Pioneer parachutist honored for lifetime of ‘firsts’

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Muriel Simbro stands with an artist’s sketch showing her and husband, Hank, at a time when their romance blossomed at 13,000 feet. At 85, she is about to be inducted into the National Skydiving Museum Hall of Fame for being part of the first-place 1962 American women’s team at the World Sport Parachuting Championships, as well as in honor of the 623 jumps she has made. (Photo by DAVID GUNTER)

CLARK FORK — One sure way to stay in love is to keep falling. It’s a technique that worked for Muriel Simbro, whose love affair was re-energized time and again at 13,000 feet.

From 1960-’67, she made a total of 622 jumps as a sport parachutist, collecting a mountain of trophies and top international honors along the way. This November, the Clark Fork resident will be inducted into the National Skydiving Museum Hall of Fame — not for the number of jumps, but for the number of “firsts” she achieved as one of the nation’s pioneer female skydivers.

But back to that love story …

Taking Flight

Listening to Muriel talk about her husband, Hank, who passed away in January of 2010, it’s safe to say they were crazy about each other. They both earned pilot’s licenses and began flying together in the late-1950s. A date for pie and coffee or a Sunday morning breakfast meant hopping in their Taylorcraft and flying to the destination.

On the way back from one of those jaunts, they witnessed something that was still quite rare at the time: A group of men jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.

“We were flying through this canyon and saw the guys jumping,” she recalled. “Hank said, ‘Maybe we ought to get a parachute and learn how to jump, just in case we ever need to get out of the plane.’”

Thanks, but no thanks, was Muriel’s response. She’d be happy to take him up, but preferred to make her landings from the relative safety of the plane, not dangling from some parachute.

The Simbros moved up to a larger, Luscombe aircraft, leading Muriel to enter a coast-to-coast Powderpuff Derby Race for female pilots. When her sponsor dropped out at the last minute, those plans fell through. Hank, though, encouraged her to make the trip anyway, flying the same route a couple of weeks before the actual race. She and a woman friend took their planes and did just that.

“When we came back, my husband had made his first free-fall,” she said. “He was so excited. We took a seat out of the plane and I dropped him for 40 jumps. It’s all he could talk about — jumping, jumping, jumping.”

All that time, Muriel was content to support Hank’s obsession by swooping him up so that he could plummet — and then float — back to Earth. As the 1950s drew to a close, parachuting was very much a “guy thing.”

On Sept. 11, 1960, Muriel Simbro changed all that.

Blazing Trails

“I went up and went out and that started it,” she said simply, remembering that first dive. “Nobody jumped back then. It wasn’t even a sport yet. I was just about the only woman jumper at the time.”

No casual jumper, Muriel started attending meets with her husband, where participants vied for the highest score by trying to land exactly on top of a target and hit a timer to stop the clock and mark their landing.

At one memorable meet, the guys made a gentlemanly move and placed her by the door of the plane as they made their way skyward. Ladies first, after all. When the plane had engine problems at 1,900 feet — barely enough altitude to pull the chute and land in one piece — the rules changed abruptly, according to Muriel.

“The pilot yelled, ‘Everybody out!’ and the guys all climbed over me to jump,” she said. “Talk about chivalry going out the door!”

Because she weighed only a bit more than 100 pounds, she was able to “snow all the guys” with a few tricks of her own, such as waiting until they were out of the plane to instruct the pilot to overshoot the drop zone, sometimes by as much as a mile. From there, she would float blithely on the breeze, steering her chute as the men below insisted she’d never hit her mark and stymieing them when she landed right on target every time.

Hank and Muriel picked up a half dozen Army surplus parachutes so that they could make as many jumps as possible on each outing. Muriel, in particular, started winning awards at the meets, leading her to go after a “D” license and begin thinking about competition at a higher level.

The requirements for achieving “D” status included making 200 jumps, with a night jump and a water landing in the bargain. When she made her water jump in Long Beach, Calif., her pilot contacted the U.S. Coast Guard and asked them to clear the landing area for safety.

“That only made it worse,” Muriel said. “It looked like an armada out there when I touched down on the water.”

World Class

But more notoriety was just around the corner for Muriel Simbro. As the first woman in the U.S. to earn a “D” license, she was qualified to compete in the 1962 World Parachuting Championships, to be held that year in Orange, Mass. Hank, too, was qualified to take part on the men’s team. As a couple, they would help represent their country in a competition that included top-notch jumpers from 26 nations.

“We had men’s and women’s teams from Romania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Ireland, England, France, Spain, Switzerland and Israel,” said Muriel. “The U.S. women’s team came in first. The U.S. men came in second.”

Hank had to get back to work, having used up a generous three-month sabbatical from his job at the Eastman Kodak labs in Hollywood. Muriel was swept up in a flurry of national attention, including being named Athlete of the Year and making an appearance on the hit television show, “To Tell the Truth.”

What does a couple do after reaching the peak of a sport, claiming the top two spots in international competition?

“We just kept jumping,” Muriel said. “For fun.”

Landing on the first-place women’s team meant that she was in for added acclaim. One day, an invitation arrived for her to compete in the following year’s world meet in Yugoslavia. Hank knew his break from work had been a one-time thing and confessed that he didn’t want her to go without him. Muriel was torn on how to respond. During her training, she noticed that her weight had climbed from 108 to 115 pounds, despite no changes in diet, daily regimen or busy jumping schedule. The reason behind the mysterious weight gain solved the debate over whether or not to make the trip to Yugoslavia.

“It turns out I was pregnant,” Muriel said. “I retired a champion — and the daughter I had from that pregnancy had nine jumps before she was born. Now that’s a real tandem jump.”

She made her last jump of that era in 1967, moving on to raise a family with Hank and, eventually, make a move to Heron, Mont., in 1973 before they relocated to Clark Fork in 2002.

One More Jump

Last fall, Muriel attended a reunion for sports parachutists and had a chance to make another jump. Unlike the ones that put her in the record books, this time she would be tethered to a jumpmaster.

“I told them how many jumps I had and that I’ve always won first-place or overall trophies,” she said. “But I was 85, so they wouldn’t let me go by myself.

“I told the jumpmaster, ‘Well, then, you’d better put me right on top of that target,” she added.

With 51 years between the time she last pulled the chute and her recent tandem jump, it must have been pretty exciting to be stepping out of a plane again, right? Muriel pursed her lips and then leaned in close to respond.

“After 622 jumps,” she said in a confidential tone, “it wasn’t as big a rush as I was used to.”

Parachuting became a family tradition for the Simbros, with their oldest daughter learning to pack the chutes and making more than a dozen jumps of her own and their youngest girl making several tandem jumps over time. Sitting at a sunny dining room table, surrounded by family photos, Muriel seemed happy that she can celebrate this Mother’s Day knowing her children have a mom whose story never fails to raise eyebrows.

“They still think I’m cool,” she said. “Every time we go anywhere, they always talk me up.”

On the table, a February 1963, copy of Parachute Magazine shows Hank and Muriel Simbro falling together, locked by the lips in a mid-air kiss. On a nearby wall, a sketch depicts them holding hands, big smiles on their faces, falling, falling toward the ground.

“It’s really a love story,” Muriel said. “We’ve had a great life. A lot of fun. A lot of good memories.”

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