CAHS Convention 2009-4 The Irvin Air Chutes Story

One day in 1919, a young man named Leslie Irvin made history over McCook Field, the U.S. Army Air Service’s experimental station near Dayton, Ohio.

As speaker Greg Campbell told the CAHS’s 2009 conference, Irvin — a civilian employee of the U.S. Army — had voluntarily parachuted from a perfectly good aeroplane, and that was historic. Daring young men had voluntarily parachuted from balloons for decades and during the First World War; some aviators had parachuted from damaged aircraft of the Imperial German Air Service. But parachuting from a flyable aircraft was rare indeed in 1919.

Irvin broke an ankle upon landing, but even before he’d received medical treatment he is reported to have excitedly announced he wanted to form a company to develop and sell the parachute he’d just used. And thus did “Sky High” Irvin come to set up the Irving Air Chute Co. (a typographical error added a “g” to the firm’s name!) in Buffalo, N.Y., said Campbell, the business development manager of Airborne Systems Canada, the Canadian arm of the company that evolved out of Irvin Air Chutes. (The “Irvin” name was restored to the company’s letterhead in the early 1940s.) The RAF gave Irvin’s firm a contract for parachutes in 1925, causing it to set up a plant in Hertfordshire the next year.

Around the same time, at the urging of some pilots who’d used the firm’s parachutes to escape from aircraft in distress, Irvin set up the “Caterpillar Club” to record their names and stories. Into the club’s files over the years went letters of thanks from aviation notables ranging from Charles Lindbergh to Germany’s Ernest Udet and Lord Douglas Hamilton to Jimmy Doolittle and the father of actor Michael J. Fox. Tens of thousands of names now appear on the list, which is maintained at the firm’s Belleville facility. (“Caterpillar” had a clever double meaning. First, it referred to the silkworms that made the silk that in the 1920s formed parachute canopies; as well, a little research showed the caterpillar briefly became airborne — much like the parachuting aviators themselves.)

Despite his 300 parachute jumps, Irvin received only an honorary membership in his own club because he never had to abandon an aircraft in order to save his life.

A notable development in 1932 was the creation of a firm called GQ Parachutes by Britons James Gregory and Sir Raymond Quilter. By 1933, Irvin’s gear was being worn by the pilots of no fewer than 37 air forces.

In 1940, the two firms collaborated to create a new X-type parachute that was opened by a static line attached to an aircraft’s structure rather than by the hand of the wearer. As the end of the war approached, Irvin began interested in the use of ejection seats on jet aircraft; one of its parachutes was used in the first “live” deployment of such a seat in 1946, the year after the firm began collaborating with Britain’s famous Martin-Baker company, which began the world’s foremost manufacturer of ejection seats. More and more sophisticated ejection seats followed, as well as brake parachutes for jet aircraft. The firm also makes specialized devices, such as oxygen systems for high-altitude parchutists, decoys for use against naval guided weapons and parachutes intended to decelerate aerial bombs.

The Irvin Buffalo plant was closed about 1953 and production moved to Fort Erie, Ont., and then to Belleville, where Campbell (a captain in the Kingston-based Princess of Wales Own Regiment) said the firm employs about 50 people making various personnel and cargo parachutes, plus search-and-rescue equipment. Worldwide, Airborne Systems’ many divisions have a total of about 700 employees. “Basically, we’ve made a big investment in technology,” said Campbell, who holds a bachelor of science degree from the University of Guelph and an MBA from Royal Military College. “The technology is evolving — we’re using state-of-the-art sewing machines. Our folks are highly trained as they were in the old days, but we decided to invest in new technology,” he said, adding the firm is now ISO 9000-certified.

The firm made its first entry into the space age in 1961 with the Discoverer space probe, an Irvin parachute being used to recover its payload. Since then, its equipment was used in the 1976 probe to Venus under the highly successful Viking program that landed two vehicles on the surface of Mars and in the Cassini international space probe to Titan, launched in 1997. Its parachutes were used to slow the Space Shuttle on landing and to recover the shuttle’s booster rocket, and on the interesting Kistler K-1 reusable space vehicle. Its air bags are to be aboard the Orion manned space vehicle currently under construction.

Airborne Systems was formed by the 2001 merging of Irvin Aerospace (as Irvin Air Chute Company was renamed in 1996) with GQ Parachutes. On another front, an offshoot firm called Para-Flite was created in 1969 to focus on “shaped” or “square-type” parachutes with military applications. Aircraft Materials Limited, another member of the Airborne Systems “family” of brands, specializes in what it calls “aerial delivery and air transportation systems”. Airborne Systems’ North American headquarters is in New Jersey; its North American manufacturing facilities are in New Jersey, California and Belleville. Its European headquarters and manufacturing facilities are in South Wales.

Today, Airborne Systems can be described as an expert in the development and manufacture of parachutes systems. Its large product line includes a family of Joint Precision Aerial Delivery System, (JPADS) parachutes, a remarkable bit of kit with an airborne guidance unit (using GPS) that will manipulate the parachute’s risers and steers the canopy to a landing at a predetermined landing. Loads of 42,000 lbs. of cargo are being tested and there are plans for far larger loads — even armored vehicles. As well, this system accords the user “standoff capability”. Launched at 24,000 feet, it has 20 kilometres of “lateral standoff” capability. “It’s got an accuracy of “50 metres.” said Campbell.

Airborne Systems also produces a large collection of parachutes for soldiers, for both free-fall and static line users, steerable and nonsteerable. It also produces a variety of cargo parachutes and containers. Among them is the Advanced Tactical parachute (T-11), which has a square canopy with a slower rate of descent that offers the potential of fewer injuries and less oscillation. High-glide parachutes allow a special forces solider, for example, to land anywhere from 20 to 40 kilometres from being dropped. The new Unicross parachute is designed (in Belleville!) as a special low-cost parachute to take supplies to troops in isolated strongpoints, thus reducing supply vehicles’ exposure to improvised explosive devices. To prevent the parachute (once on the ground) from catching a breeze and carrying its cargo away from the recipients, it’s fitted with a sensor that detects the fall-off in weight as the load lands on the ground and releases the load, and lets the low-cost parachute go where the wind takes it. A most peculiar call was for a parachute that might be used to drop a ransom to Somali pirates. The firm’s engineering services arm works in such areas as ejection systems. “Basically, we’re so diversified there’s no one company that’s doing all the things we’re doing.”

Moreover, more people can fit into its harness than into other models and the At the other end of the parachute size spectrum, it makes tiny parachutes intended to land tracking devices on North Atlantic icebergs; “some of the testing is just dropping parachutes from the roof of the facility,” said Campbell, a veteran Canadian Forces army reserve officer.

Airborne Systems also produces a number of air-droppable survival kits. For the Canadian Forces, the firm developed SKAD, which put a survival kit into a pod that can be hung under the wing of a CF-18 jet fighter that can fly at high speed toward the site of, say, an airliner down in open water or in the Arctic. A smaller aerial response kit is being designed for the light aircraft of CASARA (the Canadian Air Search and Rescue Association.)

While there are other companies interested in the parachute field, said Campbell, “this is basically our lifeblood; we are the experts.”

“As you can see,” said Campbell, “Airborne Systems is steeped in history.”