In December of 1999, a Sea Knight helicopter filled with marines was taking part in a training exercise in the Pacific Ocean near San Diego. The pilot maneuvered the twin-rotor chopper towards the deck of a refueling ship, as the marines, fully dressed in battle gear with heavy bulletproof vests and helmets, stood and prepared to descend onto the deck of the ship as if they were storming an enemy vessel.
The plan was for the helicopter to hover over the ship, and the troops would climb down ropes to the deck. But the chopper came in too low, and its rear wheel became tangled in a safety line that ran around the perimeter of the deck. The pilot tried to pull up and away from the ship, not knowing about the tangled wheel. The maneuver caused the aircraft to tip over and crash upside-down into the 3,600-foot-deep water of the Pacific Ocean.
The 17 men on board had just seconds to escape as the helicopter filled with water. Not only were the marines wearing heavy armor, but they were carrying sledgehammers, blowtorches, and other tools for cutting their way into a hostile ship. Amazingly, 10 of the men reached the surface still fully dressed in their combat gear and were rescued. Another marine managed to take off his equipment and also survived. But six men were dragged to the bottom of the sea.
Today, soldiers flying in helicopters over the ocean are able to wear lifejackets that are buoyant enough to keep them afloat even with burdensome equipment. The Marine Corps resolved that the San Diego tragedy should never be repeated and enlisted the help of a Mercer County company to solve the problem. Since 2001, the Switlik Parachute Company, headquartered on East State Street in Hamilton, has made more than 30,000 special life vests for armored marines, along with many other kinds of life rafts and survival equipment for the military and civilian companies.
In September of this year, another Marine helicopter crashed in the Gulf of Aden — this time all 25 aboard survived, though it is unclear if they were wearing Switlik life vests. However, Switlik products are quite widespread. If you fly on United Airlines, Swissair, Qantas, or Korean Airlines, odds are the inflatable lifejacket stowed under your seat cushion (which doubles as a flotation device in the event of a water landing) was made by Switlik. The company also makes flight suits, life rafts, and survival suits.
Switlik has been in the business of saving lives almost since it was founded in 1920 by Stanley Switlik, a Polish immigrant to Trenton. From the 1920s through the early ’80s, it made parachutes. The company culture reveres its parachute making past, and its logo still incorporates a parachute even though it hasn’t made one since 1981. Switlik made 70 percent of all American parachutes during World War II, which saved the lives of thousands of aviators. The company is still in the family, and is now on the fourth generation of Switlik owners, with Stanley Switlik II running the company and his daughter, Sarah Switlik, working in the marketing department.
Stanley Switlik arrived in Trenton and immediately began a series of business ventures, including a real estate office. In 1920 Switlik borrowed $500 from his brother and bought a failing canvas factory at 241 South Warren Street called the Canvas Leather Specialty Company that made many leather and canvas products including a small line of flying suits, masks, and belts for the nascent aviation market.
Switlik expanded the aviation part of the business and in 1925 decided to team up with his friend Floyd Smith, the inventor of the ripcord, to start making parachutes. Parachutes had been around since the early days of balloon aviation but were not usable from airplanes. The ripcord parachute developed by Smith and Switlik allowed the possibility of jumping from a plane during an emergency.
Switlik quickly became a major supplier of parachutes for the military and for civilians. Amelia Earhart was photographed in 1934 wearing a parachute with “SWITLIK” printed on its straps.
Switlik was responsible for another major innovation in parachute safety — the jump tower. Until the 1930s, parachutes were tested by throwing dummies out of planes. A plane trip was also required in order to learn how to use a parachute. Switlik pioneered the parachute tower, which allowed test dummies and humans to be hoisted by cables to a height of 146 feet and dropped at much less cost than flying an airplane. The first human test of the tower, located in Jackson, was made by 16-year-old Richard Switlik, heir to the family fortune.
Switlik’s heydey came with the arrival of World War II. The company geared up to meet military production goals. Not only did pilots need parachutes, but the Army was organizing entire divisions of soldiers who would parachute into enemy territory — paratroopers. They also needed specialized parachutes for different types of aviators. For example, the B-17 Flying Fortress bomber had a spherical gun turret tucked into its belly where a gunner would crouch in the fetal position. There was no room for a backpack in there, so ball turret gunners needed a compact parachute they could strap to their chests.
Switlik ramped up to the challenge, enlisting the help of other Trenton-area companies to make component parts, and opening secondary locations in Brazil to further increase production. Soon after Pearl Harbor, the company was making 2,500 parachutes per week. Switlik was one of the first recipients of the coveted Army-Navy “E” award for excellence in production. It was also among only a handful of plants in the entire country to earn the award every year America was engaged in the war.
Michael Dilts, CFO and something of an unofficial company historian for Switlik, says the parachute maker had about 800 workers in its factory during the war, and about 3,200 more people in other companies throughout the greater Trenton area were involved in supporting the company’s parachute making efforts.
Switlik contributed to the war effort in other ways besides manufacturing. Stanley Switlik sold his patents to the government for $1, allowing other manufacturers to use his pioneering designs. The Switlik models became the standard parachutes used by the military, Dilts says.
The Navy pilot George H.W. Bush, after being shot down over the Pacific, bailed out with a Switlik parachute.
Switlik was also involved in a top-secret project that was used during the Allied invasion of France in 1944 — the creation of fake paratroopers to confuse German defenders. The PD Paradummy was a four-foot-tall inflatable rubber fake paratrooper equipped with a Switlik parachute, a CO2 inflation bottle, an explosive noisemaker to simulate gunfire, and a block of TNT explosives. The “PD packs” were assembled at the Switlik factory under a veil of secrecy.
In August of 1944, when American troops attacked southern France following the D-Day landings, planes dropped thousands of the PD dummies behind Nazi lines. As each paradummy descended, its noisemaker went off to create the sound of gunfire all over the battlefield. When the dummy landed, the TNT charge would explode, leaving nothing for the Germans to find but a parachute — just like they would if a real paratrooper had landed and then run off. To the garrison below, it seemed like a real paratrooper invasion.
The deception sowed chaos behind the lines and helped divert German troops to respond to the fake attack rather than the real amphibious landings that were taking place at the same time.
During the war, Switlik’s Catarpillar Club gained thousands of members. The Caterpillar Club is an association of people who have parachuted out of an aircraft in an emergency situation. Members get a gold caterpillar-shaped pin and a certificate. Switlik and several other parachute manufacturers maintain caterpillar clubs, and Switlik’s continues to this day even though the company no longer makes parachutes.
To apply to the club, potential members must fill out a form and briefly write the story of their escape from death. These days, the application is done online, but filing cabinets in the back of Switlik’s East State Street factory house the records of most of the 14,000 Caterpillar Club members. Dilts, says the most recent application to the club was in late October, when a flight instructor and his student parachuted to safety from a disabled plane.
“A lot of these gentlemen take this very seriously,” he says. “We’ve had requests from family members of loved ones who had requested that they wanted to be buried with their caterpillar club pins.”
Dilts says after the war, Switlik continued to make parachutes. Its operations were scaled back dramatically, but the military still needed many kinds of parachutes during the Cold War era. For example, the most powerful nuclear bombs required parachutes — euphemistically called “special weapons” parachutes — to slow the descent of the bomb to give the bomber time to get away from the blast. Switlik also made parachutes designed to slow aircraft upon landing. Chutes made by Switlik in Trenton brought NASA space capsules safely back to Earth.
Dilts says Switlik began to switch away from parachutes during the Vietnam War. The widespread use of the helicopter to move troops meant that the days of the mass paratrooper assault were over.
But despite the lack of parachutes, Switlik’s products continue to save lives. There is no club for people who were saved from drowning by life rafts, but if there were, it would have some notable members. In 1989, Bill and Simone Butler’s sailboat was holed by a pod of pilot whales in the Pacific Ocean 1,200 miles west of Central America. They had enough time to radio a few un-answered “Maydays” and throw some supplies into their Switlik life raft before their sloop sank, leaving the couple to drift for 66 days before they were rescued by the Costa Rican coast guard.
Years after their ordeal, they visited the Switlik factory to thank, in person, the workers who made their life raft.
“They went around and shook everybody’s hand in the plant,” Dilts recalls. “They had closure to their odyssey, and it was very good for us and our employees. It was a reminder to our employees that this is what you do every day: you save lives. When they went back to work after that, they knew that this is what we do and why quality is our number one concern.”
Dilts takes pride in being in a business that saves lives. He grew up in Levittown, Pennsylvania. His father worked in a steel mill in Trenton, and his mother was a homemaker. After graduating from Rider with a degree in accounting, he found an open position at Switlik and joined as a junior accountant with the idea of getting some experience in the manufacturing sector before moving on to a larger company. That was 36 years ago. “I really liked working here,” he says. “I like the product, and the Switlik family has always been a good employer.”
Photos of the Switlik factory in the 1940s show ranks of women in white uniforms seated at sewing machines, stitching miles of cloth together. In some places, the factory looks exactly the same. Dilts says the white dresses worn by the sewing machine operators are the same as they were during the war era. Even the black old-fashioned sewing machines are the same in many cases.
Switlik’s postwar history was punctuated in the 1980s by a dispute between Stanley Switlik and the Great Adventure amusement park in Jackson adjacent to Switlik’s home. In 1973, Switlik agreed to sell 800 acres of his land for the construction of the amusement park, but balked when he found out the company planned to use a lake on the property for water skiing demonstrations and tried to back out of the deal. In 1981, a judge ruled against Switlik and fined him $8.1 million. The estate and all the household posessions went to Great Adventure as part of the settlement.
Despite that turbulent era, the company has survived by modernizing its production lines. Many processes that used to be done by hand are now automated by sophisticated machines. One of the newest additions to the factory is a Gerber cutting machine that automatically slices patterns out of material 25 layers thick and punches holes and cuts notches where needed. The machine also arranges shapes on the cloth like a giant jigsaw puzzle so that the bare minimum amount of fabric is wasted. Dilts says wastage is a very important consideration when waterproof Gore-Tex Nomex fabric is $100 a yard.
Part of the plant is devoted to production, and the other half is for testing the equipment to make sure it meets rigorous standards. Many of the flight suits made there are g-suits, which help fighter pilots resist the high gravitational forces (g-forces) of violent maneuvers during aerial combat. Air bladders in the suit automatically inflate during high-speed turns, forcing blood to stay in the pilot’s head, thereby delaying g-induced blackout.
During testing, the g-suits and life vests are overinflated. Survival suits are turned inside-out and filled with water and the seams tested for leakage. The sage green military products get an extra level of inspection from government inspectors before being shipped out.
Switlick employs about 115 people on the edge of Trenton long after many manufacturers have abandoned the city for cheaper labor overseas. To compete, Switlik has focused on quality and automated as many processes as possible. Many products still require hand work by experts, so Switlik mainly hires experienced and highly skilled workers from the garment industry.
Dilts says the company has no plans to leave its current location. “We live here and we work here and we want to stay here as long as we can,” he says. “We will do whatever we can to make it a viable living company not only for the owners, but to the employees who work here.”
Switlik Parachute Company Inc., 1325 East State Street, Box 1328, Trenton 08607-1328; 609-587-3300; fax, 609-586-6647. Richard Switlik Jr., VP. www.switlik.com.