STAR CREST AWARDS
When Formation Skydiving Really Took Off
By Doug Garr
October 17, 1965 was arguably one of the most important days in the early history of large formation skydiving. In Arvin, California, the world's first eight-man star - built from a Howard and a Cessna 195 -- kicked off what has been one of the most enduring legacies in our sport - the SCRs. That it was a circle and actually called a "star" has confused many a whuffo and added to the myth that we are one strange bunch of aerial thrill-seekers.
That first star wasn't as easy as it seemed. Skydivers wore clunky Para-boots, jumped rounds with chest reserves (there were no piggybacks), and performed contortionist-like exits from mostly single-engine Cessnas that took forever to climb out. Dirt diving, swooping and docking were not yet in the parachuting vernacular.
Bill Newell, now 68, who closed third in the first eight man (exit altitude was 12,500; everybody was in at 5,500), decided that the camaraderie and teamwork for such an achievement should be memorialized.
The Star Crest Recipients - for " Select Type of Accomplished Relative Worker Combining Reliability, Enthusiasm, Skill, and Teamwork" -- was his brainchild, and administering the program has consumed him for more than four decades. Newell named the award for Bob Buquor, who had filmed the first formation (and was fourth in the second one), but who died a year later in a drowning accident off a Malibu beach while filming the movie, "Don't Make Waves."
"When I started issuing the cards and patches in February of 1967, nobody had any faith that I could keep it going," Newell said. But skydivers are proud of their achievements, and even as formations got bigger and more complex, the SCR remained the signal achievement in skydiving besides earning a D license. If you walked into any DZ and sported an eight-man patch, you were treated somewhere between respect and awe.
None of this would have happened if a small group of talented skydivers hadn't had a sudden onslaught of ennui. Newell recalls that the Arvin skydivers weren't interested in turning a series or hitting a target. "They were bored by jumping alone, and they thought the idea of grab-assing around the sky was infinitely more appealing." The classic competitive events - style and accuracy - eventually began ceding the skies to fun jumpers who craved relative work. Frank Venegas, SCR 67, and Terry Ward, SCR 15 -- designed and began selling custom multi-colored jumpsuits, which relative workers favored over the single-color only types then available from Pioneer.
To say that the SCRs have endured would be an understatement.
The program has expanded to include night formations and hoop diving, as well as vertical flying. Today, some 26,000 various Star Crest awards have been issued. Recipients include members from Europe, South Africa, Central and South America, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, Canada, and Australia. All 26,000-plus members of this fraternity have been entered in a database on the SCR web site - www.StarCrestAwards.com.- in itself a monumental achievement of computer input. (Newell jokes that it was like driving across Texas in a covered wagon. "I type with only three fingers," he said.) To browse through the early numbers is like time traveling through skydiving's early days.
Nearly every skydiver with an SCR considers the achievement one of his or her's most memorable and exciting skydives. Mine certainly qualified. On Labor Day weekend in 1970, just before beginning my senior year in college, I traveled to Stormville, N.Y. to enter an eight-man star meet. The organizers decided to enlist - who else? -- Bill Newell, SCR-3, to judge the competition. They sent him a plane ticket, and he showed up, judged, skydived and then partied with us.
I'd never been in anything bigger than a four-man, and I had no idea whether I could even talk my way on to a pick-up team. It was considered an achievement that enough jumpers showed up to form five teams. Eventually, I was matched up with seven other skydivers of similar experience. Five of us had never been in an eight-man formation, so we did not have great expectations to win. Our goal was to try and complete at least one eight-man. Because we were using two Cessna 182s, the ride to 12,500 took a long time. One plane had no jump door.
In the first three jumps we managed a four-, seven-, and five-man. In final round, we finally nailed an eight-man and flew it shakily before it funneled. But for five seconds, looking across the formation with everyone in death grips grinning like cartoon characters, we knew we had reached the five-second minimum.
When we landed Newell was as stoked as we were, and he gave me and the four other qualifiers on our team our eight-man patches, literally before we got out of our gear. "It was a little ugly," I recall him saying, "but it still counts."
Freefall photographers Ray Cottingham, Lyle Cameron (he was a principal cameraman on the "Ripcord" TV series, and founder of Skydiving magazine); Carl Boenish (also known as the "father" of BASE jumping); legendary proponent of big-way formations and one of the first load organizers, Jerry Bird; and former USPA Executive Director Norm Heaton are all among the double-digit SCRs. Clarice Garrison, Fritzie Cox, Donna Wardean and Linda Padgett were the first four women to earn patches. (Clarice was the first woman in a formation with more than seven skydivers.) Look up the names of any famous skydivers from that era - including a number of U.S. team members and Golden Knights -- and chances are you'll find his or her SCR number.
There are even well known celebrities including Disney's former CEO Michael Eisner, Jonathan Livingston Seagull author Richard Bach and astronaut Fred Leslie, to name a few.
"All the guys who were in the original formation are still around," Newell said. "I'm still in contact with most of them."
Early RW developed slower than one might think. In an interview with Pat Works, Newell said, "In those days it took a long time to add another man to a star. From the first four to the first five-man it took something like six weeks. From the first five to the first six it took about two or three months. And from six to eight it took about thirteen months. From eight to ten took [almost] two years."
Weather played a big part, too, in the regional development of FS. The constantly sunny days in Arvin, Taft, and Elsinore ensured that the Golden State became the initial hotbed of large star relative work. The round red, black and gold patches first appeared almost exclusively on jumpsuits in California, until skydivers from Hinckley, Illinois and Greene County, Ohio put together their first eight-mans. The Army team put together an eight-man in Germany.
The aircraft available to skydivers also hampered formation skydiving's early growth. In the late 1960s most DZs rarely had access to large planes. Today, we're spoiled by the expectation of large turbos at most full-service DZs. Out west, however, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Twin Beech and DC-3 eventually made large star attempts more viable. Some time later, Zephyrhills, with its constant sunshine and a Lockheed 10E, began minting eight-man patches every month. SCRs finally spread to the northeast with regularity - and other parts of the country -- when Pepperell, Mass. began importing one of the first Twin Otters and Stormville, N.Y. procured a Lockheed Lodestar.
The eight-man also stirred skydiving's competitive juices. Soon there was a 10-man meet. The first one was held informally when Bob Allen bet Garth Taggart $5 as to which DZ - Taft (Arvin Good Guys) or Elsinore -- had the better team. RW teams started sprouting up everywhere. Scrambles competitions, where SCR-qualified skydivers were assembled by randomly picking their numbers out of a hat, became popular and enhanced the spirit of teamwork.
It wasn't long before some sky gods - that is, the first achievers - began complaining that there were too many jumpers who were simply laying base and getting their SCRs from seven other experienced free fallers. Why wasn't superior flying recognized? Newell responded by creating the SCS award - for Star Crest Solo - for those who closed eighth or later in a star. On July 10, 1971, the same day the SCRs reached 800, Newell began sending out SCS patches.
You can imagine what an uproar this created for low-number-conscious skydivers. Every SCR with sixth grade math skills calculated that in the past six years as many as 100 skydivers could already have achieved this award, and while they could certainly apply for an SCS retroactively, there was no way to accurately assess where they were in the solo flying food chain. Taking the opposite view was Bill "Dirty Ed" Edwards who argued vehemently that the SCS diminished the importance of the base and pin.
Newell looks back on this conundrum with good humor and a sense of accommodation. "Brian Williams has SCR-8, and so there's no argument that he was also the world's first SCS, that's pretty obvious," Newell told me. "In fact, he needled me about this for years, especially now that the SCSs are over 8,000. So I finally said, `Brian, you can have SCS-0.' " (Williams should also be noted for remembering that Jerry Bird was the best student he ever had.)
The SCR awards wouldn't be complete without a ceremony, of course, and newbies are required to buy two cases of beer (one is not for imbibing; so you can imagine where it goes) before being officially awarded the patch and number. The tradition originated with Phil Mayfield and the Valley Mills jumpers, near Waco, Texas and the initiation rite slightly varies from DZ to DZ. But the single most important element is that the anointed skydivers must kneel and face West. Paying homage to the California skydivers who started it all is the least they can do.
Published in Parachutist, Jan, 2010