The Westmoreland County Airshow this weekend featured high-flying feats and created a bystander adrenaline rush as the Blue Angels roared overhead.
The Westmoreland County Airport Authority began hosting airshows in the 1970s. Since then, the performance has become one of the biggest and most popular in Pennsylvania, routinely featuring famous acts including the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.
Airplane flyovers are not the only performances starred at Westmoreland through the years. For some thrill seekers, remaining in the plane to perform aerobatic stunts during the show did not quench their thirst for adventure. In 1976, performers took things a step further–a step off the plane and into the blue sky.
Several dare-devil skydivers highlighted the show by jumping in and landing in front of the crowd.
Skydiving in the 70s was not new to Pittsburgh The sport can trace its roots to over five decades before this spectacle.
Between 1924 and 1928, John Skelton, dubbed “Pittsburgh’s original dare-devil skydiver” by the Pittsburgh Press, toured the country as a wing-walker parachutist. In those four years, Mr. Skelton made over 300 jumps. His routine included jumping from a vintage World War I aircraft flying at 3,000 feet before landing near spectators. Since Mr. Skelton’s jumps were from a lower altitude than most of the free-fall skydiving popular today, he spent a majority of his time in the sky under an open parachute.
That is not to say Mr. Skelton did not face his fair share of close calls while floating back to Earth.
On one particularly memorable skydive, gusting winds carried him away from his landing target. Faced with either landing in a frigid river or a blazing steel mill furnace, he steered his canopy into a nearby tree. Although Mr. Skelton only suffered a sprained ankle from clambering out of the branches, his canopy was shredded.
Mr. Skelton married and “retired” shortly afterwards, but kept the chute as a memento. Despite the nerve-wracking landing, he confessed to the Press in 1976, “I’d like to try some free-fall jumps like today’s kids make.”
Mr. Skelton may have been the first skydiving dare-devil from the ‘Burgh, but he certainly was not the last Pennsylvania native to test the limits of human flight.
Most skydivers prefer ending a jump on dry land, but for skydiver Jim McGowan, large bodies of water were an intentional target. Why the water landings? Because in 1981 this Philadelphia man had his mind set on skydiving, despite being paraplegic. Without the control of his legs, landing on solid ground posed a great risk for broken bones.
On May 13, 1981, Mr. McGowan became the first paraplegic to skydive. The water of Lake Wallenpaupack in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains cushioned his landing after jumping from 3,000 feet. He splashed into the lake’s chilly water and emerged with a beaming smile and held two thumbs-up in celebration. As a team of divers helped him from the lake, he told the Pittsburgh Press, “I feel fantastic.”
Mr. McGowan continued on in skydiving, setting multiple records on his way as the first paraplegic to perform different skydiving maneuvers. While McGowan told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1986 that he had “very few problems,” his skydiving saga came with its fair share of scratches and scrapes.
After all, landing in water requires flotation devices, accuracy, and forethought. At one point, he overshot his target lake and broke an ankle on the rocky shore. Then there were the five jumps that he landed in a Florida lake before learning it was home to alligators.
His reaction to the scaly situation? A cheerful, “Live and learn.”
After making 20 skydives between 1981 and 1984, McGowan turned his attention to other hobbies, including an attempt to swim the English Channel. Present Day his work keeps him closer to the ground, though he still offers the advice, “You don’t have to settle for taking the safer route in life.”