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