Today, Military Free Fall is utilized in special operation combat missions worldwide. But how did it get started and when? To establish this, we must start with the story of Jacques Andre Istel.

(Photograph of the sign that stands in front of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School’s Military Free Fall located at the Yuma Proving Ground in western Arizona. Courtesy of the Author’s own collection.)

At age 91 years old, Mayor Jacques Andre Istel can be seen walking among the visitors in the small town of Felicity, California. There, he shares the history of the world which has and is being recorded in granite (Museum of History in Granite at the official “Center of the World.”)

(Photograph of Jacques Andre Istel with his wife Felicia celebrating his 91st Birthday in January 2020.)

The place is an amazing location to visit in the desert area of southeastern California just outside of Yuma, Arizona. Felicity was founded by Mayor Istel and named after his amazing wife Felicia. Here, visitors from around the world stand in a pyramid where a spot on the floor is marked as the the “Center of the World” and receive a signed certificate to commemorate the occasion. The place is so unique that it is visited by dignitaries from around the world every year.

(Photograph of Felicity, California. Courtesy of the Museum of History in Granite.)

But, the founding of “Felicity,” the “Center of the World,” the “Hall of Fame of Parachuting,” and other significant accomplishments does not even touch the surface of who Jacques Andre Istel is. In this article, we highlight Jacques Andre Istel as the founder of Military Free Fall (HALO).

(Photograph of the history of sport parachute recorded in granite located in Felicity, California. Courtesy of the Author’s own collection.)

First, there are few people listed in the first few paragraphs of the United States Army Military Free Fall (MFF) manual. But, there he is, Jacques Andre Istel, being listed as a founding father. Few people know this, and perhaps this article will shed some light whereby special operators attending the MFF along with others may be motivated to meet this legend at Felicity.

(Copy of FM 31-19 in development for Military Free Fall. Within this manual, Mr. Istel is listed as a founder of MFF.)

Born in Paris, France in 1929, his mother and father were prominent people. In fact, his father represented the de Gaulle government at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944 (the conference established the International Monetary Fund). Having fled France to America to escape German occupation, Jacques attended Stony Brook and then Princeton University. Joining the United States Marine Corps, he commissioned as an officer and gained valuable experiences and contacts in the military ranks (he would later retire honorably at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel).

During this time, Jacques discovered parachuting and worked to make it a sport in America. He would establish the first sport parachute school and center (Orange Sport Parachuting Center.) which was the start of parachuting clubs and centers across the United States. He also established the regulations for parachuting with the Civil Aeronautics Administration, having testified to Congress. In 1956, Jacques led the first US Team to the World Championships that finally gained the attention of sport parachuting.

(Courtesy of Jacques Andre Istel)
(Courtesy of Jacques Andre Istel)

During these early days, parachuting was deemed hazardous by the military with MFF out of the question. As Jacques developed a safe parachute system, he conducted demonstrations to prove MFF was safe and beneficial to the military for stealth insertions. He also recommended to the Marine Corps the parachute insertion techniques for reconnaissance called “HALO” or “High Altitude, Low Opening.”

In 1957, his influence would finally result in the first MFF (HALO) class to whom he trained under contract by his company, Parachutes, Inc. (partnered with Lee Sanborn). His students were also the first Army Parachute Team, the Golden Knights. Jacques’ last jump was in 1972.

(Golden Knights jump start the Miramar Airshow 2019. Courtesy of Author’s own collection.)
(Photograph Courtesy of Jacques Andre Istel)

Since 1985, he has been leading his vision for Felicity, recording history. If you get a chance, stop by and say “hi” to this legend.

(Photograph of the founder of Military Free Fall, Jacques Andre Istel, with the Author in front of a MFF poster at the Yuma Proving Ground’s Heritage Center. Courtesy of the Author’s own collection.)
(Photograph of the Author preparing for a PLF after a HALO jump.)

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