The Caterpillar Club

Portraits of Henry Wacker and John Boettner frame an illustration of their July 21, 1919, jump from a Goodyear airship, qualifying them as the first two members of the Caterpillar Club. NASM-00152652

A hundred years ago, tragedy struck the skies of Chicago just before five in the afternoon on July 21, 1919.  The Goodyear airship, Wingfoot Air Express, more commonly known as the Wingfoot Express, took off from Grant Park, destined for the White City Amusement Park balloon hangar. The Wingfoot Express had successfully made its maiden flight that morning and another later in the afternoon. As the airship passed over the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank, it turned into a “mammoth red ball of fire.” Four tiny parachutes became visible over the financial district. Only two survived—Henry Wacker, the chief mechanic, and John Boettner, the pilot. They became known as members one and two of the Caterpillar Club, an organization formed in November 1922 consisting of people who had used parachutes to make an emergency jump.

The wreckage of the Goodyear Airship Wingfoot Express falling onto a bank building in Chicago, Illinois, July 21, 1919, people and cars can be seen in the foreground. The photograph is signed, “To B.E. Walls, From First Caterpillar [sic] Club Member, July 21, 1919, Henry Wacker”, Wacker’s parachute can be seen below the falling wreckage. NASM-2007-72

United States Air Force 1st Lieutenant Harold R. Harris, served as the inspiration for the creation of the Caterpillar Club.  On October 20, 1922, Harris was testing experimental ailerons on a Loening pursuit monoplane at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio.  As he banked in tandem with Lieutenant Muir Fairchild, Harris lost control of the plane. He slid out of his aircraft and attempted to open his parachute several times. It is estimated that he had fallen from 2,500 feet to 500 feet before successfully deploying his chute—marking what is thought to be the first successful use of a parachute in an emergency situation from an airplane.

At a 1943 dinner at the Wings Club, Colonel Harold R. Harris, commanding officer of the Air Transport Command (center), is presented the Switlik Trophy commemorating the first jump from an aircraft via parachute by Stanley Switlik (right) donor of the plaque and leading proponent of safety parachutes. Capt. Harold L. Foster (left) President of the Caterpillar Club looks on. NASM-00143229

Milton H. St. Clair, a parachute engineer at McCook Field, and Verne Timmerman and Maurice Hutton, journalists for the Dayton Daily Herald, figured that Harris was just the first of many future emergency parachute jumps. St. Clair suggested the term “caterpillar” from a description on the composition of a parachute: “mainsail and lines…are woven from the finest silk. The lowly worm spins a cocoon, crawls out and flies away from certain death.”  Thus was born the Caterpillar Club.

Irene McFarland

Irene McFarland became the first female member of the Caterpillar Club on July 4, 1925. A stunt jumper, McFarland was scheduled to test a parachute of her own design in a 3,500 foot jump. Government regulations required that she wear a backup Irving chute. Despite her protests, McFarland wore the emergency chute and used it when her original failed. The Club accepted her as a member even though she intended a parachute jump because she did not intend to use the emergency pack, which saved her life.

The parachute companies quickly got in on the marketing game, presenting pins to the latest emergency parachutists who could confirm which brand of chute they had used. While Robert Fitzgerald of Wright Field maintained the “official” records of the self-proclaimed “mythical organization.”

 

Leslie Irvin of  Irving Air Chute Co., Stanley Switlik of Switlik Parachute Co. and others kept their own lists. Members could be eligible for special deals. For example, on February 25, 1932, Keith’s Theater in Washington, DC, reserved a box for the estimated 17 local members to view the movie The Lost Squadron, advertised as having “more crashes than Wall Street.”

Milton H. St. Clair, parachute engineer and co-founder of the Caterpillar Club, points to a sign for Caterpillar farm tractors.

With the dawning of WW II, it appeared the ranks of the Caterpillar Club would grow exponentially. The Club decided to take its status beyond “mythical” to “organized” and officially incorporated on April 6, 1943.  Stanley Switlik provided office space and assistance with applications and credentials.

Today the ranks of Caterpillar Club members number in the tens of thousands. Both Irving (as Airborne Systems) and Switlik continue to register members. Famous members include John Glenn, Jimmy Doolittle and George H.W. Bush.  With four jumps to his credit, Charles Lindbergh is probably the member with the most pins.

Lt. Charles Lindbergh parachuting from his disabled airplane, circa 1926.

Maurice Hutton, co-founder of the Caterpillar Club and aviation editor for the Dayton Daily Herald, poses for a photo wearing flight gear and standing next to his plane

And how are Wacker and Boettner members one and two, if the Club was founded three years later with Harris as the first member? The Caterpillar Club was willing to add back-dated members. William O’Connor was the first to be added with a 1920 exhibition jump requiring an emergency chute, making him number one, then number three when Wacker and Boettner were added about nine years after the fact.

 

John Boettner continued to pilot airships for Goodyear and rose to the rank of Commander in the US Navy, flying in World War II. Henry Wacker went on to work for B.F. Goodrich and the WPA. He proudly autographed photos of his jump as “the first Caterpillar Club member.” And every year on July 21, the anniversary of his jump, he took his parachute out of storage and aired it out, in honor of the day it saved his life.

 

Story derived from a Smithsonian Museum article.

Please click on images to enlarge.

 

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Military Humor –

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Farewell Salutes – 

Jack P. Ancker – NM; US Army Air Corps, WWII, ETO, 17th Airborne Division / Korea & Vietnam, Col. (Ret.)

Carl Bell – Gresham, OR; US Navy, WWII, USS Pickens

‘Last Flight’, by Rhads

William B. Clarke – Smyrna, DE; US Navy, WWII, PTO, USS Vincennes / Korea, USS Worchester

Joseph Damico – Poughkeepsie, NY; US Army, WWII, ETO, 76/3rd Army

Kenneth E. Ford – Albia, IA; US Army, Korea, Cpl., Co. C/1/32, KIA (Chosin Reservoir)

Louis Kulma – Parisville, MI; US Merchant Marines, WWII, chief radio operator

Isabelle Messenger (100) – Peru, MA; Civilian, Red Cross, WWII, ETO, Medal of Freedom

Nicholas Panipinto – Bradenton, FL; US Army, Korea, Spc., 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team/1st Calvary, KIA

Lonnie Ware – Marrero, LA; US Army, 11th Airborne Division

Robert Waring – Fredericksburg, VA; US Army, Korea, 101 Airborne Division / US Coast Guard Res., Cmdr. (Ret. 40 y.)

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About GP Cox

Everett Smith served with the Headquarters Company, 187th Regiment, 11th A/B Division during WWII. This site is in tribute to my father, "Smitty." GPCox is a member of the 11th Airborne Association. Member # 4511 and extremely proud of that fact!

Posted on November 14, 2019, in Uncategorized, WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 137 Comments.

  1. Thank you for another history lesson, GP! I had not hear of the Caterpillar Club. There’s nothing like a parachute when you need one. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great bit of historical background on the Caterpillar Club gp, thanks for the research and sharing, I read that the last survivor of The Hindenburg died recently.
    Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve always admired people who parachute voluntarily. Jumping out of a burning aircraft is sensible in comparison!

    Interesting article – I had no idea it had started so early.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love that line about more crashes than Wall St.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I just did a post about your site. Hope you will like it😊😃

    Liked by 1 person

  6. They were incredibly brave to pioneer in parachuting.
    By the way, I like your silent observer. He is a soldier on guard sometimes too tired to observe anything. Henry has told me how slow the hours go by on a night watch in peacetime.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’d never heard any of this — very interesting. I have a cousin who could have been a member, except every time he landed in a tree he had his plane with him.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This was a fascinating story, GP. I had no idea about the club nor it’s history. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What giants steps mankind took in these 100 years of aviation.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Another fascinating bit of history!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Kudos to the parachute packers.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I had an uncle who was a Para during WW2 and a nephew (now in his 30s) who has not long been demobbed from the Paras. Both did many jumps so even tho’ they wouldn’t have qualified (having jumped of their own accord) I doubt this is a club neither would have wanted membership to 😊
    As an aside my mother was a WAAF during WW2 – packing chutes for airmen

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I had never realised that the British “Caterpillar Club” was a branch of an older American one. My favourite story about the RAF is Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade who jumped out of a Lancaster from 20,000 feet, without a parachute, but who then crashed into pine trees, an extra large snow drift and lived to tell the tale. He applied for his badge from the “Caterpillar Club” but was turned down because he had not made any use of his parachute.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Now I know where Wacker Dr got its name!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Very interesting reading indeed GP. I always thought it came about much letter! Every day’s a school day as they say!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. loved the history! I heard a jet stalled out and flipped over while taking off from a aircraft carrier. Once submerged the pilot had to eject downwards to escape. I wonder If he became a member even though he technically didn’t use his chute?

    Liked by 1 person

  17. What a fitting name – Caterpillar Club. What a lucky group of members!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I’d never heard of this. It’s hard to imagine a time that blimps and airships were the state of the art.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Excellent GP. A fun post.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Fascinating story. Thanks for sharing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Thank you, GP! Another great piece of information. Sometimes i am forced to act like a caterpilllar too. 😉 Best wishes, Michael

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Fascinating story! I always learn so much from your posts, GP.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Interesting and informative post! I’ve never heard of the Caterpillar Club. It takes a special kind of person to bravely jump out of a plane into an open sky. I admire them for their courage.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Wow, that’s quite a story. Lucky survivors.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Interest post, GP. Never heard of this before. Love the jump school cartoon.

    Liked by 2 people

  26. Those parachutes are the ultimate leap of faith. So brave.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. To borrow from Groucho Marx – not a club of which I would want to be a member 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  28. This was interetsing, GP. I had never herd of this club or that crash. The stuff I learn here is amazing. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  29. How unusual. I’ve never heard of that but it makes a lot of sense. My day is richer…

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Loved the cartoon…there was an army song about men being drafted for parachute work…one of the lines ran as follows
    take lots and lots of underpants , you’ll need them I surmise..’

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Nice bit of history. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. Fascinating story, GP! Thank you for the education this morning! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  33. from wiki : The requirements for membership are rigid – members must have saved their lives by jumping with a parachute. Consequently, RAF Sgt. Nicholas Alkemade, who during World War II bailed out of a RAF Avro Lancaster without a parachute and landed uninjured in a snow-drift, was refused membership because a parachute had not been used. More recently, a group of twelve skydivers were denied membership when one of them fouled the plane’s tail and caused it to fall from the sky. He died in the crash but the other eleven parachuted to safety. They did not qualify because it had been their original intention to jump from the plane. The pilot, however, was admitted to the club.[citation needed]

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caterpillar_Club

    Liked by 1 person

  34. Gosh, GP, you come up with some interesting stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. Interesting to read about the explosion of an airship in America! Until now I only knew about the disaster of the German airship Hindenburg. It was equally interesting to read about the early use of parachutes to save lives. Great post, GP!

    Liked by 1 person

  36. Very interesting, GP, “more crashes than wall street” made me laugh! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  37. As always, informative and educational for me. Plus I laughed out loud at the military toons. Jumper with water cistern tied to back?! OMG! 🤣🤣

    Liked by 2 people

  38. GP, a fascinating post about the Caterpillar Club! Those brave souls using parachutes at the very start of flight! How lucky that Irene McFarland was wearing her back-up parachute!

    Liked by 1 person

  39. Fascinating post. I love the cartoon with the jumper strapped into his trusty John. Sometime during the Vietnam War, a pilot flying off the USS Midway dropped a porcelain throne on the North Vietnamese. I don’t remember how a toilet became an ordinance.

    Liked by 2 people

  40. This is an interesting post today, GP. Once again, I had never heard of the Caterpillar Club. I had heard of McFarlane as a stunt pilot. I am glad she smuggled on an emergency shoot and that the men felt obliged to let her in the club.

    Liked by 1 person

  41. I’ll have to go downtown to envision those goings on!

    Liked by 1 person

  42. Interesting indeed, GP.
    I was sure that some German balloon observers and pilots used them during WW1, so I looked it up.
    http://www.eastsussexww1.org.uk/dont-look-parachutes-first-world-war/index.html
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Germans were far ahead of us in using parachutes. Mitchell fought for a parachute unit, but then WWI ended and the idea was scrubbed.
      I’m glad to see you I caused enough curiosity for more research!! Thanks, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  43. Thank you very much!

    Like

  1. Pingback: The Caterpillar Club — Pacific Paratrooper | Ups and Downs of Family History V2.0

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