Sport Parachute Club at Downsville, Maryland
1965 - 1980
 “For once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”
 Leonardo da Vinci
It was the long, hot summer of 1965; President Lyndon Johnson continued his war in Vietnam while State Troopers used tear gas on demonstrators in Selma, Alabama. The Beatles and Rolling Stones ruled, and the City of St Louis attached the capstone to the Gateway Arch. And in Williamsport, Maryland, a small single-prop airplane took off from the private landing strip on the Miller farm at Van Lear just north of Williamsport and let fly the first recreational skydivers over the town. 
WWI introduced jumping out of an airplane with a parachute. However, the young men being tossed from a plane with a parachute did not consider this a recreational sport. Not until the mid-1950s did anyone consider it a sport. Later, the Vietnam War introduced many young men to a parachute, whether they liked it or not. By the late-1960s, it was a sport with a huge future.​​​​​​​
The three local men organized the Southern Cross Skydiving Club: Robert "Bob" Dawson (1936-1993) of 34 N. Vermont Street, Williamsport, and a veteran of the US Army, Clarence Hemp "Bud" Miller, Jr. (1935-1981) of Hagerstown, and Herman M. Bartles (1925-2013) of Roessner Avenue in Halfway, also a US Army Veteran employed by Fairchild Aircraft and the commander of the Hagerstown Cadet Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol. 

Robert "Bob" Dawson, one of the founders of the Southern Cross Sport Parachute Club

Events at Van Lear were short-lived, and the group soon found more rural accommodations by leasing 12 acres of the 500-acre Robert Coffman farm in nearby Downsville.​​​​​​​

The dropzone and runway on the Robert Coffman in Downsville

At just about 3,500 feet in length, the Coffman pasture field was long, straight, and relatively flat, an ideal rural runway for a single-engine plane to take off and land.  
In the mid-1960s, Downsville had perhaps 40 houses, two churches, two general stores, and a four-way stop sign with a phone booth. More importantly, Downsville was surrounded by farms with hundreds of acres of pasture and cropland.

As sport parachute clubs were cropping up across the nation, the Southern Cross Sport Parachute Club at Downsville, nicknamed the "Skunk Patrol," was the only one of its kind in the Western Maryland Valley. It affiliated itself with the U.S. Parachutist Association and the Central Atlantic Sport Parachutist Association, attracting "jumpers" from across the mid-Atlantic region. In September 1968, Dawson, Miller, and Bartles officially incorporated their weekend sport into the Southern Cross Sport Parachute Club, Inc.
Training and safety were paramount in this relatively new, somewhat dangerous sport. Bob Dawson was the "Jump Master," and Gil Wieland, owner of the Tortuga Restaurant in Hagerstown, came on board as a training officer. Jumpers had to be at least 16 years old and made their first several jumps on a "static line."  ​​​​​​​
As the club grew, members introduced the sport to enthusiastic crowds with exhibitions in the tri-state region. At the Potomac Fish & Game Club from 1966 through the mid 1970s, thousands watched club members compete to land in an intertube floating on the Potomac River. In 1973, Bob Dawson came within 6" of the target, while Gil Wieland, determined not to miss the event, wrapped his broken leg cast in a plastic bag and competed. Another jumper, unfortunately, was seen suspended from the trees on the West Virginia side of the river.  

Bernie Moleski coming in for a landing at the 1973 Mack Truck Company Picnic. The newspaper reported over 15,000 attended the event.

The Southern Cross Sport Parachute Club at Downsville also hosted numerous highly competitive meets. In October 1969, the Central Atlantic Sport Parachute Association, with Army and Navy parachute team members, made over 500 jumps in one weekend.  

Special airshows and Stunt flyers entertained the public at no charge. 
Fueled by their shared passion, students from the University of Maryland formed their own skydiving club at Southern Cross with members in 1973. They spent weekends competing and enjoying the sport, a testament to their camaraderie and enthusiasm. Washington University students soon followed suit, with a number of equally enthusiastic students and jumpmasters. But as larger air formations became popular, these college clubs sought larger dropzones with larger aircraft.  
Southern Cross also attracted experienced jumpers from Australia, who visited Downsville on their tour of the United States checking out the various dropzones.
Much to their entertainment, in 1974, Sandra Allen, noted by the Guinness Book of World Records as the tallest woman in the world at 7'5", heard about the small dropzone and spent several hours with jumpers.
While there were plenty of skydiving exhibitions, there were also plenty of accidents. Twenty-four-year-old Linda Shaw of Adelphi, Maryland, drifted off course and fell through two 12,000-volt utility wires on her first jump but managed to escape with only a burned arm. Potomac Edison got power back to Downsville about three hours later. 
James Moats of Williamsport was not so lucky, fracturing both his leg and spine when his main chute failed to open. 
In September 1972, pilot Rudolph Krumpe crash-landed the jump plane on the runway. Gil Wieland, jumpmaster, suffered a broken leg and cuts, while the pilot and the other three occupants of the plane, Paul Coleman, Harry Corsetti, and Bernie Moleski, walked away with only minor bruises. The FAA determined the airplane was overloaded.

There were also plenty of great times and comradery at Southern Cross. Lots of local young men jumped, and a few women. But mostly, it was a young man's sport. 

L-R Top Bernie Moleski, Jim Lucas, Keith Schaffer, Larry Hewitt. L-R Bottom Wes Shields, John Bordley, 

Jon Jakeway comes in for a landing at SC

Bernie Moleski

Gil Wieland, Kent Schreiber, unknown, unknown in the hanger at Downsville

Karen Davis at SC

Neil Evangelista in an Invader MK11 over Downsville

Late, 1960s - Bob Dawson, Jon Jakeway, unknown, at Downsville. Jakeway was wounded in Vietnam. After his discharge, he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division and joined the XVIII Airborne Corps Parachute Team.

Some images of Jon Jakeway at Downsville
Members kept a log of their jumps, proudly wore their member patches, and, in general, had a great time. 

Local jumper Jim Lucas is on the cover of Parachutist magazine. Lucas of Williamsport, MD, flies some unusual Canopy RW at the Southern Cross drop zone in Downsville, MD. Jim's "extra" canopy belongs to Jose Rodriguez of Crofton, MD  , who intentionally cutaway after forming a biplane canopy hookup with Jim. Playing it smart and safe, Jose wore an extra reserve for this jump.


Reaction to the sport parachute club in Downsville was divided. For most locals, this was an exhilarating and thrilling event, perhaps the most exciting thing to happen in the town. The weekend skies were abuzz with airplanes, parachutes gracefully floating down, and spectators lining the Downsville Pike. Young men and women, full of daring, flocked to this new sport. However, a few other locals were not as enthused. They found their summer weekends disrupted by low-flying aircraft, rookie jumpers missing the landing site and plowing through their vegetable patches. Occasionally, a parachute would become entangled in power lines, causing the town to lose power. But it was the 1960s; no one had air conditioning anyway.  
Fools jumping out of an airplane was nonsense, noisy, and a weekend nuisance. Especially for Walter Metz, a lovely, older gentleman whose pride was his summer garden. Unfortunately, Mr. Metz's garden was repeatedly the landing spot for many rookie jumpers. "I've been fighting them ever since." said Metz. "One of those chutists drifted across my potatoes last Sunday, pulling up some with his feet and then plopping down into more." Bob Dawson called Metz the "town grouch." "Many students freeze on their first jumps and land in yards," admitted Dawson. Yet power lines were knocked down with accompanying power outages, broken tree limbs, the noise from low-flying airplanes, and minor property damage. Angry neighbors petitioned county officials to do something.
But not all the locals were angry; most enjoyed the activity from the skies. Local farmer James Mellott acknowledged that he enjoyed watching the jumping, and his 89-year-old father (1974), who lives just north of the runway, really enjoys the activity. Downsville farmer Lawrence Izer liked the sport so well that he and his 21-year-old daughter jumped several times. "In any sport, there are always a few people who are thoughtless," Izer said. Larry Shank, president and spokesman for the Downsville Ruritan Club members, voiced his support for the parachute club and "We hope they will stay."
Eventually, the parachute club agreed not to fly until after Sunday church services concluded and to enforce restitution for property damage. 

Karen Davis at SC

Jamie Coffman was only a child when the Southern Cross Parachute Club organized on his father's 500-acre farm in Downsville. Shortly after his 16th birthday he made his first static line jump. He later joined the prestigious U.S. Parachute Army Team, also known as the "Golden Knights."

James S. Coffman (kneeling far left 2nd row) member of the US Army Golden Knights Parachute Team.

In the spring of 1975, former DC firefighter George Kabeller purchased the Southern Cross Club. Kabeller and his girlfriend Betty "Blue Skies" Johnson continued in the sports business for five more years at Downsville. As the business grew and the demand for larger aircraft increased, the 3,500-foot grass runway at Downsville could not accommodate larger aircraft. Kabeller moved the Southern Cross to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in March 1980. 
George and Betty moved to Florida in 1984  where they built the Zephyrhills Parachute Center. Eleven years later, they purchased the Florida Skydiving Center in Lake Wales, which Betty continued running on her own after their amicable divorce two years later. ​​​​​​​

DC airplane too large to land at Downsville, the club moved to Chambersburg, Pa. 

But for a few years, and never since then, has there been such happenings in Downsville. Thank you to all the many young men and women who participated in the sport. A special thank you to those locals folks, Bernie and Carol Moleski of Hagerstown, Dean and Terry Izer Gross of Downsville, and Jamie Scott Coffman of Downsville, who helped gather information for this article.
Blue Skies ahead. 

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