Come Fall With Me: The Ivy League Origins Of Skydiving

Our last post was called “Come Fly With Me” and featured Frank Sinatra’s private jet. In this post we look not at flying in planes, but leaping from them. Contributing writer Jeff Samoray examines this little-known bit of historic trivia.

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Sixty years ago this past May, curious onlookers gathered in Woodbury, Connecticut, to view the unfurling of a new sport in America. They didn’t direct their gaze toward a court, field or pitch. Rather, they looked skyward.

The gray brisk skies above Good Hill Farm was the site of the first Intercollegiate Parachute Jumping Competition. Students from Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, Middlebury, Princeton, Williams and Yale took a leap of faith while testing their skill, precision and pluck.

Princeton graduate Jacques-André Istel, known as “the father of American skydiving,” organized the meet. He also demonstrated his talents by plummeting spread-eagle from 5,500 feet for 20 seconds before opening his chute. Marine Corps guards and Connecticut State Police held the crowd back as Istel landed safely.

The competition offered two divisions for the less experienced jumpers: “static line,” in which the chute opens automatically upon jumping, and “rip-cord,” in which the jumper triggers his own chute.

Competitors leaped from a single-engine Cessna 170 flying at 80 miles per hour. The goal was to land as close as possible to a white cross 2,200 feet below.

Columbia student and ex-paratrooper George Sarris won the static line division, landing 29 yards from the target. Hugh Fairman of Princeton and Dick Tomkins of Harvard finished second and third, respectively.

R.C.A. Weatherly-White, a third-year medical student at Harvard and co-captain of the Cambridge Parachuting Club, won the rip-cord division by landing just 3-1/2 yards from the target. Charles Hotchkiss of Dartmouth finished second; Peter Pond of Yale came in third.

Weatherly-White – known by his American friends as Chris White – was born in India and grew up in England. He went up to Andover from Harrow, earned a degree from Cambridge, then served as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division while at Harvard. White became a noted plastic surgeon after completing his medical training at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. In addition to authoring the textbook Plastic Surgery of the Female Breast, he volunteered with Operation Smile for 10 years.

White created a stir at the meet not only for his incredible landing, but also his attire. He arrived wearing a black bowler, Prince of Wales check suit and crimson waistcoat. He changed into white coveralls for the jump, then back into the suit – this time pinned with his first-place blue ribbon.

Event coverage included articles in the Hartford Courant, Harvard Crimson, Ivy Magazine and Sports Illustrated. While the meet ended safely with no injuries or chute failures, Ivy Magazine noted one anxious jumper had spent the previous night at Smith College, “fearing he might never see the female form again.” — JEFF SAMORAY

Jeff Samoray is a freelance writer based in metro Detroit.

11 Comments on "Come Fall With Me: The Ivy League Origins Of Skydiving"

  1. Thank you, Jeff, for this fascinating piece of Ivy League esoterica.

  2. My father told me about his one time experience with parachuting done while at Princeton (Class of ’61). I wish I could find out more information about when he jumped. Did this parachuting event a occur regularly during the Ivy years?

  3. @Christian, my pleasure.

    @makaga, I’m not sure how long this event remained primarily “Ivy League.” I found this information via the United States Parachute Association website: “The first National Collegiate Parachuting Championships took place in 1958. USPA has hosted competitions at various locations in the U.S. ever since, promoting safety, competition, sportsmanship, and camaraderie among college skydivers.”

    The collegiate event continues. The next one begins in Dec. at Lake Wales, Florida.

  4. Steedappeal | June 22, 2017 at 5:30 pm |

    The chap in the bowler is wearing a Harrow tie.

  5. OK, so who here as jumped out of a plane? I mean besides Tinseth.

  6. I have never jumped out of a plane. My daughter and my son, to the chagrin, of my wife and I, have each sky dived once.

    I believe that president Bush, the elder sky dived, a few years back before his health took a bad turn.

  7. Vern Trotter | June 22, 2017 at 8:30 pm |

    You could start a real series here on variations of this theme. WW1’s Lafayette Escadrille had 28 original pilots, 9 were Harvard graduates including founder Norman Prince, member of Boston’s Trinity Church, killed returning from an air battle in landing and buried at The National Cathedral in Washington DC.

  8. When men were men. I bet Weatherly-White was a hoot! Full of confidence, drawing in life with the same vigor as his cigarette!

  9. Ken Barber | June 22, 2017 at 11:52 pm |

    Just goes to show that Ivy/Trad style adherents can be just as stupid as anyone else.

  10. When I was in the US Army forty five years ago, a drill sergeant stated to us boots that only two things fell from the sky, fools and bird poop. He didn’t use the word poop.

    No airborne for me.

  11. If at first you don’t succeed, maybe skydiving isn’t for you.

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