Pioneers are practiced in art of falling
July 8, 2008
Elizabeth Foster remembers clearly one of the first days she saw women falling from the sky. It was the Sixth World Sport Parachuting meet in Orange, Mass., in August 1962.
Foster was among fewer than 10 women from around the world who competed in accuracy and style at in the first international parachuting event held west of the Iron Curtain. Competitors dropped rolls of crepe paper from propeller planes thousand of feet above the ground to align their jumps, Foster said. "I was surprised," she said. "I was a natural."
Foster was the first woman in Delaware to jump from a plane with a parachute. For the four years Foster parachuted competitively, from 1960 to 1964, as a member of the Parachute Club of America, she leafed down into the middle of golf courses, country clubs and polo matches at a time when a female attached to a parachute was not a sport but a halftime spectacle.
"The people wanted someone unique, a woman," Foster explained. "I wanted to jump out of the plane because of the big door."
Now a Park City resident, Foster helped organize the Pioneers of Sport Parachuting Reunion. This year’s event, held Friday, June 27, and Saturday June 28, at the Hilton Airport hotel in Salt Lake City, attracted about 80 parachuting pioneers.
"Skydiving is a modern term," Foster said. "It didn’t exist when we were starting."
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Foster decided to jump after seeing a demonstration of sport parachuting at Bakers Field in Middletown in Delaware. A trick parachutist named Bob Spatola told a group of Boy Scouts to stand in a circle just before sunset, when the winds had died down.
Not only did Spatola land in the center of the circle, but he did so standing.
Her encounter with Spatola set in motion her life of falling. Foster took her first dive at the Valley Forge Country Club in Pennsylvania in 1960. She was 25 years old and working at the Hagley Museum as a secretary and receptionist. "I also did flower arrangements," she said. "I was afraid to tell my bosses when I made my first jump. I was afraid they would think I had lost my mind."
Foster, who was raised with nine siblings in New Castle, Del., hadn’t wanted to jump from an aircraft at all. She has, to this day, a fear of heights so strong it prevents her from climbing a two-story fire escape.
She recalls praying for high winds, rain, low clouds, anything to cancel that first stunt. She had no such luck; the sky was clear, and she walked off the plane in midair attached to a cord attached to the plane attached, finally, to her parachute.
She executed the feat not for any novelty, but because she loved the sport’s other participants. "I wanted to be around these people who were pioneering a sport," she said. "I wanted that bond."
Her affection didn’t make stepping into the sky from a Cessna any easier. "You feel like a sardine," she said. "You have all this bulky equipment."
On that first jump and the hundred to follow, Foster learned that it’s not just a fear of height a skydiver has to quell, but also an innate fear of falling. "People say, ‘I’m afraid of heights.’ But that’s no excuse," she said. "Because you have to fight fear. That’s character building."
Since her first jump nearly 50 years ago, Foster says she logged 171 jumps.
That number may sound impressive, Foster says, but it’s a modest number compared to some of her fellow female parachutists at the convention.
Foster has friends who have won national acclaim for skydiving, friends who invented tandem chutes, friends who have died in fly-bys and acrobatic planes. Other women have broken ribs, tailbones, pelvises and separated shoulders.
"In an airplane you can’t measure the distance between where you are and where terra firma is," Foster said. "You’re climbing and there’s all that noise. It feels like an eternity. There’s all that fear and time and you know of a woman who died in an accident. Then you’re falling at approximately 120 mph but it doesn’t feel like it. You don’t get that bottom-dropping-out feeling," she paused, adding, "It’s the person that fails, not the chute."
Kim Emmons Knor of Chicago has 456 static-line, tandem and single jumps under her parachute belt. the time she turns 70 in April 2009, she plans to have 1,000.
Knor, who started parachuting in her early 20s, is selling her home and taking a months-long vacation to California where she plans to jump five times a day.
Knor said older parachutists are more risk-averse than young ones, although she is no stranger to danger. She was on the first women’s team at the Sixth Parachute Championship, where she met her husband Milan Knor, a Yugoslavian. "It was nice to be a girl in the sport," Knor affirmed. "We were girls at that time. We were chickees."
Some early female parachutists, including Knor and Foster, said men were often incredulous when they caught wind of what the women had done. "It’s really cool," Knor said of her career as a competitive skydiver. "People say, ‘You’re what?" You look like a librarian. My advice to girls and young women is to pursue their dreams, whatever they may be. If you want to jump, jump. If you have a dream, do it. Just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you shouldn’t."
Foster’s then-boyfriend had a familiar reaction when she told him she jumped from airplanes in her spare time and on the weekends: He didn’t believe her. "When I told [people] I jumped out of an airplane they looked at me like, ‘When did you start lying?’" she recalled.
Then Foster’s name appeared in the Dateline Delaware newspaper and other publications.
Not that men were against women jumping. Many men supported their female counterparts with equipment and training. Barbara Roquemore’s husband bought her skydiving lessons as a gift in 1963. "He thought one jump would be all I would make, but it was only the beginning," she said at the reunion June 28.
Roquemore was 26 at the time of her first jump and, by her own admission, scared of everything. The California native couldn’t even drive a car when she started parachuting. "It was the most frightening thing I’ve ever done in my life," she confessed. "I arranged for someone else to raise our daughter. I was sure I would die."
Then why do it?
"I think I realized I was afraid of so many things," she said. "I thought if I could deal with the fear of jumping out of an airplane, I could do anything."
The reaction of most of her friends and family remained lukewarm. "Everybody was against me jumping," Roquemore recalled. Her instructor even tried to bribe Roquemore’s husband with a $50 bill to have the novice skydiver not return for more lessons.
It took Roquemore 100 jumps attached to a cable before she was prepared to freefall. But, in 1968, she won the women’s national title for accuracy in a freefall, a competition in which participants must make midair adjustments and land on a target.
Elizabeth Foster remembers the reaction her success and recognition elicited from her husband, also a competitive jumper, and her brother, who was in the military.
"Military men looked at me askance," she said. "They asked me, ‘Why are you jumping out of airplanes? We know why we do it, but why are you doing it?’"
"It used to be for the people," she replied. "Now it’s because I love jumping out of airplanes."
Although Foster said her parachuting days are behind her, she looks as though she’s only a pair of goggles and a rip cord away from leaving
for a DC3 bound for 12,000 feet.