CONSHOHOCKEN — John Higgins’ love of the skies took flight 60 years ago and he’s never looked back.
The Conshohocken native and skydiving icon made his first jump in 1959 and has more than 3,600 jumps to his name, as well as an innovative invention still in use today and a successful company that he’s still running at age 78.
Set to be inducted into the International Skydiving Museum’s Hall of Fame Class of 2019 during a skydiving celebration fundraiser the weekend of Oct. 17, to be hosted by Skydive Perris in Perris, Calif., Higgins remembered the plunge that jump-started his career.
“I saw an article in the Sunday paper that they were making parachute jumps at a parachute center at Valley Forge, so I rode up and said I’ll try it,” Higgins said from his office in Roxboro, N.C.
Higgins, a 1958 grad of St. Matthew’s Catholic High School, eventually moved with his family to East Norriton, joined the Delaware Valley Skydivers and was soon experiencing the adrenaline rush of jumping out of airplanes at places like Wood’s Golf Center (Woody’s.)
Although he’s now spent most of his life outside of Pennsylvania, Higgins still has family ties to the area, he said.
“My mother, Rose Higgins passed away earlier this year. She was over 100 years old. I still have brothers in Collegeville and Norristown and come home to visit them sometimes,” Higgins said.
Along with partners Ron Edwards and Harry Burlin, Higgins opened the Chute Shop in Flemington, N.J., and became the sole owner in 1968.
“We rented hangar space at an airport. Back then there were no commercial parachutes for sport jumping. We used Military surplus parachutes and we’d modify them,” Higgins remembered. “I was a skydiving competitor and then I started designing parachutes. We needed more production and I ended up getting this Military manufacturer in Roxboro, N.C. to make parachutes for us. Then they went out of business and I couldn’t find anybody else. So I came down here, bought the equipment and leased the building and we started the company with six people.”
The Chute Shop was the first company to gain Federal Aviation Administration approval to modify the Army’s T-10 main canopy and the Navy’s conical reserve canopy to render them steerable, according to a press release.
Higgins’ Mini-System was one of the first complete harness-and-container systems designed specifically for sport use. The company became North American Aerodynamics (NAAERO.com), which at its height employed more than 500 people.
Higgins has since been recognized for excellence in the invention, design and manufacturing of complete sport parachute systems, from harnesses and containers to main and reserve canopies.
He designed and manufactured the Parafoil accuracy canopy in the early 1980s, still the most popular parachute used for classic accuracy. He also designed and produced the Eagle main and reserve canopies and the Centaurus harness-and-container system.
“I was involved in the development of the sport, basically,” he said. “The Parafoil is an accuracy parachute and it’s been the leading parachute worldwide I guess since 1964. If you go to a military world championship or a civilian world championship it consists of about 40 teams. Each team will have five men and five women. The number of competitors from all these countries, about 85 percent, will be using my parachute.”
Under Higgins’ ownership, North American Aerodynamics was a founding member of the Parachute Industry Association (PIA). Higgins was chairman of PIA’s Membership & Development Committee from 1974 to 1975. In 2015, the association awarded Higgins with its prestigious Don Beck Memorial Achievement Award.
Higgins recalled an especially moving experience involving his invention that occurred at a skydiving competition in Russia.
“I travel the world to major competitions. One trip was for the World Parachuting Championships. While there, the Russian General, who was hosting the competition made arrangements for me to tour the Russian Military Museum,” he said. “I noticed that every piece of equipment was Soviet except for one. That was a Jalbert Parafoil made by me at North American Aerodynamics. While it hung on the wall our name was visibly displayed. This was quite a shock and I can’t tell you how proud I was.”
The upcoming International Skydiving Hall of Fame Banquet and Induction Ceremony presented by the Parachute Industry Association is expected to attract almost 400 guests from around the world to witness legends like Higgins claim their spot in skydiving history. Higgins will be presented his plaque from friend, Bruce Wicks, of Fayetteville, N.C.
“It can’t get any better than that, your peers voting you into the Hall of Fame,” he said. “It’s quite an honor.”
He said the celebration is as much about the current state of skydiving as it is about honoring its history.
“At the banquet we will recognize different groups and this year there’s a group of 100 jumpers hooked their parachutes together. To put 100 together was quite a feat. I think it took them five planes. It was a lot of training and it was a really big deal,” said Higgins, who is excited that the Hall of Fame will at long last have a physical location when it partners with iFly Indoor Skydiving in Port Orange, Fla.
“There’s been talk for a long time about a museum where people can go and learn about parachuting and now there will be a museum and Hall of Fame. The iFly will have a wind tunnel and we’ll be right next to them.”
Although he is delighted with the growing popularity of skydiving among seniors, Higgins himself hasn’t taken the plunge in about four years, he said.
“It’s too hard because I have to drive three hours and end up sitting around waiting for the weather. A jump day is from early morning to the end of day. It is actually controlled by weather (winds and ceiling). When I was younger I wouldn’t mind sitting at an airport all day to make a jump, but not now.”
The sport of skydiving has changed dramatically since Higgins made his first free fall at Valley Forge, he noted.
“Today they’re not using the little Cessna that we did; they’re having 10 or 20 people out of a bigger airplane. The sport is still not what everybody does,” he added. “But I’m so happy I went out to Valley Forge and made my first jump. It sure changed my life. Everything I’ve been doing has involved parachuting.”
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