Lewis “Lew” Sanborn, D-1, has been skydiving for 67 years. He and Jacques André Istel, D-2, established sport skydiving in the United States in the 1950s. Sanborn started jumping with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and later became a member of the U.S. Parachute Team, master rigger, private and commercial pilot, instructor, national judge and world-record holder. He devised a technique for freefall photography and shot a cover photo for Sports Illustrated. In 1960, he was even nominated for an Academy Award for filming the skydiving documentary “A Sport is Born.” In 1972, USPA honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award “for originating safe and reliable parachuting equipment and pioneering work in freefall photography.” In 2000, Istel inducted him into the Hall of Fame of Parachuting in Felicity, California. In 2001, the Golden Knights made him an honorary member, and in 2010, the International Skydiving Museum inducted him into its Hall of Fame.
Birthplace: Cleveland, Ohio
Marital Status: Married to Jacky (she passed away January 22, 2015)
Children: Two sons, five grandchildren and six great grandchildren
Occupation: Retired carpenter
Education: Chardon High School, graduated as an honor-roll student. Graduated from the Army’s infantry school, basic airborne course and chemical corps school. Graduated first in class at construction apprenticeship school.
Military Service: Enlisted in the Army on August 14, 1948, and was honorably discharged in 1952 as a sergeant first class.
Aviation Career: Started flight training in 1958. By 1967, earned private and commercial, instrument, multi-engine, seaplane and glider pilot ratings. Piloted at the U.S. National Parachuting Championships and other skydiving events between 1967 and 1973. Have 2,300-plus hours of flight time.
Pre-Jump Superstitions: Use a parachute, unlike Luke Aikins. (Luke is a nice guy; I met him at Skydive Arizona in Eloy for the International Skydiving Museum Hall of Fame event. He gave a nice presentation.)
Jump Philosophy: Get good training and have a good attitude.
Sponsors: Flight Concepts International and Sun Path Products
Container: Sun Path Javelin Odyssey
Main Canopy: Flight Concepts Startrac 285
Reserve Canopy: Flight Concepts Fury 220
AAD: Airtec CYPRES
Home Drop Zone: Mid-America Sport Parachute Club
First Jump: A static-line jump on April 18, 1949, at Fort Benning, Georgia
Licenses: A-1, B-11, C-19, D-1
Records: First person to record a front loop and back loop in freefall.
Member of the third pair to record a baton pass in freefall (on July 18, 1958, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with Jim Pearson)
Federation Aéronautique Internationale World Record for Largest Canopy Formation Skydive (16-way, 1980)
Parachutists Over Phorty Society World Record for Largest Formation Skydive
Total Number of Jumps: 7,550 FS: 4,100
Accuracy: 1,250 Demos: 1,255 Camera: 335
Tandems: 325 CF: 225 Balloon: One BASE: One
Largest Completed Formation: 102-way
Total Number of Cutaways: Six
Most people don't know this about me: I am a product of parents and grandparents (on both sides of the family) who were farmers. I am a country boy.
Of all your skydives, which jump stands out the most?
Two of them. At the 1956 World Championships in Russia when I landed 2.56 centimeters from dead center, and on April 2, 1995, when I jumped from 35,200 feet over Z-hills [Skydive City Zephyrhills in Florida]. That was my 5,000th freefall jump.
What do you like most about the sport?
The adrenaline rush, which is still there after all these years. Being able to do something other people either don’t do or cannot. I like the thrill and the reward of skydiving. It is a cut above the rest.
Who was your skydiving mentor?
Joe Crane. He stopped jumping in 1937 and had 688 jumps. He was organizing skydiving activities for airshows well after that. He called me in 1953 and needed a fill-in for an aircraft show he was doing in Dayton, Ohio. I accepted and jumped for him then and several times after that.
Do you have any future skydiving goals?
Keep skydiving as long as I can. I have jumped in 49 states and would like to make a jump in Hawaii to make it all 50.
How did you become interested in skydiving?
I had been interested in flying since I was 5 years old. Then during World War II, I saw photographs of people jumping, and it really piqued my interest.
Do you have any suggestions for students?
Be safe. Don’t do what the experts do.
If you could do a fantasy 2-way with anybody, whom would it be with and where would it take place?
A 2-way with Joe Crane in Hawaii.
What has been your most embarrassing moment at a drop zone?
We made a nude skydive at a DZ’s closing. When we landed, the gals ran out to the landing area to see who was the biggest stud, and we all quickly covered ourselves with our parachutes.
Is there one jump you would like to do again?
A 102-way when we attempted a then-record 103-way. Would have been nice to complete that one; we had just one man out.
Do you have any suggestions for USPA?
Keep plugging away and promoting safety. The sport will continue as long as we regulate ourselves.
What has been your best skydiving moment?
Standing in Russia and representing the USA [as a member of the U.S. Parachute Team] during the cold war in 1956.
In the late 1950s, the U.S. Army hired you to train the very first freefall skydiving team, which later became the Golden Knights. How did you hold tryouts for the team?
This was Jacques Istel’s venture. He deserves all the credit. He contacted me after a meeting with high-ranking generals and said, “Lew, you are not going to believe it. We are going to start the first-ever freefall team for the military.”
What we did was select six initial candidates to be on the team and tested them. We jumped from 7,200 feet, and each candidate for the team was required to turn 360 degrees left then right (or right then left) in freefall, open at the proper altitude and land within 50 feet of the target.
Three or four jumpers had to be replaced from the initial six. Jacques and I would make a simple declaration of, “We are sorry, this man is not capable,” and he was released from the team and replaced. We ended up with six freefall people who could do the job.
What do you want the new generation to know about sport skydiving in the 1950s?
Parachuting was dangerous and sex was safe.
Explain Lew Sanborn in five words or fewer:
Soft-spoken, humble, proud, aware and caring.
Any closing comments?
I am the last of the good guys.