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.
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.
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 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 Company, Stanley Switlik of Switlik Parachute Company, 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.”
With the dawning of World War 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. Most of the manufacturers agreed to continue to pay for the pin for a person who used their chute and several contributed to a general fund for advertising and printing. St. Clair surrendered rights to the name and Fitzgerald turned over all of his records.
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.
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. Sometimes Boettner is credited as number one, though Wacker is usually cited as being the first (Boettner supposedly admitted that Wacker jumped mere seconds before him).
The Wingfoot Express disaster resulted in 13 deaths (10 in the bank and three from the airship, including two unsuccessful parachutists). The Chicago City Council took immediate action, introducing a resolution to regulate air traffic over the city. The United States Congress also took up the issue, though it was not until many years later that they passed the Air Commerce Act of 1926. 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 Works Progress Administration (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.