Freefall parachuting – the beginnings, 1954
“Although ad-hoc delayed opening descents had been made at PTS with manually operated parachutes in the early 1950’s, (a flavour of which can be found in this fascinating narrative from John Saxby, OC 2 PTS in 1947:
“- it seems a long time ago when Stannard and I tried out a free fall from 10,000 feet at Aqir in Palestine in 1947 using wrist watches. I was about to hand over command of No 2 PTS and proceed on demobilisation and it seemed a jolly end to my RAF career. Group Captain Geoffrey Wood was the Station Commander and took a bit of persuading. Before I left Stannard and I took a Dakota up to 10,000 feet over the station, Aqir – bloody cold – to let them all see what a drop looked like. Our usual DZ was Yibna some miles away. At 1000 feet as I remember the school instructors did a demonstration jump with Statichutes as usual, and at 10,000 feet Stannard and I baled out wearing standard Pilot Type parachutes. I spent a lot of the previous night trying to be sure that my maths was right – 120mph = feet per second ??? = how long dare I wait ??? We used our wrist watches to time the drop before pulling the release. Knowing no better I adopted the standard exit position and reached TV in that position – surprised to feel myself ‘standing’ in the air with the wind whistling past but no feeling of falling – how naive we were. But then I began to tumble and was sick, remembering to keep my boots out of the way! Finally I saw Stannard’s parachute deploy and decided to rely on his maths and deployed my own”)
… the first formal recognition occurred when Sir Raymond Quilter, co-founder of GQ Parachute Company, approached No 1 PTS in 1954 asking for jumpers to train for the forthcoming World Parachute Championships. After four weeks training (from scratch!) in basic freefall techniques six instructors were selected for the British team at this second WPC which was to be held at the former French National Parachute Centre, St. Yan, (Saône-et-Loire). They were Flt Lt Doddy Hay, Sgts Alf Card, Danny Sutton, Timber Wood, Norman Hoffman and Tommy Moloney (Below)
Alf Card logbook – freefall training 1954
At this competition the British team were the only jumpers using a ‘steerable’ canopy, as above. The positioning of the blank gore was designed to reduce forward right drift on landing, and was quickly seen as totally unsuitable as an accuracy canopy. Subsequent versions – used up to 1961 at PTS – had the single blank positioned in the rear.
The team returned from France without any medals, but having gained valuable experience in terms of freefall techniques, canopy handling and free fall equipment. Disappointment ensued as the then PTS establishment showed little interest in developing these new ideas, it being felt that there was no requirement for freefall jumping in the Service. The parachutes were returned to GQ, and the cadre dissolved. Only two men had other ideas, which they were determined to put into practice.The prime movers in taking freefall jumping forward at PTS were Alf Card and Norman Hoffman. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/ obituaries/1443195/Norman-Hoffman.html.”
On their own initiative, Alf and Norman formed a weekend group operating at Weston using the 47 Squadron Flying Club Tiger Moth as the sole jump aircraft.
The pilot was Master Signaller Gerry Schellong, a Czech national, who had survived Russian internment, then escaped from occupied Czechoslovakia to serve in the RAF as a fighter pilot during WW2. The fledgling club attracted a lot of interest, mainly from the younger staff members, although the number of parachutes available was limited, as was jump altitude. Most unfortunately this venture survived only for a few months before they had a fatality and the club was forced to close. The jumper was ex Flight Lieutenant Neil Perry, recently retired as a PJI. He over-delayed from 2500 feet, pulling at about three hundred, with the inevitable consequences. Progress stagnated until 1959 when Alf started an operation at Kidlington airfield with Keith Teesdale and Pete Denley. Alf stored the parachutes in the coal shed of his Married Quarter.
At about the same time, Norman formed the British Skydivers with jumpers from Boscombe Down operating out of Thruxton.
No 1 PTS continued to provide jumpers for following WPCs in 1958 (Czechoslovakia) and 1960 (Bulgaria).
During this whole period, as mentioned above, in parallel with our work at PTS, Norman Hoffman had formed his own Display Team, the British Skydivers, operating under BPA regulations. Norman, Jake, Tommy, Geordie Charlton and I were jumping each free weekend and competing in the annual National Championships with some success and representing Great Britain at World and International Championships from 1961 onwards. In June of that year we entered a junior and a senior team in the International European Championships at Leutkirch in Allgau in southern Germany. Dave Francombe and myself were in the junior team, with John Thirtle and Jake McLoughlin in the seniors.
Training Interlude – April 1963
In April 1963 Geordie Charlton and I decided to book ourselves an advanced parachute course in France, and one week after my comeback at Weston I travelled with Geordie to the French regional parachute centre at Chalon-sur-Saône to complete my rehabilitation and get back up to speed. My suitcase had been packed for a week. We travelled overnight by train, arriving at the Centre on the morning of the third of April and were suitably impressed by the sight of the neat low-roofed white buildings of the airfield alongside the RN6, just north of the town. We booked in at reception, had our logbooks and licences checked, then were sent back down town for a medical. This achieved, we returned to complete the formalities and purchase the compulsory insurance. We were assigned to complete a course (Perfectionnement) of advanced manoeuvres; tomorrow we were to start.
It was immediately obvious to us both that the organisation and professionalism of this Centre was far in advance of anything we had in the UK. Chalon was one of the first regional centres to be opened under the National Civil Aviation Secretariat, and was thus state subsidised. On-site accommodation was free of charge; the only cost was for the jumps, inclusive of rig hire, which cost 17/6d (roughly 87p) for 2,500 metres, which was 8,200 feet. Bunkhouse and showers were spotlessly clean; there were offices, classrooms, a games room/bar and a packing room with twelve double tables. All student working areas were kept clean by us, the course students, YHA style. The Chief Instructor was Claude Bernard, a complete professional, who had three thousand jumps to his credit and who was also, as I was to discover, a quiet and effective disciplinarian. His instructional staff were Mingam, Rougebec and Kazmaryk. That evening we were both issued with EFA 650 assemblies(single blank gores) and shown how to pack; a far cry indeed from our own self- modified government surplus equipment. The following morning we boarded the Rapide, which was itself a revelation with an inflight door and bench seats, refinements unheard of in the 1963 UK. The aircraft was flown by Monsieur Distival, a taciturn and diminutive figure sporting a cloth cap, and wearing an ancient back type parachute. Jumpmaster Kazmaryk briefed the pilot: “Monsieur Distival s’il vous plait; un passage à six cent, un passage à mille cinq et un à deux mille, parallèle à la route, direction Chagny; huit personnes à bord, on peut y aller”. With eight jumpers on board we rolled and bumped along the grass strip parallel to the N6 and lifted off in a tight left hand turn, away from the river Saône glinting away to the east. We ran in at 2,000 feet over the airfield, north toward Chagny with the railway track on our left, for the Siki run…
(Brevet pp 49-50)
Later that same year, in June, Norman Hoffman, Geordie Charlton and myself again represented Great Britain in the European competition at the same venue, and took gold medals in the team event, against strong opposition including the US Army team, the Golden Knights.
(Brevet pp 54-55)
On our return to Abingdon, we were summoned to the OC’s office, presumably to receive official congratulations. Wrong. In company with Jake and Snowy, we were summarily given to understand that we would all be posted off PTS at the first available opportunity, the reason given being that, in the opinion of the OC, we had been around the Parachute Training School for long enough. Wing Commander Bernard F. Stannard was undeniably the boss and, by the end of the year, Norman had gone to Kenya, Geordie to Aldershot, Jake and Snowy to Singapore and I was on my way to Cyprus. With Peter Hearn also posted to Singapore, and Tommy commissioned into the RAF Regiment, the diaspora of the sport jumpers from the hangar was complete…
… Meanwhile, pace the OC, at PTS all our sporting initiatives had not been in vain. Moves were underway to create an official RAF Abingdon Sport Parachute Club, presumably on the premise that if you can’t beat them, join them. Under the chairmanship of Squadron Leader Mike Stamford this Club came into being in August at Weston on the Green.We had taken delivery of a de Havilland DH89 Dominie trainer from the Royal Naval Air Service, at a cost of £400. 00. This princely sum included numerous spares, including two extra engines. On 28th August 1963, with Mike Stamford running the programme we flew three inaugural lifts, two at 5,000 feet and a final lift to 7,000 feet. Jumpers were Norman Hoffman, Tommy Moloney, Jake McLoughlin, Geordie Charlton, Robbie Robertson (“Big Rab”, not Snowy) Mike Stamford and myself. Our pilot for the day was 47 Squadron Beverley captain Flight Lieutenant Crawley. The RAF Abingdon Sport Parachute Club, later to become the Royal Air Force Sport Parachute Association, was born.
CISM Inaugural Parachute Event 15-23 June 1964 PAU
Fast forward 1968
British National Championships Netheravon 1968
IX. World Parachute Championships Graz Thalerhof airport Austria 1968
The competition area was in a clearing some five hundred metres to the west of the main runway, backing on to a wooded area. The target area is still there to be seen today, forty-five years later. The team tents of the twenty-six competing nations were ranged in a semi circle one hundred metres from the target centre. The aircraft in use were Antonov AN2s from the USSR, the DDR, and Czechoslovakia. We made one practice jump on the Saturday; then we had a three-day hold until the organisers and judges finally got their act together, and finalised the rules and conditions. International competition was still in its relative infancy, rules were still being updated and developed year on year. The points-based scoring system remained unnecessarily complicated; in accuracy for example, 250 points were awarded for a dead centre and points deducted for each centimetre off the disc. The dead centre disc was 15cm in diameter and everything was measured manually, a fichet being placed at the first point of contact. The electronic pad was still six years in the future. The Style event was similarly points based. A further anachronism was in competition management, in that the individual accuracy event was just that – each competitor jumped on his or her own individual pass for four rounds. Team Accuracy was a separate event, comprising three rounds, four jumpers per team. It was not until several years later that the International Parachuting Commission (CIP) adopted the International Military Sports Council(CISM) rules in that Team Accuracy and Individual were combined, individual results being extrapolated from the team scores. With 26 nations competing, comprising 129 male and 53 female competitors that made for a lot of go-arounds for the Antonovs to finish the four-round Individual Event. Under these conditions it was not surprising that the competition took two weeks to complete. At the end, the Meet was dominated by the USA and the Soviets, who took first and second places overall respectively, with the DDR in third place. Canada was fourth and Czechoslovakia was fifth, whilst the Brits achieved their best result so far with sixth position out of 26 teams in the World Overall standings. Whilst the Soviets dominated the Style event, the USA had marginally superior accuracy jumpers. This notwithstanding, the latter were comprehensively outjumped by the Czechs, using the KRAS PTCH-7. Czech jumper Jaroslav Kalous won the male Individual Accuracy with four DCs, after a dramatic three round jump-off with Australian Colin King; Helena Tomsikova won the female Accuracy, and the Czech female team took the Team Accuracy event. Only a disastrous first- round jump pushed the Czech male team into 15th place in Team Accuracy. This certainly worked to our advantage as we achieved the first-ever British medal at a World Meet, coming in bronze position behind the DDR and the USA. Geordie scored two dead centres and a 17cm in this event. The camaraderie between competitors was exceptional, although there was a poignant interlude at dinner one evening, when the Czech team appeared as a group in silent protest as Soviet armour rolled into Prague on the night of 20th–21st August. We Brits made friendships, in particular with the Czech competitors, which endure to the present day; and Ivo Skotak loaned me a PTCH 7 to jump on the closing ceremony. Following the medal presentation Mike collected in our jumpsuits to return to the BPA office, and we headed for home the following morning with abiding memories of a great competition experience in the most beautiful Styrian landscape, of many new friends, and of the outstanding hospitality of our hosts.
(Brevet pp. 90-92)
We returned to the crew room after a few days off, with a sense of déjà vu. Life continued at PTS and, medals or no medals, the main task remained. The team split up, Geordie was scheduled for Hereford, and Ken went to Cyprus; whilst I, having been promoted at the beginning of July, was back on the floor as a Syndicate Flight Sergeant. I would rate 1967–68 as the most intensive period of jumping of my career; in all I made over six hundred descents, a respectable number for that era. I would also rate Geordie and Ken as the best two individual competitors the School has ever produced. Geordie represented Great Britain at four World Championships, Ken at three. Both possessed a fiercely competitive instinct and it would be invidious to separate them in terms of ability. Suffice it to say we enjoyed an unforgettable two years together, and that Ken and I would continue to work together in the international arena for many more.
British National Championships Netheravon 1969
RAFSPA 1972 – 1977
When we returned to Abingdon after the Falcons final Hongkong demos, the boss called me into his office…. Peter Hearn asked me to work full time at Weston to expand and upgrade the weekend Royal Air Force Sport Parachute Club into a full time Centre. This was a dream job indeed. We were now to run parachute courses for service personnel under the auspices of the new Adventure Training Scheme, with the following remit:
“The aim of Adventure Training courses is to provide an opportunity for personnel to participate in adventurous activities which are challenging and involve controlled exposure to risk. The training is designed to develop many of the personal attributes and skills vital to operational capability, including leadership, teamwork, physical fitness, self-reliance, physical and moral courage, initiative and determination. This aim will be met through the medium of training in basic static line and freefall parachuting. ”
All the basic facilities were of course already in place; now the Club was to be expanded into a full time Association. The directing staff were Flight Lieutenant Peter Burgess, OC Weston, as Association Secretary, and Flying Officer Peter Smout as officer in charge. Snowy Robertson and myself were to provide the experience and freefall expertise. I handed over the Falcons to Andy Sweeney, put on my tracksuit, and headed for Weston…
RAFSPA jumpers at 11th World Parachute Championships Talequah Oklahoma 1972
Weston Club jumpers
Blue Peter visit Weston 1973. Bob Souter on cine, Ray Willis still camera. Photos courtesy Ray Willis
RAFSPA Robins Display Team 1973
Visit of 38 Group AOC Sir Denis Crowley Milling to Weston May 1973
RAFSPA 1975 – 1977
March 1975 saw the introduction of our new jumpship – a five place Cessna 206, registered G-ASVN. This aircraft was the replacement for our Rapide, which had been sold. When the Cessna arrived, concurrently, and to his vast disappointment, Gerry Schellong had been deemed redundant. He retired from parachute flying and concentrated on his equally beloved garden. A true legend, covering two decades of Sport parachuting, no account of the period would be complete without acknowledging the sheer enthusiasm, unstinting support and professional expertise which Gerry Schellong rendered to RAFSPA. He was simply one of the very best.
(Brevet pp. 151-2)
Farewell to the Rapide. Belfast Hangar Abingdon Feb/March 1975
Hail to the Cessna. Weston March 1975
… At Weston we continued to be occupied with competition training, and it was encouraging to see the emergence of new Classic competitors from our Club jumpers. Prominent were Peter Dowling, a solicitor, based in Reading and Paddy Byrne, a Junior Tech based at RAF Benson; Paddy went on to make the National team at the Zagreb WPC three years later. Mike Hand, although not a competitor, was an ever-present on the scene and a very useful air-to-air photographer to boot. In August we hosted the Nationals at Weston for the fourth year in succession. Our best result was that of Ken, who took second place in Style, whilst RAFSPA took second place in Team Accuracy behind the Duck End team starring Bob Hiatt and Bob King. Top jumpers at this Meet were established as John Meacock, Ken Mapplebeck, Scotty Milne, Bob Hiatt and Bob King. All five were all to continue to figure prominently at future World Championships. Although not directly within my remit, PJIs Ray Willis, Bob Souter, Joe France, Ty Barraclough and Henry MacDonald won the National 4-Way event at Dunkeswell and represented Great Britain at the first World Relative Work (Formation Skydiving) Championships in Germany.
… The Cessna came back on line in September and the following month we were visited by the Air Officer Commanding in Chief Strike Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Denis Smallwood. The Weston cloud base was about fifteen hundred feet solid; nonetheless the AOC expressed a wish to fly the 206 on a live sortie. Squadron Leader Fred Marshall (OC Advanced Training Squadron) volunteered to accompany me in the back. We threw a WDI below the cloud, then climbed and ran in toward the bottom end of the DZ at three thousand feet above the white shining carpet. I could see nothing at all. The AOC glanced back over his shoulder seeking enlightenment and, not wishing to disappoint him, I gave him a confident five right correction. A momentary gap revealed we were right above the turkey farm, very deep, so I gave the cut, hopped out and pulled high on five seconds. I came out of the cloud, fortuitously set up for the cross in front of the control tower, and touched down right on target. Fred Marshal followed close behind, and we were both standing in front of the tower as the AOC landed and taxied over. We naturally congratulated him on his excellent run in and everyone was happy, OC PTS Brian White in particular.