The Rise and Demise Of The Arvin Good Guys
The Origin of Formation Skydiving ~ Part Two
by Bill Newell
As the new discipline of relative work began to spread in the mid-to-late '60's, the Arvin Good Guys continued to lead the way. After their formative years of 1964-1966, these skydivers reached the peak of their era soon after.
In January, Walt started flying partial loads from Bakersfield to Lancaster and meeting the rest of the jumpers there. Paul Gorman, Pete Picciolo and Donna Wardean were starting to get invited on good-guy loads about this time. We were skydiving there the day we heard the news of the Apollo launch-pad fire that killed Astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee. Lancaster's blustering, gusty winds made Lost Hills' no-wind landings seem soft. Traveling backwards in a 7-TU over sagebrush at 20 mph had nothing to do with relative work. Ironically the number-one song was "Kind Of A Drag" by the Buckinghams. By March, everyone had had enough.
The Turtles "Happy Together" was number one in March and later that month found the Beech at Taft, a drop zone owned and operated by the charismatic, cigar-chomping Art Armstrong. Better known for his candor than his diplomacy, Art had previously taken a dim view of the Arvin operation. And since I had defected from Taft three years earlier, we were on our best behavior - at least for a while. Bob Allen started filming 16-mm movies of us the very day we jumped in. A month later, Luis Melendez started taking still photos. We picked up Lyle Cameron, publisher of Skydiver Magazine in this period, first filming us and later joining in star attempts. Wanting to get his SCR before Cameron,
Clark Fischer geeking Bob Allen's camera over Taft.
Clockwise from Clark: Bill Newell, Terry Ward, Jim Dann, Ray Whipple.
Norm Heaton, executive director of the Parachute Club Of America (precursor to USPA) and Parachutist editor, also began traveling down from USPA’s Monterey Headquarters to jump with us.
Cameron had heard of our outlaw reputation. On our initial jump in to Taft, as Terry Ward and I walked back from the target, we heard Lyle exclaim, “Here come the bad guys!” Terry replied, “No, we're the good guys”, and I added, “The Arvin good guys.” From then on, the Arvin jumpers who had followed Walt Mercer’s Twin Beech were known as the Arvin Good Guys. Luis Melendez and Bob Allen continued filming many star attempts throughout the spring and into the summer. There were many 7- to 9- ways, but the 10-man star remained as elusive as ever. The Good Guys weren't as intimidated by Melendez and Allen as they were by Bob Buquor, and as a result, some clowning would occasionally occur on attempts.
The Good Guys practice for the 10-man star over Taft,California - 1967.
Paul Gorman approaches high right while Bill Newell and Terry Ward pick slots in the foreground.
Clockwise from Jim Dann (black jumpsuit facing camera): Bill Stage, Clark Fischer, Al Walters, Al Paradowski, and John Rinard.
Photo: Luis Melendez Jr.
Allen never said anything, but Melendez was getting impatient. After one mediocre attempt on July 2, 1967, Melendez made a crack about our wasting his time and maybe not being up to the task. Someone answered that we could do it anytime we really wanted to. But Melendez's put-down was what it took for us to really want to. Up we went for another attempt. Almost everyone on the load had partied hard the night before, some harder than others. The prospects didn't look too promising.
Terry was 8th out the door behind me. We were in steep dives heading for the formation when I flared. Terry was right on my tail, and he tried passing beneath me. We had a mid-air collision. Terry rolled on his back as he passed below, and I thought he was smiling. I was temporarily dazed and instantly pissed, but Terry had just entered seventh, and I had to get in. I made it in eighth. Brian Williams was ninth, and Paul Gorman came in last to get his SCR and make it a beautiful, round 10-man star with Melendez getting all the color shots he wanted. We were screaming like eagles. We had just made the world's first 10-man star!
I found out later that what I thought was Terry’s smile was actually a grimace. He'd also been stunned. We all embraced, drank beer and relished our long sought after accomplishment late into the night, listening to the Doors “Light My Fire.” The participants were Gary Young, John Rinard, Clark Fischer, Jim Dann, Bill Stage, Jerry Bird, Terry Ward, Bill Newell, Brian Williams and Paul Gorman.
12:00 high: Paul Gorman enters 10th on the first 10-man star on his 87th jump and also becomes SCR# 29.
1:00 position - left to right: Jim Dann, Bill Newell, Clark Fischer, Brian Williams, Jerry Bird, Bill Stage, John Rinard, Terry Ward, Gary Young.
Color stills: Luis Melendez Jr.
We repeated the feat the next weekend for a correspondent from Life Magazine. He was filming from the ground, and we had a camera mounted on the tail of the Beech for exit shots. Being unfamiliar with locating and filming a jump run, however, he was unable to get anything acceptable, and the Life shoot went nowhere. However, Melendez’s 10-man star shot appeared on the January ‘68 cover of Parachutist and the July ‘68 center spread in Esquire Magazine. So we had actually made two 10-man stars before anyone else had made any.
A little over a month later, on August 5th, the Group from Elsinore performed their first 10-man star with Carl Boenish shooting color stills. We were aware that our star building progress was being monitored by other groups intent on competiting with us down the road. We expected Elsinore to eventually produce a 10 man-star, but some of us felt surprised they did it so soon after ours. Elsinore’s 10-man star participants were Jeep Gereghty, Ray Cottingham, John Botta, Russ Benefiel, Ted Webster, Mike McFarlin, John Murphy, Garth Taggart, Kevin Donnelly and Mike Sams.
In September, on a routine RW dive, we lost Al Walters. He opened with a Mae West (lines over his canopy) and elected to cut away. He had two shot capewells, which were very difficult to activate. Al got only one side cut away and went in with his reserve wrapping around the streamer. For all of the low pulling and crazy stunts some of us were notorious for, Walters and Buquor were just victims of bad luck and the only two good guys we lost until after the timeline of this story.
The Arvin Good Guys at Taft in 1967.
Standing - left to right: Lou Paproski, Paul Gorman, Clark Fischer, Terry Ward, Ron Richards, Bob Thompson, Bob Allen.
Kneeling - left to right: Donna Wardean, Jim Dann, Pete Picciolo, Brian Williams.
Sitting: Pilot Walt Mercer.
Ironically, Boenish’s 10-man star shot wound up on the cover of Cameron’s Skydiver Magazine before ours appeared on the later issue of Parachutist. This apparently gave rise to the myth that Elsinore made the first 10-man star. It didn't take long for the competition spirit to set in. According to Elsinore team member Garth Taggart, he presented the challenge to Bob Allen at Frank Carpenter's Rumbleseat Bar in Hermosa Beach a few weeks later. The agreed-upon time and place was November 7, 1967, at Taft. Carpenter donated the trophy, and Taggart formulated the rules assisted by Jerry Bird, Skratch Garrison, Bob Allen and Carl Boenish.
Three teams competed: The Arvin Good Guys, the Group from Elsinore and the Old River Rats. The rules required team captains to coordinate with meet officials. We protested having a team captain, but the officials wouldn’t let us jump without one. Jerry Bird was pressing for the role, so we let him have it. The Arvin Good Guys won with two back-to-back 10-way stars. Clarice Garrison was on our team, changing 10-man to 10-way.
1968: Highs And Lows
Throughout 1968, we were at our peak. The year produced some of the best and most varied music of the decade. Radio programming wasn't as diversified as it is now. The top 40 included artists as wide-ranging as Blood, Sweat & Tears, Three Dog Night, Creedence Clearwater, Mongo Santa Maria, Brazil 66 and Hugh Masekala. Wes Montgomery’s “Bumpin On Sunset” was an instrumental that pretty much defined my view of 1968.
Arvin Good Guys over Taft,California, 1968.
Clockwise from Terry Ward (Terry on helmet): Clarice Garrison, Clark Fischer, Donna Wardean, Frank Maseto, Lou Paproski, Skratch Garrison, and Bill Newell top left.
Style & accuracy champion jeanni McCombs started jumping with us more often at this point, as did Ron Richards, who had been on the scene intermittently since Old River.
In May we did a 10-man star water-jump competition against Elsinore off Hermosa Beach, sponsored by the Rumbleseat Bar. Most of the skydivers on Elsinore's team were not Elsinore's original 10-man star participants. A few of the Good Guys, including myself, had never made a water jump. Jumping over the ocean for the first time scared the hell out of us, but nevertheless, we won it with a 7-man star versus their 5-man.
On intense skydives, when the tension was mounting to uncomfortable proportions, Terry Ward and I would lift our goggles to clear the fog and sing passages from Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watch Tower:”
“No reason to get excited, the thief, he kindly spoke
There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke.”
And Jim Dann would reply in verse, “There must be some kind of way out of here”.
Norm Heaton was trying to get us to the World Championships at Graz, Austria that summer on an Air Force transport. That eventually fell through when the Air Force balked at hauling civilians. However, Heaton did get us to perform demos at the ‘68 Nationals at Marana, Arizona in June. A lot of us were still jumping rags or cheapos – 28-foot military surplus chutes with the 7 TU cut. The more gear conscious was graduating to Lo Pos, but with the same modification. Para-Commanders had been around since 1965, and plenty of jumpers used them. But they had a reputation for oscillating on turns. Relative work was our bag anyway, not accuracy. For us, parachutes were simply a means to the ground.
Paul Gorman, Bob Thompson and Lou Paproski rode with me in my ‘64 Olds to Marana, while the others flew in Walt’s Beech. Our mood was heady as we roared across the desert with Hugh Masekala trumpeting “Grazing In The Grass” on the radio. We were a hit at Marana, performing 11-and 12-way stars that weekend, impressing the spectators, the style & accuracy competitors and the Army Team. The clandestine trip to Nogales, Mexico in Bill Ottley’s rental car that Saturday night was another thrilling escapade, but a whole other story in itself.
The Good Guys continued exhibition jumping throughout the year, while skydiving at Taft and Elsinore in the interim. By this time, factions from both drop zones were starting to interact, pooling their talent for the purpose of creating larger stars. There was some initial resistance to this idea. Terry Ward and I intentionally took out an integrated large-star attempt because we suspected the Elsinore participants would claim credit if it was successful. As the star was building to a 12-man, I spiraled up from below and broke John De Santis’grip, while directly opposite, Ward crashed down on Doyle Talbot’s back. Bob Allen caught us on camera, and we were unpopular for a few weeks.
The Good Guys performed at the Reno National Air Races in September and Devonshire Downs, a racetrack in downtown Northridge, California, in October. These demos were really hairy with round canopies. In the thin air of Reno, Jim Dann was saved from serious injury when he crashed onto a hangar roof with a malfunction. At Devonshire Downs, the wind came up and blew us everywhere but the racetrack. Paproski landed in the middle of a busy intersection, Gorman landed on a residential rooftop, and Donna Wardean backed into a schoolyard, barely missing the monkey bars. Needless to say, we were really bugged when we did it again in ‘69. But the winds were calmer then, and everyone made the target except Jim Dann, who landed out and badly sprained his ankle.
November brought the second annual Rumbleseat 10-Man Star Championships at Taft. Brian Williams was our team captain this time. I had partied hard and slept in my car the night before. I was also coming down with the Hong Kong flu but didn’t realize it. Brian took a look at me the next morning and said he was replacing me with alternate Pete Picciolo. I swore to Brian that I was OK, and he reluctantly let me jump.
We were competing against Dirty Ed’s team – Dominique Erulin, Ray Cottingham, Bill Edwards, Russ Benefiel, Jeep Gereghty, Bob Borman, Hal Hurley, Mike Milts, Garth Taggart and Kevin Donnelly. I went below our 9-way in the first round, and that lost it. Picciolo replaced me for the rest of the meet, but the damage was already done. I won’t even try to describe my humiliation and despair. I spent the next two weeks in bed with chills and fever and came close to expiring. It was the lowest point in my skydiving career.
Throughout the year, the Beatles kept experimenting, going from their religious-oriented hit, “Let It Be,” to the screamin demon rant on their “White Album.” Mainstream music wasn’t quite ready for that yet; it appealed mainly to cultists and Manson types, so the Beatles finished out 1968 with “Hey Jude,” the year’s biggest hit, and then disbanded – forever.
Published in Parachutist Magazine,Oct/Nov/Dec/2004.
Bill Newell 1968
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.