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1925: The chute that saved 5,000 lives
By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian
Amelia Earhart wouldn't fly without one. Richard Byrd took one along for his historic hop over the South Pole. A young World War II flier named George Bush used one to splash to safety in the Pacific after the Japanese shot down his fighter plane.

The Switlik parachute saved the lives of more than 5,000 pilots. And each chute was sewn, stitched and packed in a Trenton factory overseen by the unlikeliest of aviation pioneers -- stubby, bespectacled Stanley Switlik.

A Polish immigrant who had once been penniless, Switlik never learned how to fly. He certainly never dreamed of jumping out of a plane. Yet in 1925 he hit upon his golden idea to build a better parachute.

"He was a very confident person," said his son, Richard Switlik. "He was making leather and canvas goods and I'm not sure he had even seen a parachute. But he said, 'I'll take a shot at it.'

In only a few years, Switlik Parachute Co. would mature into the manufacturer of one of the most dependable products in aviation and its founder would become a millionaire. The company is still run in the family, and Richard Switlik, 80, serves as president.

The all-American Switlik success story was remarkable enough, but over time, a lot of legends would arise to make it sound better. One embellishment came from the motivational author Dale Carnegie, who once wrote how a young Stanley Switlik as a boy in his native Poland, saw a balloonist fall to his death.

From that moment, the tale goes, Switlik resolved to invent something to save the lives of such airmen. There's one problem with the story. "It's bull----," said Richard Switlik.

In fact, Stanley Switlik needed no intervention from the skies to make his claim to fame.

Almost from the time he was born in 1890 in Galicia, in what was then an Austrian-ruled part of Poland, Switlik burned for achievement. He was just 17 when he sailed for America, a few coins in his pocket and a job lined up on a road construction gang in upstate New York.

Soon he was headed for Trenton to work as an orderly at the state hospital. At various times, he was a wood finisher at a furniture factory, a door-to-door bill collector, a real estate man. All the time, he went to night school to study business and brush up on his English.

"Most Americans hold lightly the great blessings of their country because they have not seen how the rest of the world lives," Switlik said in later years.

Opportunity beckoned for everyone, Switlik was sure; it was just a matter of time.

The big break came when a 1920 real-estate deal landed him something called the Canvas Leather Specialty Co. The company was losing money and its loft at 241 S. Warren St. was shabby and run-down. Switlik got his brother, Walter, and a Polish friend to invest $500; then he began to commute from his South Broad Street home to work full-time in the front office.

The canvas factory was a place where Polish garment workers stitched together mail bags, tool bags, leather cases, horse covers and tents. A minor part of the production line was leather flying suits, pilot safety belts and face masks. Switlik realized this was an up-and-coming market, and began to promote it heavily.

Switlik made periodic trips to the Army Air Corps test-pilot grounds at McCook Field -- now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base -- in Dayton, Ohio. He made friends with engineer Floyd Smith, who had invented the parachute rip cord.

Talking with Smith led Switlik to come up with an idea in 1925: If he could make belts and masks and suits, why not a parachute?

Parachutes had actually been around for more than 100 years. In 1783, a Frenchman used an umbrella-like device to jump safely from. a high tower. Over time, chutes improved into silk canopies tied to a harness worn over the body. As late as 1920, they were used mostly as novelties by balloonists, and almost never in airplanes.

A few innovative pilots tried parachute jumps. The practice was to attach an already-open chute to the front end of the plane skid. You would strap yourself in, bail out of the pilot's seat and the rest of the chute would break loose and guide your fall.

Of course, there was no way this could be done in an aircraft nosediving at 200 mph. Even parachutists who successfully bailed could find their chute lines tangled, which meant landing with a deadly splat.

Smith solved the problem in 1919 by folding the chute into a leather pouch and then providing a rip cord for a pilot to yank once he was in free fall.

The invention made it possible for the Army to equip most? test pilots with chutes. For a time, Irvin Air Chute of Dayton, which had the advantage of being right next to McCook Field, was America's only maker of rip?cord chutes.

But in 1925, the Polish?born businessman and the Army engineer decided to team up and provide competition for Irvin. The Switlik parachute incorporated the military's basic design: 12 panels of silk carefully stitched together to make a circular canopy. However, Smith patented a rip cord that opened much more quickly and, combined, it with a lighter, more comfortable package.

To test the chutes, Switlik employee Rudolph "Doc" Taylor would take them to Mercer Field ? now Trenton?Mercer Airport in Ewing ? strap them to a dummy and toss them from the back of a plane. Every dummy had to land "safely" at least six times. Then Taylor himself would make the jump. Only then was the chute ready to sell.

In 1927, the Navy accepted Switlik's bid for an order of parachutes, and Switlik Parachute Co. was in the big time. Orders then began to pour in from some of?the most ?notable names in '20s aviation: Charles Lindbergh, Richard Byrd, Wiley Post.

In 1934, Amelia Earhart made a record?breaking flight from Mexico City to Newark. When she got out of the plane, she was wearing a parachute with the word "SWITLIK" printed on the straps for all to see ? giving the company invaluable publicity. Later in the year, she came up with an idea that brought even more attention for Switlik: a training tower for parachutists.

The first tower, 146 feet high, was built in Jackson. Its logs show that the first tower jump was made by a "Dummy, 180 lbs." Then comes a "Human, 125 lbs." 'Mat was, me," Richard Switlik said.

Richard Switlik, 16 years old at the time, was strapped into a chute that was itself attached to guy wires, ensuring he made a safe descent. In a later drop from the tower, however, a dummy landed hard and broke into two pieces. "You'd better stay on the ground from now on," Stanley Switlik advised his son.

When Pearl Harbor brought America into World War II, Switlik Co. ? now based at Lalor and Hancock street ? was producing 70 percent of the military's parachutes. Switlik also organized the "Caterpillar Club," named after the critters that produce parachute silk, for all fliers who bailed out safely in an emergency.

At its peak, Switlik turned out 2,500 parachutes a week ? now made from, nylon instead of Japanese silk ? and employed 1,200, almost all of them women seamstresses. Switlik's daughter, Lottie, served as a company officer and even went to Brazil to organize another company's chute factory.

A Switlik chute saved the life of young Navy pilot George Bush in 1944 over the Mariana Islands. After Bush left the White House 50 years later, he wrote a thank-you note to the Switliks, and, in a rush of excitement at age 69, promised to make the second parachute jump of his life. He landed without a scratch.

One super?secret Switlik project of the, war was building the chutes for hundreds of dummies that were to be airdropped behind German ?lines in France on D?Day, June 6,1944. Equipped with tape recorders that played the sounds of gunfire, the fake paratroopers stirred up enemy confusion and helped Allied forces gain a beachhead.

In the '60s, the company, now run by the younger Switlik and relocated at East State Street in Hamilton, found itself under severe competitive pressure. Manufacturers in Eastern Asia made chutes a lot cheaper, chute designs got fancier and Switlik Co. could not catch up.

The last Switlik chute was manufactured in 1976. Since then, Switlik Co. has made life rafts, pressure suits and inflatable gear. Stanley Switlik retired to Florida and busied himself spending millions of his dollars on schools and parks. He died at age 90 in 1981, a wealthy philanthropist who made only one deal he regretted ? selling some of his Jackson Township lands to create the Great Adventure theme park.

The Switlik parachute, like the Mercer automobile or Roebling wire rope, now has a place in history as a high?quality, limited-quantity product that Trenton no longer makes. But if the chute is gone, the Switlik Parachute Co. is still there, with a third generation in charge and women still sitting behind their sewing machines, nimbly stitching insulated materials for seamen instead of airmen.

"You look now, you see a lot of Hispanics here," Richard Switlik said. "When we were starting, there were mostly Polish people right off the boat. It's a whole new opportunity for a new group of Americans.