The Pioneer Parachute Co. pin. Not a Caterpillar!

The Caterpillar Club, started in 1922 by Leslie Irvin’s Irving Air Chute Company, as a way of recording the names of individuals whose lives had been saved by using a parachute to make an emergency descent. Stanley Switlik, owner of the Switlik Parachute Co. saw the potential of the Caterpillar Club as a means to promote its parachutes and soon instituted their own, Switlik Caterpillar Club.

Other companies also adopted the idea, awarding their own ‘Caterpillar Club’ awards to people who had saved their lives using the manufacturer’s parachutes. This included the Pioneer Parachute Co., Inc. which was established in 1938 in Manchester, Connecticut as a subsidiary of the Cheney Brothers Mills, the world’s largest silk factory complex. Pioneer Parachute Co. was the result of a partnership with DuPont and the Army Air Force to develop a new parachutes and on June 6, 1942, parachute packer, Adeline Gray made the first jump by a human with a nylon parachute at Brainard Field in Hartford. Like the other manufacturers of the time, Pioneer had its own Caterpillar Club pin for emergency descents, which featured a gold caterpillar on a rectangle box filled with red, white and blue enamel.

Pioneer Parachute Co. Inc. Caterpillar Club membership badge. Collection: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Pioneer Parachute Co. Inc. Caterpillar Club membership badge. Collection: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

The Pioneer Parachute Co. Inc. which has evolved into the Pioneer Aerospace Corporation and is now a subsidiary of Safran Electronics and Defense no longer issues it’s own Caterpillar Awards and membership is now administered by the Switlik Caterpillar Club. However, for several years there has been a badge made for Pioneer and bearing its name on the reverse which is often described as being a Pioneer Caterpillar Club award with collectors sometimes paying sizeable sums of money in order to add it to their collection.

The pin, which is made from nickel plated brass, shows a parachutist with a deployed parachute. It measures approximately 25mm (1”) in height and 18mm (11/16”) in width. The reverse features the words PIONEER PARACHUTE CO. and a single clutch pin grip attachment mechanism.

The Pioneer Parachute Co. Promotional pin for their revolutionary Para-Commander and Para-Sail canopy design. This was a promotional piece and should not be confused with the Caterpillar award badges. Collection: Julian Tennant

The Pioneer Parachute Co. Promotional pin for their revolutionary Para-Commander and Para-Sail canopy design. This was a promotional piece and should not be confused with the Caterpillar award badges. Collection: Julian Tennant

This Pioneer pin is not a Caterpillar Club award but is actually just a promotional pin made for another of Pioneer’s innovations developed in collaboration Parachutes Incorporated (PI), namely the Para-Commander (PC) and Para-Sail parachute. The design of the pin’s parachute reflected this new PC canopy, which was a modification to an ascending, 24-gore (segment) parachute designed by the Frenchman Pierre M. Lemoigne and sold to Pioneer in 1962. These pins were given to buyers of this new parachute rig.

The multiple segments used to construct the canopy was revolutionary for parachutes of the time. Increased manoeuvrability and glide were provided by a vented rear and turn slots supported by stabilising segments on the sides. The skirt of the leading edge of the canopy was also positioned slightly higher thereby decreasing the drag and allowing air to be directed rearward towards the slots.  The rate of descent was slowed further because a lower porosity nylon taffeta used which added to the lifting characteristics of the canopy design.

Diagram plan views of the Pioneer Para-Commander rig showing feature details. Several of these, then, revolutionary design features can be seen in the PIONEER PARACHUTE CO. pin.

Diagram plan views of the Pioneer Para-Commander rig showing feature details. Several of these, then, revolutionary design features can be seen in the PIONEER PARACHUTE CO. pin.

The PC was first demonstrated at the Orange Sport Parachute Centre in Massachusetts on the 4th of December 1962 and a patent (SN 159,606) filed on the 21st of December 1962. This new ‘high performance’ parachute quickly became popular and by 1966 they were being used by all the competitors in the US National Parachuting championships, with trials also underway for its adoption by the US military.

Page details from the June 1966 USAF "Performance Evaluation of Para-Commander Mark I Personal Parachute" report of 1st Lieutenant Charles W. Nichols of the Air Force Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Page details from the June 1966 USAF “Performance Evaluation of Para-Commander Mark I Personal Parachute” report of 1st Lieutenant Charles W. Nichols of the Air Force Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

By the 1970’s rectangular canopied Ram-air parachutes, such as the Paraflite Para-Plane were starting to take over the sport parachuting market, although PC rigs were still used for trainee and military parachuting applications into the 1980’s.

The Pioneer PC pin was given to new buyers of the Para-Commander rig and whilst it is a memento reflecting an important development in the history of parachuting, collectors should not confuse the badge with the pins associated with membership of the Caterpillar Club.

Pioneer PC pin Jerry Irwin

American skydivers at a DZ in the 1960’s. Note the Pioneer PC pin being worn on the hat of the parachute rigger on the right. Photo: Jerry Irwin

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