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By Kristin Drexler
Faculty Member, School of STEM, American Military University
This week in science history, the first-ever nylon parachute test jump was conducted on June 6, 1942 by a daredevil parachutist and trained pilot, 24-year-old Adaline Gray.
Gray is noted for her contribution to the WWII war effort. Because the supply of silk was cut off during WWII, a substitute material was needed for parachutes used during the war. Nylon, a newly invented silk substitute, was developed by the DuPont company in 1939.
On her 33rd jump, Adaline Gray volunteered to do a jump test. With the newly invented nylon parachute, Gray jumped over Brainard Field in Hartford, Connecticut, “convincing an audience of 50 critical army and navy observers.”
The Oxford Historical Society notes that at the time of her historic parachute jump, Gray “was the only woman licensed parachute jumper in Connecticut. She also was known for her many parachute jumps at air shows across the country.”
Gray Was Considered a Shy Girl Despite Her Bravery
Oxford Historical Society also notes that Gray’s fame as a daredevil was a surprise to her community, because she was known “as a very shy girl.” The daughter of German immigrants, Gray became interested in parachutes and as “a young girl, she was inspired by reading about parachute jumps.”
After her historic jump, the St. Petersburg Times of Florida quoted her as saying, “Back home in Oxford, I used to take an umbrella and jump off the hayloft, holding it over my head like a parachute. But I ruined many umbrellas.”
Gray and the Pioneer Parachute Company
Smithsonian Magazine explains that Adaline Gray was a parachute rigger and tester with the Pioneer Parachute Company, noting that her job “involved checking parachutes for flaws and folding them into packs for proper deployment.” Pioneer Parachute Company eventually became the Pioneer Aerospace Corporation in South Windsor, Connecticut, a large corporation that still builds deceleration devices for NASA. It currently operates as a subsidiary of Safran Electronics and Defense.
Silk Parachutes Were Vital to The War Effort
Smithsonian Magazine explains the importance of the new material for use in the war effort and how the parachutes helped pilots and paratroopers. The magazine says: “Before World War II, most parachutes were made of silk, though some were cotton, and the majority of America’s parachute silk came from Japan. Parachutes were essential to American military strategy, not just to help pilots stay alive, but also to successfully drop troops behind enemy lines. More than 13,000 Allied paratroopers landed during D-Day, including men from the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.”
Parachutes and Skydiving Today
Due to Gray’s historic jump, the parachute industry has grown to an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 skydivers worldwide today. As of 2018, the United States Parachuting Association (USPA) has approximately 40,000 members, about 13% of whom are women.
My sister Kateri Drexler is a commercial pilot and parachutist who has made nearly 200 jumps and counting. Kateri says that it’s important to buy the right canopy (parachute) for your size. She notes, “The square feet-to-body weight ratio is called wing loading. Also, there’s a huge difference jumping at different altitudes. I just jumped in Monterey at sea level (from 18,000 feet out of a King Air) and the landing was so slow that I floated so gently to the ground and landed like a feather. But in Colorado, the landings are fast and I run them out after I reach the ground.”
Skydiving has become a big industry. There are a few meccas for skydiving, including Skydive Arizona, the Ranch in New York, Skydive Chicago or Zephyr Hills in Florida.
Kateri explains, “Skydive AZ is set up like an old western town on the airport in Eloy, Arizona and has a saloon and restaurant, rigging outfit, rental gear store, free camping for skydivers, hookups for RVs, several planes that are in rotation throughout the days (in the winter) and mornings in the summer taking load after load of skydivers up. It’s a big community though; also tight-knit with a sense of camaraderie and fun.” Kateri added there is a diversity of age groups; many young people and a lot of old-timers, including “one couple in their 80s, still skydiving.”