On April 19, 1919, Leslie Leroy Irvin made the world’s first premeditated freefall parachute descent using a rip cord, rather than using a canister or tether line attached to the aircraft to pull open the parachute. Working with the U.S. Army’s Air Service parachute research team, Irvin made the historic jump from a plane over McCook field near Dayton, Ohio. During the jump, Irvin broke his ankle but was inspired to start his own parachute business.
Later that year, in June of 1919, he opened the Irvin Air Chute Company in Buffalo, NY. What became known as the Irvin parachute gained rapid acceptance, and by the early 1930’s was in service with some 40 air forces around the world. With the start of World War II, Irvin became a major manufacturer of parachutes. During that war, Irvin parachutes saved over 10,000 lives. The Irvin name had set the standard for innovation, reliability, and quality.
As a humanitarian, Irvin was obsessed with saving lives with his equipment. He founded the Caterpillar Club in 1922 to recognize individuals that had their lives saved by a parachute. Today, the Caterpillar Club is one of the most famous flying clubs in the world and has awarded thousands of men and women with a gold caterpillar pin symbolizing the silk from which early parachutes were made. Some of its famous members include names such as Charles Lindbergh, General James Doolittle and former astronaut John Glenn. Since its creation, Leslie Irvin has given a gold caterpillar pin to each member, a tradition still observed by Airborne Systems today.
The Caterpillar Club was founded after Lieutenant Harold R. Harris bailed out of a disabled aircraft. Realizing that the parachute industry was rapidly developing, it was suggested that a club should be formed honoring those whose lives had been saved a parachute. The Irvin Air Chute Company created the club and Harris became its first member. The number of members rapidly increased. By the end of World War II, the club had grown to over 34,000 members and is now estimated to be well over 100,000 members.
One of the most famous members of the club is General Jimmy Doolittle, a U.S. pilot who has made two emergency landings with Irvin chutes. Upon surviving his second bail out in 1931, he sent a well-known telegram to Leslie Irvin reading, “Plane failed: chute worked”.
Other well-known members include Charles Lindbergh, both a stunt and airmail pilot, aviation pioneer Augustus Post, Larry “Scrappy” Blumer, an American Ace pilot, former astronaut John Glenn, and the former president of the United States, George H. W. Bush, who bailed out of his plane during World War II.
Until his death in 1966, Leslie Irvin was the Honorary Secretary of the club, but despite the fact that he has made over 300 parachute jumps, Irvin was never forced to bail out and was never eligible for a membership himself.
As Airborne Systems approaches our 100th anniversary as a company in 2019, we look back on all the great achievements of our founder, Leslie Irvin. We are honored to carry on the Caterpillar Club in his name.