Jacques-André Istel


We all have different reasons for starting skydiving, but why do we stick around? For me personally, and I know for a lot of you, it’s the people. Unique, eccentric, crazy, loony, loving, wild, different, open—call us what you will, but our sport has some seriously colorful characters. Working at USPA, I’ve been privileged to hear stories of some of the most amazing, starting with the father of modern skydiving, Jacques-André Istel, D-2. You may have read the News blurb about him this week, but his involvement in skydiving is only part of his fascinating life.

Mike Anton of the L.A. Times wrote a great piece on Mr. Istel last April, Desert monument captures history on stone. Read the whole article if you’ve got a minute, but here’s a quick excerpt:

Istel has always zigged where others zagged. He is a tireless wayfarer with an insatiable curiosity and no tolerance for boredom, who has pingponged through life like a character in a picaresque novel.

He fled Paris with his family in advance of the Nazis. He hitchhiked across the U.S. when he was 14. After a stint in the Marine Corps, he chucked a career on Wall Street to take up parachuting – which he learned by leaping from a plane with virtually no instruction. He eventually fathered the sport of sky diving [sic] in America. Later, having grown antsy running a business, he circumnavigated the globe in a twin-engine airplane, at times not certain he’d make it.

In the mid-1980s, he founded the town of Felicity on about 2,800 acres of California desert. He built a marble-and-glass pyramid the size of a large garage and proclaimed it the Official Center of the World; thousands have paid a couple of bucks each to step inside, even though it’s not even the center of Imperial County. More recently, Istel moved 150,000 tons of dirt to create the nearby Hill of Prayer on which he built the Church on the Hill – even though he’s not particularly religious.

“You’ve got to admit, that’s interesting,” Istel says.

Here’s a message from the man himself, to Executive Director Ed Scott, inviting you personally to his USPA Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony:

Dear Ed;

Many thanks. Reno is not possible for me owing to prior commitments. We have a nice program planned for 14 February 2009 at Felicity and I look forward to receiving the award then. Also I look forward to your visit, that of Larry Bagley and hopefully Chris Needels; as well as any parachutists old and new who care to join us. Perhaps someone could read this message at the Reno event..

Merry Christmas and all best wishes,

Without Jacques-André Istel, and countless others just as interesting, we’d never be able to throw ourselves out of airplanes for fun. Without them, we’d never want to stick around after jumping was over, either! If you’re anywhere near the Felicity, CA area on Valentine’s Day this year, definitely take the time to attend. Visit the Center of the World, hear some amazing stories and thank the man who fathered our great sport, Mr. Jacques-André Istel.


One Response to “Jacques-André Istel”

  1. Dennis Henley Says:

    Hello Jacques,

    I am sure you don’t remember me, but I for sure remember you. Lyle Cameron and my brother Paul introduced me to you in 1966. I had been jumping at Arvin and Taft for about a year by then. After our meeting you gave me a two day job on a photo-Op for Lord and Taylor in San Diego. They needed a jumper with a rig to stand next to some great looking girls. That job turned out to be my first real job right out of school. I still have the pictures in my Skydiving history book.

    I have been in or around the sport for 44 years now and because of people like you, I have loved every day.

    I wish you all the best during the event this month and on into the future.

    Thank you for giving me my kick-start into the working world

    Dennis Henley
    SCR-216. SOS-1201

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