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The Caterpillar Club
The Caterpillar Club
by Ken Wright

It was such a terrible tragedy that a suitable parachute was not available to WW1 aircrew until after the war. In 1919, an American, Leroy Irvin, designed a parachute with a silk canopy 32 feet in diameter with 24 silk rigging lines, each 16 feet long. The canopy had a small vent at the top to allow a certain amount of air to pass through it to control oscillation. The chute was packed into a canvas container secured by heavy elastic bands and two metal pins attached to a handle. This became known as the ' Rip Cord'. When this cord was pulled, the pack opened a small pilot chute followed by the main chute allowing the rate of descent to be approximately 20 feet per second as opposed to 175 feet per second without a parachute.

After a few modifications, trials proved so successful, the American Air Corps adopted the design and made the wearing of the parachute standard equipment for all aircrew. [It was not until 1925 before the RAAF purchased their first parachutes.] Some of Irvin's friends suggested he start a club as there would be many in the future using the chute. The idea was discussed and it was decided that because silk was used in the canopy and rigging lines, and because the silk worm or caterpillar lets itself down to the ground by a silken thread, it was to be called the Caterpillar Club with the slogan, ' Life depends on a Silken Thread.'

From a membership of two in 1922, the club has become the most exclusive aviation club in the world with a past and present membership in the tens of thousands world wide. It's a club with out joining fees, committee meetings, offices, or staff, and is open to all nationalities irrespective of race, religion, gender or political affiliation. There is only one condition for membership. The applicant must have saved their life in a genuine emergency descent using an Irvin type parachute. Once accepted, the member receives a certificate and a small gold caterpillar pin with the members name and rank engraved on the back. During WW2, due to economic shortages, the gold was substituted with gilt gold. None of the WW2 Luftwaffe aircrew applied to join the club even though they are eligible as they were using the Irvin chute made at the factory bought by the Nazi Government in 1936. Some applied after the war and were accepted

Most applications were from service personnel during WW2 with a large percentage from POW's. Allied aircrew had available two types of parachute. The seat chute which was worn at all times and doubled as a cushion and the chest type which was stowed in a convenient place and in an emergency, was clipped onto a harness worn by the aircrew. There are thousands of personal stories of aircrew bailing out of stricken aircraft and the following are examples of Australian airmen who survived.

Flight Sergeant Don Wills was a rear gunner in a Lancaster with 463 Squadron. Over Bologne, France, his aircraft was hit by flak. With severely damaged control surfaces, right side engine on fire, right side wing in shreds, half the left wing missing and the fuel tanks blown away, the crew were ordered to bale out.

'We were on our bombing run when I heard two explosions near the aircraft then there was a third and I saw a blazing fuel tank pass my rear turret. The pilot ordered an immediate bale out. My rear turret was out of action so that I had to enter the main fuselage instead of rotating my turret to the beam and dropping out. Inside, I saw the mid upper gunner and wireless operator trying to open the rear door so we all hastened to the front escape hatch. As I passed the astro-dome, I saw a massive hole in our port wing. As we reached the front hatch, we found his parachute trapped the navigator so he had to be helped out. It was found that the front hatch had partially jammed. Both the mid upper gunner and wireless operator had to be helped through the opening. Fortunately for me I was wearing the pilot type parachute, which enabled me to lower my legs through the opening and with one hand, push my parachute pack through and then drop out of the aircraft. All this time the pilot was able to maintain some control of the aircraft but great loss of height. I reached for the ripcord but had trouble in finding it however I must have pulled it because my chute opened and it was only a matter of less than a minute and I was on the ground.'

Group Captain Keith Parsons as the Commanding Officer of the Binbrook Station where 460 Squadron was based occasionally broke the rules by going on operations himself. One such 'illegal' flight was almost his last.

'We were flying at about 19,000 feet with no navigation lights on as we always flew in complete darkness, when suddenly this Lancaster appeared out of the murk and was heading at 45 degrees straight for us. I took ' George 'the autopilot off and shoved the stick hard forward and this bloke wiped right across the top of us smashing the canopy on the top and collected my two port engines. Actually the engines chewed off his rear gunner and turret. We pulled up and almost did a roll and I tried to level the bloody thing but she wasn't behaving very well and we went into a tight spin. I called to the crew to 'Bale Out, Bale Out'. When we went past 7000 feet, I realized that I wasn't going to get out because there wouldn't be time. As the canopy had been shattered on the top, I said, 'Bugger it, I'll try going over the top'. I managed to get my head and shoulders through and then my chute got caught. I broke great chunks of the Perspex with my hands and dragged the chute through. The spin on the aircraft was so tight, that I actually stood on the top of the fuselage quite comfortably, and then I gave one hell of a push off and pulled the ripcord. There was a bang as the chute opened and I bruised the inside of my legs as it hit so hard and the next minute, I was on the ground. I later found out that my chute had been ripped from the bottom up to the apex. Under normal circumstances, the chute would have opened but as soon as it started to fill with air, it would have streamed [collapsed] straight away, so I hit the ground just before it started to stream, possibly from around 100 feet up.'

Bomb Aimer Vern Dellitt from 463 Squadron was near Hanover on the night of 19 February 1944.
 
'A German fighter had riddled our plane from tail to nose setting us on fire with a couple of bursts of cannon and machine gun fire. It was so dark it would have been impossible for the fighter pilot to see us without some form of radar. The plane was on fire and started to dive and the incendiaries loaded in the bomb bay started to burn so the skipper gave the order to bail out. I released the escape hatch, a hole 23 inches wind and 26 inches long, called the parachute hatch, but it stuck and I had to give it a good thump with my boot to release it. I had got rid of my oxygen mask and head phones so I had nothing around my head that could get caught or possibly choke me. I was almost ready to jump when suddenly someone jumped into my back. I was forcibly thrown through the escape hatch but my legs caught on the rear edge of the hatch and I was swinging from the plane in the slipstream. Thankfully my legs were grabbed and freed, sending me plunging down into the blackness. I left the plane somewhere around 20,000 feet and I was worried my chute wouldn't open. Being somewhat dazed, I let myself fall for some distance before pulling the ripcord. It seemed like hours before my chute opened. As I floated down, I saw our plane in a mass of flames heading earthward, hit and explode, splattering the remains all over the ground.'

Wireless Operator Max Staunton-Smith's Lancaster from 463 Squadron was hit by anti-aircraft fire on an operation over Walcheren Island [Holland] 23 October 1944.
 
'A 88mm shell went through the radio set in front of me. I jumped up to go to the astrodome and another 88mm when straight through the seat I was just sitting on. I said to the skipper, 'There's a lot of flak passing through the port side wingtips.'

'Fuck the flak' he said, 'Were on our bombing run.' Then all of a sudden, eight 88mm shells hit us in the bomb bay area causing the bomb bay doors to become inoperable. With the aircraft on fire from stem to stern and 15 one thousand pound bombs on board the skipper ordered 'Abandon aircraft'' By the time we got out we were down to 2000 feet. As I floated down, I looked up and saw our kite going down in front of me with flames and smoke pouring out of it.'

One RAAF pilot most likely summed up all the club members feelings in a letter from a POW camp, 'It was the sweetest moment in my life when my chute opened and I realised I wasn't going to die.' ---Life did indeed depend on a silken thread-----

Footnote : Leslie Irvin, despite making more than 300 parachute jumps, never became eligible for membership of the club he inaugurated.

* * *

References

Caterpillar Club. Irvin GQ Ltd.United Kingdom.

Caterpillar Club. Irvin Aerospace Canada/ Usa/Internet reference.

Caterpillar Club. Australian Branch. Don Annat. (President).

A Talk on the Caterpillar Club. Wings Magazine, Summer 2000, UK.

Air Commodore Keith Parsons and Max Staunton-Smith. Both by kind permission, Air Vice Marshall P. Scully. [ret] Royal Australian Airforce.

Vern Dellitt and Don Wills from Australian War Memorial 64 RAAF Information and Unit records. Canberra, Australia.

* * *

Copyright © 2006 Ken Wright.

Written by Ken Wright. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Ken Wright at:
wright9w@optusnet.com.au.

About the author:
Ken Wright lives in Melbourne Australia and served 5 years in the Australian army in an Armoured Recon Unit. He has worked as a book sales rep and correctional officer. He is married with two children, three dogs, and two cats. He retired early and began writing 4 years ago and has written numerous published articles published for military magazines in Australia, the UK and the US.

Published online: 07/16/2006.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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