The Rise and Demise Of The Arvin Good Guys
The Origin of Formation Skydiving ~ Part One
by Bill Newell
By Keith Laub SCR #14304 & SCS 8080
There was a time when jumping out of a plane was considered a method of deploying soldiers into battle. The time was World War II. There was a time when the U.S. was going through a social change. It was a time of race riots, Vietnam, nuclear threat from a world power, rock & roll, free love and rebellion. It was a time when pioneers were breaking the sound barrier, traveling into space for the first time and there was talk of putting a man on the moon. And it was a time when a twist of fate brought an unconventional band of skydivers together at a small DZ in the Central California vineyards. They decided to do their own thing and let the world fend for itself. Instead, they taught the skydiving world how to fly. They called themselves, "The Arvin Good Guys." It was 1964. This is their story.
In late 1963 the nation was mourning the assassination of President Kennedy. Still, life went on and people went about their daily routine. On The West Coast, the new sport of skydiving continued to grow with several clubs burgeoning in Southern California; the Rumbleseaters, Para Bats, Condors, Latin's and L.A. Skydivers. Most of these skydivers jumped at Elsinore, Taft and Lancaster. Style and accuracy was a big deal back then and those who weren't into it were called "fun jumpers.”
The style and accuracy crowd was into competition, and fun jumpers viewed them as sort of self-absorbed. Fun jumping was more social; "balls, grab ass and anything goes". The Rumbleseat Skydivers were notorious fun jumpers at the time. Flying to different drop zones in their Twin Beech, they'd dive through hoops, ride brooms, zoom around the sky like hornets, funnel mass hook-ups and then try to "zap" each other. (Pulling someone's ripcord without permission). They were the last of the barnstormers.
Clockwise fromtop: Mitch Poteet, DonHenderson, Andy Keech, and Lou Paproski complete the world's first photographed four man star over Arvin, California in March, 1964.
Photo: Bob Buquor - courtesy: Don Henderson.
1964: Finding Arvin
Taft and Elsinore had good year around weather, but Lancaster's high desert was windy much of the time. So in March of 1964, Lancaster drop zone operators Chuck and Pep Hill left and set up a small drop zone at Arvin, 60 miles northwest over the Tehachapi mountains into the San Joaquin Valley. A few Lancaster jumpers went with them: Jim Rainwater, Walt Scherer, Richard Economy, Dave Keaggy, Don Henderson, Mitch Poteet, Inge Onnes and Brian Williams with his new student, Jerry Bird. In the first month or so, as word spread, curious jumpers trickled in from the Los Angeles area, Central Coast and Bakersfield. I arrived the second weekend as a spy for Taft’s drop zone owner, Art Armstrong and didn’t report back for three years. The skydivers migrating to Arvin didn't seem too interested in style & accuracy or "grab ass" and the term "relative work" soon replaced "fun jumping". Meanwhile, the Rumbleseaters and other skydiving clubs continued jumping mainly at Taft and Elsinore, rarely visiting Arvin.
There were about 20 regular skydivers, including a girl or two, jumping at Arvin in the spring of ‘64, most in their early 20s. Not many were capable of performing more than rudimentary 2-way hook-ups. Some of the Bakersfield jumpers in this group included Ken Barnes, Dave Bristow, John Rinard, Gary Mills and myself. L.A. jumper Inge Onnes was one of the few female jumpers.
Bob Buquor was filming the relative workers who were just beginning to make 4-and 5-man stars. They were Don Henderson, Mitch Poteet, Lou Paproski, Nels Lindebloom, Bob Thompson and Jim Dann. Other influential skydivers peripheral to the early Arvin scenario periodically came and went - Richard Ecomomy, Leigh Hunt, Australian Andy Keech, stuntman Rod Pack and free fall photographer's Doyle Fields, Jim Lizzio and Carl Boenish.
The crowd included lesser-known skydivers too, as well as wives, girlfriends and groupies that, when combined, comprised a clique of about 50 people at any given time.
Bob Buquor, Brian Williams and Bill Stage were older and had more experience. Each became a mentor for the younger set in his own unique way. Without their inspiration, early Arvin jumpers may never have progressed beyond current skill levels performed at other DZs. Relative work was about to evolve.
Buquor, 30, was an excellent skydiver and accomplished free fall photographer who had ties to the entertainment industry. Articulate and professional with an infectious laugh, Bob had a passion for filming structured relative work, called star formations. It was his quest to organize and film increasingly larger stars that gave impetus to Arvin's budding relative workers.
Williams, 38, had been jumping since 1951. Suave and meticulous with his trademark Panama hat and Hush Puppies for jump boots, Brian was a music aficionado. He had a state-of- the-art stereo system in his house and kept everyone entertained by hosting weekly seminars called the “Music Appreciation, Wine Sipping and Parachute Packing Society.” Skydivers actually stretched their canopies out through Brian's family room and packed in his living room. Brian kept busy instructing students, while other guests listened to cool jazz and sipped wine or drank beer and told jump stories.
Stage, 33, dapper and flamboyant, drove a new Corvette, wore a leather aviator’s cap for a helmet and had bells on his jump boots. Bill was a ladies’ man and brought many classy chicks to the drop zone, along with his friends Joe McKinney, Don Bradley and Tommy Owens, who were pretty good relative workers. After the day's skydiving, Stage and his entourage could usually be found having cocktails and dinner at the Travelers Inn, near Bakersfield, while others gravitated to Arvin's Pioneer Club to play beer-drinking games, dance and raise hell.
It was a euphoric time; magic was in the air. The music was about romance and change. New artists and groups were emerging: the Beatles, Four Seasons, Motown, Righteous Brothers, Lovin’ Spoonful and Johnny Rivers. The Vietnam conflict started heating up around August, but not much attention was paid to it until protest songs started coming out in 1965.
A few Bakersfield skydivers helped Mercer carve out a 2000 foot dirt runway with a tractor dragging boards. There was a raised bump about 3/4 down the runway pilots used for rotation.
From left to right: Joe McKinney, Don Bradley, Bob Thompson, Lou Paproski, Tommy Owens ready to board Walt Mercer's 1947 Howard "Millie" at the "new Arvin" DZ.
Clockwise from top: John De Porter, Mitch Poteet, Don Henderson, Richard Economy, Lou Paproski, and Bob Thompson.
In August ‘64, Chuck and Pep bailed out of the Arvin operation. Pilots Walt Mercer, with his 1947 Howard, and Dave Keaggy, with his Cessna 195, moved to the new Arvin, about a mile west. The new DZ consisted of a tumbleweed-infested bone yard of animal skeletons, dirt runway and a landing area adjacent to high-voltage lines and the highway. Not nearly as nice as the first Arvin, but where progress would continue. In September, Bob Buquor had just returned from Germany after filming the world skydiving meet for ABC. Back at Arvin, he filmed the first 6-man star September 6, with John De Porter, Mitch Poteet, Bob Thompson, Richard Economy, Lou Paproski and Don Henderson. That record made the cover of Lyle Cameron's Skydiver Magazine. Bakersfield skydivers were also adding more jumpers and developing their own clique. Performing second- string RW, they were learning quickly. Clark Fischer and Blake O'Brien emerged from this bunch. Bill Perkins of Arvin and Curt Stephens of Bakersfield filmed most of the locals, but Bob Buquor filmed a lot of the B teams, too, testing out new cameras and techniques.
I started selling inexpensive but sexy-looking ski goggles to replace the sorry designs skydiving goggles offered. They worked great and caught on, especially with the better relative workers. Buquor even bought a pair, and they became known as "Good Guy" goggles, because good guys wore them. It wasn't long before the more serious star attempts became known as good-guy loads.
Hanging out at Arvin's Pioneer Club in 1965. Williams is wearing Annette Funicello's jump suit from the movie "Beach Blanket Bingo," from which Buquor had recently filmed the skydiving sequences.
1965: Magical Times
On New Years Day in 1965, Bob Buquor, Doyle Fields, Rod Pack and Bob Allen took off for Arvin in a Cessna 206 piloted by Harry Haines. Buquor shot stills, and Fields shot the movies of Bob Allen exiting with an unmodified reserve in his hands. Pack, wearing only a harness with D-rings, dove down to Allen, grabbed the reserve, eventually snapped it onto his harness and opened, barely clearing the power lines. That stunt made the cover of Life Magazine and the TV series "The Bold Men".
Early 1965 brought more new jumpers: Al Paradowski, Gary Young, Monte and Fritzie Cox, Susie Bateman, Clark Fischer and Al Walters. Brian's Music Appreciation and Parachute Packing nights had become the anticipated weekly event. The majestic horns of the Tijuana Brass intermingled with the fragrance of English Leather and Estee Lauder, exuding an exhilarating atmosphere. Susie Bateman was the most beautiful and enchanting girl I had ever met - raven hair, emerald eyes, tall and tan, young and lovely. Susie was the “Girl From Ipanema.” All the eligible guys showed up playing it cool but secretly hoping Susie would be there. Dancing with Susie would keep us on cloud nine for days. Tony Lemus, the Montebello Phantom, would blow in unexpectedly from some exotic locale, like Paris or Acapulco, and we would wonder whether he was putting us on.
Over the years, Williams’ and Stage’s affinity for group unity would influence the Arvin crowd in activities beyond skydiving - concerts, camping, sailing, scuba diving, motorcycle runs, etc. We socialized almost exclusively together.
On a July 4 night jump out of Walt’s Howard, after Susie exited solo, Jim Dann, Joe McKinney, Ken Barnes, Gary Young and myself attempted a night 5-man star. Barnes and Young didn't get in, but Joe, Jim and I figured we made the first night 3-man star. After landing, Joe unbuckled his harness, but it didn't fall to the ground. His canopy had draped over some 30-foot telephone lines.
The Arvin DZ shack and packing tables, 1965. Far left: Jerry Bird looks on as Monty Cox, Bill Newell and Jim Dann discuss a jump. Brian Williams packs in the dirt as Cheryl White, Bill Stage and Ken Barnes lounge about the packing table. Gary Mills walking in background.
Photo: Don Henderson
Bob Dylan's "Like A Rollin Stone", The Beach Boy's "California Girls" and Lovin’ Spoonful's "Do You Believe In Magic?" filled the airwaves that summer as raging fires and gun battles from the Watts Riots were in full swing in South Central L.A.
On October 17th, Buquor filmed the world’s first 8-man star. Participants were Gary Young, Al Paradowski, Bill Newell, Mitch Poteet, Bill Stage, Jim Dann, Don Henderson and Brian Williams. The Associated Press ran Bob's pictures nationwide, and they were published in Parachutist Magazine. That 8-man star set the foundation for the Bob Buquor Memorial Star Crest awards, and those skydivers became the first Star Crest Recipients. ( SCRs).
Arvin Paracenter, 1965
From left to right: Bill Newell, Walt Mercer, Jerry Bird and Monty Cox facing Don Henderson's camera. Brian Williams stows his lines while packing in the dirt; a common practice those days. Note the vintage cars; gas was 29.9 cents a gallon then.
The next weekend, jumpers watched helplessly as Walt Mercer's Howard caught fire and burned to the ground. An electrical short ignited a hot engine after landing. The only fire extinguisher was in Keaggy’s 195, but he was aloft, and we had no air-ground radio. Everyone threw handfuls of dirt into the cowling, but the fire eventually had its way. From the first flicker of flame to the radial engine’s sitting in a pool of melted aluminum took less than 5 minutes. It was the only time we ever saw Walt cry.
1966: Goodbye To Bob
The Mama's and the Papa's “California Dreamin”, Simon & Garfunkle's “Sound's Of Silence” and The Beatles “We Can Work It Out” were big hits early that year. Those songs reflect the atmosphere well back then, and I believe that from the mid ‘50s to the late‘60s, music, in terms of romance, beauty and grandeur had peaked; it was as good as it was going to get before going in another direction.
Illinois jumper, Terry Ward showed up in late January. Arriving seemingly out of nowhere, it took awhile for him get on the good-guy loads. But starting out with the B team like most of us did, Terry quickly caught on and later became one of the better relative workers.
In February, jumpers made the worlds’ first 10-man hook-up, a semi-circle that never closed into a star. Participants were Monty Cox, John Rinard, Don Henderson, Bill Newell, Jim Dann, Al Paradowski, Jerry Bird, Bob Buquor, Brian Williams and Bill Stage.
In late April, our Cessna 195 pilot, Dave Keaggy, left for airline training. Tim Harris arrived with his many students, including Donna Wardean. And Deke Dillon, a friend of Bob Thompson’s, started jumping with the good guys.
May 1966 brought the world’s first 10-man baton pass. Participants were Al Walters, Jerry Bird, Tommy Owens, Joe McKinney, Terry Ward, Al Paradowski, Bill Stage, Don Bradley, Jim Dann and Bob Buquor. Before that dive, the baton pass record stood at around four or five, and it's not known if Arvin's baton pass record has been broken since.
In June, the Arvin jumpers moved again, 20 miles west near Old River, where a farmer had some acreage he wouldn’t be planting for awhile. The location was definitely better. Green fields all around, but then there were the irrigation and mosquitoes. Three miles away was Old River, a wide spot in the road with two bars - just what hot thirsty skydivers needed to take a break from the 110-degree summer heat.
Another sub-group developed at Old River. A mixture of Latin's and second-stringers, they called themselves the Old River Rats. Dick Pierce, Auggie Andrade, Frank Venegas, Richard “Kamakazie” Hernandez, Al Smith, Don Simpson, Gil Fleming, Steve Fielding, Greg Nugent, Bob Porter and Doyle Talbot jumped with this group. This was about the time the Arvin jumpers and associates began to be regarded by some in the parachuting establishment as outlaws.
On July 27th, Bob Buquor drowned off the Malibu coast while filming a skydiving segment for an MGM production starring Tony Curtis and Sharon Tate. Gary Mills was the unit rigger, and I was his assistant. While Bob was suiting up for his ill-fated jump, he declined the recommended flotation gear, citing bulkiness, and opted instead for some small, inflatable rubber tubes. His decision did him in. Everyone was shocked and saddened. Our chief mentor and photographer was gone. Skydiving was our passion, but we had lost a talented and respected friend and an important source of our motivation. Al Paradowski was so bummed out that not long afterward he quit jumping. Al lamented later, “Bob Buquor never knew what a hippie was.” Hippies weren't recognized until early 1967.
In mid-August, the farmer needed his land for a late-summer planting. Again, we were without a drop zone. While searching for another place to drop skydivers, Walt Mercer began flying loads in his Twin Beech to Lost Hills, California. Lost Hills, just a few miles from James Dean’s date with destiny in 1955, was on par with the Arvin bone-yard, sans spectators. After a month of butt busting in the desolated desert of Lost Hills, Mercer found Kern Bluffs, east of Bakersfield, overlooking Lake Ming. The scenery was fantastic, but the 45-minute ferry back to the Bakersfield airport made it less than ideal.
The Arvin crowd had dwindled since leaving Old River, mainly because they had no permanent drop zone. Hard-core regulars followed Mercer's Twin Beech wherever it went, and that helped form the basis for a few skydivers who jumped together most of the time.
Published in Parachutist Magazine,
Special thanks to Brian Williams, Don Henderson, Jim Dann, Skratch Garrison, Paul Gorman, Norm Heaton, Greg Nugent, and Stan Troeller who contributed to this article.