As Pvt. Robert C. Hillman prepared to jump from a C-47 plane into enemy territory, he was confident in the quality of his parachute. It was the early-morning hours of June 6, 1944, at the beginning of D-Day, the largest seaborne invasion in history. Hillman, a Manchester native, was a member of the storied 101st Airborne Division, whose members were charged with dropping behind enemy lines and securing strategic positions in advance of the amphibious assault on the Normandy beaches.
Hillman was one of 13,000 American paratroopers who would jump into Normandy. Like many others, he would do so using a parachute manufactured by Manchester’s Pioneer Parachute Co. The innovative company developed the first nylon parachute and supplied thousands of them to Allied soldiers throughout the war. As it turns out, Hillman had a personal connection both to the company and his specific parachute. According to connecticuthistory.org, when an NBC war correspondent riding in the same plane as Hillman asked him why he was so confident in his parachute, Hillman responded, “Because my mother works for the Pioneer Parachute Co., and her initials are on my chute!”
The Pioneer Parachute Co. traces its roots to 1838 when five brothers formed the Cheney Brothers silk mill in Manchester. By 1920 it was the largest silk mill in the U.S., employing 4,700 workers.
Initially the company supplied silk to various parachute manufacturers, but established the Pioneer Parachute Co. in 1938 to begin manufacturing its own chutes. That same year DuPont announced its invention of nylon, debuting the material in women’s stockings at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Innovators at Pioneer Parachute were among the first to realize the new material had the potential for far more than garments. They saw that, for parachutes, it could potentially serve as an alternative to silk, which was becoming more difficult to obtain from Asia.
“Pioneer experimented with characteristics such as strength, elasticity, sewability, hysteresis [rebound after being stretched], interstices [necessary microscopic openings in the weave],” explains Jim Reuter, who worked for Pioneer for 53 years and became the company’s unofficial historian before retiring in 2017. “Nylon parachutes were then manufactured by Pioneer and tested with dummy payloads. These tests established inflation characteristics and verified the strength of a nylon parachute, but controllability and aerodynamic behavior during descent could only be tested by an experienced parachutist.”
In June 1942, the job of giving the nylon parachute its most significant test fell to a 24-year-old woman named Adeline Gray. The Oxford resident had already made more than 30 jumps since her first one at age 19. To test the nylon chute, she jumped from a height of 2,500 feet over Brainard Field in Hartford.
Her jump went off without a hitch and was witnessed by Army officials. The achievement earned her fame in her day: She promoted Camel cigarettes and was featured in True Comics. It also paved the way for Pioneer to become the world’s leading producer of nylon parachutes by 1942. In the height of the war years, the company employed nearly 3,000 people who worked in multiple shifts to keep up with demand, and churned out 300 parachutes a day. Many of these parachutes were used on D-Day by soldiers, and parachutes were also utilized to safely land supplies during air drops.
After the war, Pioneer moved to the aerospace arena and developed parachutes for many of NASA’s crafts, including for the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft and the parachute systems to soft-land the Space Shuttle’s 125,000-pound boosters.
The company changed ownership over the years and moved from Manchester to a smaller facility in South Windsor, which currently employs about 40 people. The main production plant is now in Mississippi; however, the company remains at the forefront of parachute manufacturing. “Nearly all of the parachutes now littering the surface of Mars were designed and fabricated in South Windsor,” Reuter says.
As for D-Day, that battle was ultimately won thanks to soldiers like Hillman who parachuted into occupied France. But the victory was also thanks to those on the homefront: women like Gray, whose bravery helped make nylon parachutes a reality, and Hillman’s mom, whose work in the factory in Connecticut helped make sure boys like her son, who were jumping out of airplanes to defend their country, would float safely to the ground.