly on the ground. It does look like a lot of fun for those who aren’t afraid of heights. We saw hang gliders going off Mount Greylock in Pittsfield, MA last year, and they seemed so happy to fly. Me….I enjoyed taking pictures of the whole process. 🙂

    Heading home from ten days in the Berkshires. Can you sense a blog coming?


  2. jim davis says:

    my thrill’s a good meal. keep it up, and i mean the writing.

  3. Nancy Simonds says:

    Hello Oh Great Traveler!

    I have a young friend (47) who can’t get parachuting out of her system. Like you said, it’s not a cheap sport. But jumping out of airplanes puts her on a ‘high” – no pun intended. Excuse my rather risque reference but if I were to attempt such a pursuit, I would have to wear brown pants.

    Like Jim, a good meal is my biggest thrill!!!

    You might as well give up any idea you might be entertaining about not traveling anymore. Can’t live without your related stories. Not only do you write well but teach great history in all your blogs.

    Stay well John. You have a long way to go.
    ~ Nancy

  4. To John

    This is a very interesting story!
    It was fun to read it and the pictures i like too.
    Don’t stop writing (you are to good at it)!

    Stay Healthy 😉

  5. the above was from my 13 year old grandson, devin (oexler) james davis, who is german, and whom i just gave two of my typewriters. following in your footsteps. jim

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