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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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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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