During the week, 27-year-old Jacques Andr� Istel of suburban New York is a perfect gray-flannel model of a public relations executive, but on his weekends Jacques Istel escapes from his gray-flannel world in a Cessna monoplane. As the Cessna makes a level pass at 6,500 feet, Istel steps out on the wheel and gives the pilot a sign. Then, with arms and legs spread, he falls, face down, into the sky.
In one second Istel is 16 feet below the plane; in another second, 62 feet. Every second he falls faster and faster until, in the 12th second, he has dropped 1,458 feet and reached his maximum speed, 125 miles an hour. The ground does not rush up at him. The wind does not whistle or tear at his clothing. "The ground is still another world," Istel describes it. "The air seems thicker. It has the feel of water, and you feel as free as a bird." At this birdlike moment Istel is actually plummeting about as fast as a crated piano, but he retains his poise, body horizontal to the ground and arms out. He shifts one arm forward, twists at the waist and begins a smooth circle. Shifting the opposite arm forward, Istel does a reverse circle. After completing two such figure eights Istel has been flying free for 30 seconds and has fallen almost a mile. He pulls the rip cord and swings evenly down under the opening parachute, pulling the risers to slip the chute toward a cross mark on the ground.
There are about 500 Americans like Jacques Istel who enjoy the sport of sky diving. The rest of the country, which barely knows the sport exists, is apt to associate sky diving with military jumping or with the batwing heroes who flip and flap to wow carnival crowds. Military jumpers who blossom like milkweed pods from the static lines of cargo planes are mastering only the tag end of a safe parachute jump. The sky diver gets the experience of opening his own chute (which every military jumper might one day have to do). The sky diver must be able to achieve a perfectly stable, horizontal body position in three seconds and maintain it for another 27 seconds—not tumbling or spinning out in the tragic fashion that can kill a jumper. A sky diver learns to use his limbs as sparse airfoils to maneuver and pull his rip cord within a tenth of a second of a predetermined time, and, finally to slip his chute, not toward the nearest safe area but to dead center of a cross mark.
This summer Sky Diver Istel has one target almost constantly in mind. If the National Aeronautic Association's appeal for funds continues successfully, a U.S. team will be competing for the first time in the world parachuting championship in late July, and, as team captain, Istel will be sky diving through the air over Moscow. The U.S. team is completely nonmilitary, and while it has only a long-shot chance against the defending Russian champions and the expert French, in one respect it is as truly All-American as any team entered in any competition. Excluding Sky Diver George Stone, a jubilant little Ohioan who earns his living as a steeplejack and often breaks into song while dangling in the air, the U.S. team is as prosaic in its occupations as a cross section of a drive-in movie audience. In addition to Istel, there are Floyd Hobby, an Ohio auto mechanic who first jumped more than 30 years ago from rooftops using gunny sacks; George Bosworth, a sewing machine repairman from Buffalo; Lyle Hoffman, an upholsterer from Seattle; Lewis Sanborn, an apprentice carpenter from Florida; and Bob Fair, a sign painter from East Tennessee. However well they do, it is the big aim of the team to let the 13 other competing countries see that the U.S. is trying to keep up in a new sport that has spread through half of Europe on both sides of the Curtain.
The theoretical origins of the parachute stem from several streams in history. As might be expected, Leonardo da Vinci put down definite ideas about its use. The balloon had scarcely been developed in the late 18th century before men were jumping in parachutes. The parachute became a carnival item, and this prompted some aerodynamicists to look down their noses at it. Though a Polish balloonist, Jordaka Kuparento, actually saved himself with a chute in 1808, balloonists, weighing one miracle against another, often decided to trust their luck in their exploded balloon fabric than switch to an untried parachute (some of them lived to argue that they had made the right choice).
In the 1920s the United States led the world in parachuting. In 1912 an American, Albert Berry, was the first to parachute from a plane, wearing enough clothes to keep a Sherpa warm as precaution against the fierce winds of the prop blast at 55 miles an hour. The first man to save himself from a disabled plane was Air Corps Lieutenant Harold Harris, who fell over Dayton, Ohio in 1922, demolishing a grape arbor. According to the records, in 1928 the first parachuting Santa Claus fell in the Susquehanna River near Wilkes Barre and was towed out by a horse while children wept. Two hundred plane pilots saved themselves in that decade, notable among them Test Pilot Jimmy Collins, an Air Corps major named Lewis Brereton and a first lieutenant named Jimmy Doolittle. In two years a barnstormer and Air Corps reservist named Charles Lindbergh saved himself a record number of four times, nearly being cut down twice by his own pilotless plane.
Toward the end of the 1920s the U.S. lost its parachuting initiative. In 1928 General Billy Mitchell, the country's most famous prophet without honor, staged a "mass" jump of a machine-gun squad to prove that the parachute might be a weapon as well as a life line. That was the most the U.S. did until it was almost too late. The Russians first tried military jumping in 1930. In five years, more than 30,000 Russians got jump experience, and in a few more years the select of Hitler's chutists were jumping for keeps in the Spanish Civil War. By World War II Russia had more than 500 jump towers, most of them used for sport. At the start of the war the only worthwhile tower in the U.S. was the one used by everybody and his grandmother at the New York World's Fair.
There are in Russia today, to judge from rough reports, about 25,000 who sky dive for sport and possibly 800,000 with some jump experience. At 10 civilian centers in France, about 1,000 sportsmen train each year. Contemplating how far behind the U.S. is now, Ray Young, an American who has seen many of the French in jump training, has observed, "Americans will have to be educated. As it stands now, most American parents would rather have a delinquent child in the family than a parachuting one." Among U.S. parents there has been one exception, cheerfully noted by Joe Crane, the veteran jumper who manages the U.S. team. "A man called me in the office one day," Crane relates, "and says he's Charles A. Lindbergh. Well, I thought it was some kind of a gag. But it turns out it really was Lindbergh, and he wants to rent a parachute so his son Jon can get the experience. It's cheerful to know we might have such an experienced man on our side."