Smitty the Jumper
H. Truesdell Smith—known variously as "H. T. Smith", "Henry Truesdell Smith", "Harold Truesdell Smith", or "Daredevil Smitty" but best known as "Smitty the Jumper"—was an American exhibition parachutist and skydiver of the 1920s and 1930s—who made periodic returns to skydiving starting in the late 1950s, jumping in every subsequent decade until his death—becoming widely known as "the oldest living skydiver", a title he claimed until his death in 1995 at the age of 96.
Born in Salisbury, North Carolina, October 17, 1898, Smitty was born before the Wright brothers' famous "first flight," and grew up in shadow of emerging aviation. He developed a desire to parachute, in an era when many jumpers, in primitive gear, often didn't survive their first attempt. Smitty vowed he'd do it, though.
Exhibition parachute jumping
In 1928, at age 30—with a home-made parachute crafted from (by varying accounts) "cheap silk" or "cotton" or from J.C. Penney bedsheets—Smitty leaped from a plane piloted by Andy Burke, near Wichita Falls, Texas, and parachuted safely to earth—the first of over 200 jumps to come, including an airshow career, two revivals of his jumping career, and ultimately national fame in when aging into his 80s and 90s.
Within days of his first jump, Smitty was jumping again, for an audience, collecting pay for the effort. While his original career was as a sign-painter, he soon began finding money in exhibition parachuting. Borrowing gear from others until 1934, he eventually was given an old parachute, with hemp lines, and fashioned additional rigging and harness for it from leather and a Ford Model A (some say "Model T") steering wheel.
For another decade, Smitty would continue jumping in barnstorming exhibitions—particularly in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas. His stunts included multiple-chute jumps (releasing himself from a parachute, falling, then opening another 'chute just before hitting the ground), wing-walking, and leaps from a moving automobile to an airplane. Many of Smitty's jumps were done with borrowed equipment, usually without a reserve chute. Discovering that payment was higher, the lower he opened his 'chute, he earned the nickname "tree-top Smitty."
By 1937, approximately age 40, after 204-205, jumps, Smitty's second wife—raising three children with him—persuaded him to give up jumping, and return to more profitable work as a sign-painter. His work ranged from multi-story signs painted on large buildings to painting nose art on aircraft—including the name and bird emblem on TV-hero Sky King's airplane Songbird. (Early in his life, he also became a dance instructor, later noting he'd been teaching dancing since the 1920s).
Return to jumping
However, in the late 1950s, nearing age 60, Smitty returned to the airshow circuit. His elderly jumping career was spotted with accidents and near-death experiences that, nevertheless, failed to kill him:
- In 1960 (age 61), piloted by Wichita professional pilot U.L."Rip" Gooch, he made jumps at the National Airshow In Wichita, Kansas, opening his chute at the low altitude of 1500 feet. One jump, however, nearly cost him his life as he blacked out on exiting the plane—waking up just in time to open the chute at treetop level.
- In 1972 (age 73–74), he suffered a broken leg in jump near Maize, Kansas, just west of Wichita, attempting to land near a group of "girls", who wound up carrying him back to the drop zone. With ice packs on his broken leg, he remained there, partying into the night, waiting till the next day to go to the hospital.
- In August 1974 (age 75), in Lincoln, Nebraska, jumping for the 211th time, he momentarily blacked out, again, and awoke just in time to see he was falling into a pit of black water at the city dump. Maneuvering quickly, he avoided the water, but struck an embankment, breaking leg, hip, and pelvis (some accounts say both legs).
That didn't end Smitty's energy or notoriety, though. In 1980, at age 81, American TV host Johnny Carson invited him on the NBC-TV Tonight Show for an appearance, billed as "The World's Oldest Skydiver". For his 82nd birthday, he chose to "boogie" at a banquet and dance.
Jumping with help
Though no longer willing to subject his body to the risks of solo jumping, Smitty's career took a rebound with the 1982 development of the "tandem-jump" harness—a device which allows one skydiver to attach their harness to the back of another skydiver's harness, so that an able skydiver can assist the jump of a less-qualified or less able-bodied skydiver—under one very big parachute.
On December 15, 1985 (age 88), Smitty made his 216th parachute jump at Perris Valley, California, extending a record that he had set two years before, when claiming the title "World's Oldest Sky Diver". The jump also set a world record for the oldest father-son skydiving team, with Smitty's son, Wichita businessman Jerry Smith (age 54 / 56), who had only jumped for the first time the day before.
Also at Perris Valley, with Don Balch (Perris Valley Sky Diving Society), Smitty made a tandem jump from 13,000 feet, and during their 8,000-foot free-fall, Smitty and Balch, with seven other skydivers from the Coors World Champion Sky Diving Team, joined arms to form an eight-sided, falling star formation, before breaking apart, opening their parachutes, and landing on target.
Over a five-year period, Smitty made 15 tandem jumps.
Social and Post-Career Life
Smitty was a "cult figure" in skydiving circles, a celebrity at gatherings of parachutists, particularly the U.S. National Parachuting Championships, where the "outgoing and gregarious" Smitty often served as "unofficial greeter." Known for enthusiastic (and well-received) flirtations with much younger women, he once got a kiss from the reigning Miss Universe.
A long-time resident of the "Air Capital City," Wichita, Kansas (home also to son Jerry), in later life, Smitty lived in a trailer decorated as a museum of his career, filled with skydiving memorabilia. Among these was the body cast from his ill-fated jump in Lincoln, labeled with a sign: "Warning to all jumpers - quit before the age of 76." To the detriment of his hearing, he hung out at Wichita's raucous north-end "Coyote Club"—best known for bikers, beer and blues bands, and loud rock music—dancing for hours a week well into his 80s.
At the end of his life—the last few years spent in a Wichita nursing home—he reportedly only expressed one regret: the ill-fated crash-landing in the Lincoln dump, which ended his solo skydiving career at 75. At age 96, Smitty died June 7, 1995, at his nursing home in Wichita. At his funeral, as he had hoped, he was laid to rest in his jumpsuit as a group of planes flew overhead, and a flock of skydivers parachuted from the planes to his graveside, one trailing the American flag.
- Powell, Chuck, "Remembering Smitty", article photocopied from unknown magazine (possibly The Wichitan) dated October 1995, on the website Skydive Kansas, as downloaded November 17, 2014
- Garrity John, The Vault: "Things Have A Way Of Falling Into Place For A Jaunty Octogenarian", Originally posted April 21, 1986, Sports Illustrated, as downloaded November 17, 2014
- U.L. Gooch, pilot, Letter: "Smitty the Jumper", Flying Magazine, May 1960, page 8
- Billam, Thomas D., United Press International (UPI), Wichita, Kansas, "Skydiver for 47 years: 'Smitty the Jumper' surrounded by past", May 13, 1979, Salina Journal, (Salina, Kansas), p. 6.
- Sahagun, Louis, Times Staff Writer, "'Stand Me Up!' -- And 87-Year-Old Makes 216th Parachute Jump", December 16, 1985, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, California
- "Senior Skydiver", December 17, 1985, The Evening News, (PHOTO & CAPTION: showing Smitty in Evel Knevil costume, goggles on, with enthusiastic throng; note about his 216th parachute jump, record and history.)
- Associated Press (AP Laserphoto), "87-Year-Old Skydiver", December 17, 1985, Cumberland Evening Times, (PHOTO & CAPTION, noting "Smitty holds the record" as "the world's oldest jumper.")
- Associated Press (Wichita), "Veteran skydiver dies at age 96", June 9, 1995, Salina Journal, Salina, Kansas, page A3
- "Enough," Friday, August 30, 1974, p.2, Des Moines Register, Des Moines, Iowa; article noting Smitty's age, previous injuries and "finally giving up" following Lincoln jump injury.
- United Press International (UPI - Wichita), "Smitty the Jumper just loves to boogie," Sunday, Oct. 19, 1980, Hutchinson News, (Hutchinson, Kansas), p.58, on NewspaperArchive.com
- Associated Press, "Parachute enthusiast dies at 96," June 8, 1995, Ottawa Herald, (Ottawa, Kansas), on NewspaperArchive.com
- "Smitty the Jumper to make 216th leap today; the first was in 1928", San Bernardino Sun (Inland Empire section), Sunday, December 15, 1985, p. 37 (B7?), et seq.(see OCR text window on this page for scanned text from page photo)
- Brooks, Richard (staff writer), "Smitty does it! Makes 216th jump" (referencing event Sunday, December 15, 1985, with photo), San Bernardino Sun, December 16, 1985, San Bernardino, California, on Newspapers.com (NOTE: See "OCR Text" window containing text scanned from this photo of newspaper page).
- O'Toole, Kathy, "Parachute club takes in Florida sun -- and dives," (Z Hills Turkey Chute), The Daily Collegian, Dec. 7, 1976, page 11
- Peale, Norman Vincent (prominent American inspirational orator), Dr. Norman Vincent Peale on the American character, audiobook on cassette tape, 1978, New York: Infocom Broadcast Services, (as cited in WorldCat.org) ("Henry Truesdell Smith" (Smitty the Jumper) is one of the 30 Americans mentioned in this 1970s tape recording, sold to the public.
- Smith, H. Truesdell ("Smitty the Jumper"), et al., "Marcellus M. Murdock Papers", Special Collections Dept., Ablah Library, Wichita State University, which include a copy of "Smitty": His Exploits of Early Day Jumping by Smitty the Jumper. (Murdock was the longtime publisher of the Wichita Eagle, the city's leading newspaper, and a major participant in aviation in the "Air Capital City.")
- U.S. Parachute Association, "About Skydiving: Skydiving History,", website
- Viletto. Moe, "Throwback Thursday – Smitty", Blue Skies Magazine, BlueSkiesMag.com (website for parachutists' magazine), June 19, 2014 (two color photos of Smitty in old age, with early gear, and with fellow parachutist).
- Discussion board: "Smitty the Jumper" on Dropzone.com. (Three-page discussion of Smitty by fellow jumpers; contains several photos of him).
- Obituary: "Smith, Gerald T. 'Jerry'" (d. Sep. 23, 2003) (Smitty's son, referenced in the article), on GenealogyTrails.com,, from the Wichita Eagle, Sep. 26, 2003, as submitted by Lori DeWinkler.