Imagine you’re W.A. Beaty, a banker by trade. It’s a lovely Sunday in September 1928, and after a long week of labor, you head over to a field on Timmonsville Highway to witness this “flying circus” firsthand, see what all the fuss is about. As you approach the crowd of almost 2000 souls, you notice that every eye is cast heavenward; every face is frozen with a mixture of delight and awe at the spectacle above. You join the crowd, crane your neck like the others, and watch as airplanes buzz by low and fast, doing loops and side slips and tailspins. You applaud. You think: Isn’t it amazing what these pilots are able to do with those machines? We’ve come a long way since the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in ’03. The wing walkers come next, death-defying dare devils who step out onto the wings of the plane while it soars through the air. The crowd goes crazy, and you can’t help but join in the merriment. What drives folks to want to do this?, you wonder.
“The parachute jumpers are next,” says a little boy nearby, and you, too, feel a twinge of boyish excitement. Your pulse races as a plane piloted by R. L. Stephens appears in the clear blue sky. After a tailspin or two, the plane sharply descends to around 2000 feet, leaving thick plumes of exhaust in its wake. You squint into the sunlight, your heart thumping wildly. There he is! You see him clearly, this “Jumping Jack” McElveen, parachutist. He’s preparing to jump, and you whisper a prayer for him, asking the Good Lord to get this boy down in one piece. Silly, you know, to pray for such a thing. After all, you’d heard McElveen, a 23-year old hotshot from Atlanta, had just broken an altitude record in parachute jumping for the southeast at Candler Field a few weeks prior. Man’s a professional, you remind yourself as you remove your hat and mop sweat from your brow. It’s the Sabbath! Just enjoy the show!
The crowd cheers as McElveen leaps from the plane. You hold your breath and turn away for a split second, long enough for the crowd to collectively gasp, and before you even look back up into that Robin’s egg blue sky, you know something is wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong. . .
W.A. Beaty, as quoted in The Morning News on September 11,1928: I saw him jump and expecting the parachute to open immediately turned my eyes away for a split second. When I looked again the parachute was not attached to the man’s body, and he was hurtling through the air. In a half a second, he himself seemed to realize his parachute had failed him. He threw out his arms and legs like a swimmer struggling in the water, as though he were trying to grasp something to save himself. On and on the body came with arms and legs outstretched, until it struck the ground in that position.
On Sunday, September 9, 1928, Jack McElveen, a 23-year old from Atlanta, fell to his death in a field off Timmonsville Highway. McElveen was an accomplished parachutist performing with a flying circus that weekend, and it was determined that he “came to his death through accidental means.” Responsible for his own parachute, he neglected to snap one of the harnesses into place before jumping, and when he leaped out of the airplane, the remaining strap snapped.
On a personal note, I am afraid of flying, so much so that I skip my family’s yearly trip to Los Angeles to visit with my sisters-in-law, who I’m actually quite fond of. It is difficult for me to imagine the amount of courage it must have taken for men and women like Jack McElveen to go up in those airplanes let alone jump out of them. His was a short life, but one, I must believe, lived to the fullest. Here’s to “Jumping Jack.”