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Despite its small size, Belgium has quite a few notable persons in the skydiving sports. One of these is Jos De Visscher, a veteran who has just clocked his 60th year in parachuting and skydiving. When he began jumping there were no reserves! Over this period of time he has seen the sports evolve from a purely military application, to an accessible pastime, and he has pressed his mark on the skydiving scene in Belgium.
His time on the board of Oud-turnhout is legendary. Together with his wife Frieda and the rest of the group he was a strong management team, and had a big influence on how skydiving organizations evolved in Belgium. Under Jos's guidance, we saw the birth of “Skydive Flanders” (PCV), now one of the larger skydiving clubs in Europe, operating on three dropzones, owning 2 Supervans and another Cessna Grand Caravan, and doing close to 50,000 jumps a year while operating only during weekends and holidays. Unusually, this club is also mostly volunteer-run, and is legally owned by its members.
Jos, 60 years of skydiving is a very long time. How did you start skydiving?
I joined the Belgian military paratroopers in 1955 at the age of 19. I did my first jumps from a balloon and a C‑119, with a Type-X parachute designed by the English. In 1956, I jumped into Congo, an area in turmoil at the time as they were progressing towards independence. One of those jumps was part of a survival training, where we needed to travel 200 km through the wilderness, without rations. I was carrying an FN sniper rifle, but when I lowered my gear bag to prepare for landing, the attachment bridle snapped and the gun fell and was destroyed. The officers felt that was my fault, and made me pay for the gun from my soldier's pay. My 18th jump was my last in active duty, a drop with 160 men into Ilgili.
Did you continue jumping after you left the military?
Yes. In the seventies, there was the option for veterans to jump from the Hercules C‑130 one weekend a month. This was part of the “Amical”, the “Friends of the Army” services. These were also the first jumps I did carrying a reserve, which we didn't have yet during my time at the army. I never received formal training on how to use these belly reserves; they simply referred me to my friends to ask how operate them. At this time, the army had also integrated freefall into their program; during my active duty only static line was ever used. Overall, I did about 50 jumps during this period.
When did you do your first jump as a civilian?
At the age of 43, I went to the DZ in Oud-turnhout, a club that remains famous in Belgium even if it is now closed. They were operating a leased Cessna-185, and we were jumping canopies such as a double-L, a Papillon, and PC (ParaCommando). I achieved my instructor status for static line courses, and spend a lot of time helping out in the club. Eventually, I joined the board of the club, where I evolved to be the board chairman, together with my wife, Frieda, as the treasurer.
Tell us about the growth of Oud-turnhout and how that became PCV
That club grew over a long period of time, in response to the growing popularity of skydiving. The Cessna 185 airplane DZ Oud-turnhout originally operated was leased, but we bought off the lease, and got a Cessna 206 in ownership. As the club grew and more jumps were done, we expanded by buying a second hand Pilatus Porter: the OO-FWJ. To buy this plane, I traveled to Switzerland with Frieda to check out a number of planes. I took some personal financial risk there by putting up a guarantee for this buy. This was an unusual construction that was nonetheless necessary to appease those that doubted the rapid expansion of the club.
After that, skydiving at Oud-turnhout boomed, and we bought more Pilatus Porters over the years that followed: the OO-JDV and the OO-PCV. I was personally involved in buying these planes, traveling to Switzerland with Frieda to check and compare the available planes. One of the planes we bought new at the factory, and payed cash on the spot, much to the surprise of the Pilatus salesmen!
The club continued growing in the late nineties and early 2000s, when five clubs eventually merged: Oud-turnhout, Zoersel, Schaffen, Zwartberg and Moorsele. These were turbulent times, as the merger was not always obvious. DZ Oud-turnhout was closed under pressure of the local residents after the nearby village expanded towards our airfield. DZ Zoersel also closed. Some clubs were financially sound, others a bit less so. Also, they all had their own culture and way of working, while we strived to have a more homogeneous approach, such as allowing people to jump on all DZs with the same jump tickets. The transition was also marred by the crash of the OO-FWJ in Moorsele in 2000, where several people got injured. It was a lot of work, but the club did evolve to a strong organization. The sharing of resources makes it more resilient, and helps to organize bigger events. An example is the PCV Boogie each year, where volunteers from all DZs step up to help out and run this large boogie that hosts around 600 skydivers. Since 2000, the club has slowly sold its Pilatus Porters, and migrated to Cessna Grand Caravan airplanes and nowadays Supervans. The last few years, I am no longer member of the board, but the club continues to do very well.
Many clubs are owned by a person or company, or have financial constructs (eg, renting a plane) that drains resources. One of the original contract proposals for the use of the Oud-turnhout airfield was made out to my name. I declined this and insisted that the contract be made out to the club itself. This led to a non-profit skydiving organization, owned by the members, flying its own planes, and financially secure because of it.
How about skydiving? Over the course of these 60 years, you've surely seen a lot and done quite a number of special dives?
I have currently accumulated over 8,800 jumps, jumping mostly in Belgium but traveling a lot abroad as well. Thailand, Malaysia, the Vichy boogies, Germany, England… you name it, I've jumped there. When the DZ at Empuriabrava was founded, I was even on the very first load of the DZ, with 5 skydivers in the plane: myself and a German 4-way team. I've gone back there many times, eg, for the Christmas boogie. I've participated in quite a number of bigways as well, such as the PCV club records, the 80-way Belgian record, and the 126-way world record in Koksijde. I have also joined events run by well-known organizers such as Graig Girard, Eliana Rodriguez, Kate Cooper..
I held an instructor rating for static and for AFF, though I have never done tandem. To earn my AFF rating, I joined a course run by Mike Johnson back in 1994, when AFF was first introduced in Europe. I did AFF until last year, but at age 80 I had to give up the rating, as it proved difficult for the federation, e.g. insurance-wise. I still jump regularly, doing about 150 jumps a year, mostly RW with my friends.
For an octogenarian, you are remarkably spry and fit. What is your secret?
I was born in September 1935, so I'm 81 years old now. I've always taken good care of myself: running, swimming, stretching. I've also always remained very active; I'm not one to sit about idly.
What gear do you jump?
I have a lot of jumps on a Stiletto, but nowadays I jump a Pulse 150, and have a 150sqft reserve.
Thank you for the interview, Jos. You've had an impressive career in skydiving, both in the air and on the ground. I hope to be able to keep jumping with you for a long time still. Invite me for your 9,000th jump!