McHenry’s Air Man

During the 1930s America went through a period where parachuting became a popular form of entertainment. Parachutes for use in airplanes were originally designed to help a pilot escape a disabled plane about to crash. Those who survived were actually part of a club known as the Caterpillar Club. Charles Lindbergh was said to have successfully used a parachute at least four times.  Somewhere along the line somebody thought it would be fun to jump out of a perfectly functioning airplane using a parachute. For a short time, McHenry had its own parachute daredevil and his name was Roy Mathews.

Mathews was a Lieutenant in the Army Reserve and started flying in 1927. He served in Texas during the Mexican Revolution in 1928, flying patrols over the border. Sometime in the early 1930s he started parachuting from airplanes for entertainment. He did this for a variety of events, such as fairs, fundraisers, etc. In 1932, he ended up being elected the Commanding Officer of the State of Illinois Parachute Club. However, this activity did have some hazards, as Johnson was injured at least twice while making jumps. During the summer of 1932, due to high winds, he landed hard at a fair in Johnsburg. He injured his spine and sprained his ankle, but after a short stay in the hospital he was back at it. In May 1933, during inclement weather, Johnson had his shute get tangled and was stuck in a tree. While his injuries weren’t specified, they were severe enough that he spent the night in the hospital. He was encouraged not to make the jump as the weather was rainy, but Lt. Mathews didn’t want to disappoint the crowd.

Picture of Jimmy Doolittle, the aviator who was scheduled to be Lt. Mathews’ pilot for his record breaking jump. Doolittle went on to be a war hero in World War II and Korea. Picture compliments of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Like any activity, records were established and participants set out to break them. In the early spring of 1932, the highest world for a jump was held by a Frenchman at 25,591 feet. At that time, the highest jump by an American was made by a Shirley Rauner. (Women were actively involved in the sport of skydiving.) Lt. Mathews wanted to make a statement in breaking the record and aimed to jump at over 40,000 feet. Due to the height, he would need oxygen tanks, roughly 5 parachutes and a suit that had a battery operated warmer. As he was setting up arrangements to make the jump he decided to make the jump over Lake Michigan and would utilize Coast Guard units to help pick him up. He stopped making preparations for the summer of 1932 and decided to make the jump at the World’s Fair in Chicago during the summer of 1933. Plans were going great, Lt. Mathews had been able to set up the famous Jimmy Doolittle to make the flight. After, Mathews had jumped, Doolittle would try and make an altitude record of his own.

Unfortunately, Mathews’ plans never came to fruition. In early April 1933, Mathews received a letter from the National Aeronautic Association from Washington D.C. stating that they didn’t feel that parachute jumps did anything to further the knowledge of aeronautics. This must have been a crushing blow to the Lieutenant, as this was who was supplying him with a ride. He made it to the Fair, just not as he intended. In July 1933, Mathews was selected to be part of the escort for the world famous General Italo Balbo, who was in Chicago for a street being dedicated in his name as well as a parade held in his honor. During his time, Balbo was a world renowned pilot himself, but is considered something of a complicated figure now as he was Benito Mussilini’s 2nd in command.

Test from the letter received by Lt. Mathews regarding his World’s Fair jump. From the 6 Apr 1933 McHenry Plaindealer.

Lt. Mathews jumping was coming to a close, one of the last jumps he made was for the Ruth York benefit show. On August 6, 1933, the Aurora Knights of Columbus were hosting their annual summer picnic. The nice weather was turning and Ruth York agreed to parachute out of a plane from 2,500 feet up. After the weather really started to look bad, people tried to convince Ms. York not to make the jump, but she didn’t want to let the crowd of 15,000 people down. Sadly, when Ms. York went to make her jump the parachute didn’t open and she fatally fell in front of the large crowd leaving 2 children behind. For the event, the Lieutenant had a special jump in mind. From 10,000 feet he would jump, fall 5,000 feet and then open his chute in what is called a delayed drop. On September 22, 1933, Lieutenant Roy Mathews hung up his parachute for good when he married Priscilla Sullivan at the home of Police Magistrate George Bohr.


“Local Man Hopes to Set New Record.” The McHenry Plaindealer. 14 Jul 1932: 1. Web. 19 Feb 2019.

“Johnsburg Picnic Saturday & Sunday.” The McHenry Plaindealer. 21 Jul 1932: 1. Web. 19 Feb 2019.

“Parachute Jumper to Set New Record.” The McHenry Plaindealer. 4 Aug 1932: 1. Web. 19 Feb 2019.

“Parachute Jump Postponed.” The McHenry Plaindealer. 25 Aug 1932: 1. Web. 19 Feb 2019.

“Roy Mathews To Set World Record.” The McHenry Plaindealer. 9 Feb 1933: 1. Web. 19 Feb 2019.

“Parachute Jump Is Abandoned.” The McHenry Plaindealer. 6 Apr 1933: 1. Web. 19 Feb 2019.

“Roy Mathews Hurt In Parachute Jump.” The McHenry Plaindealer. 18 May 1933: 1. Web. 19 Feb 2019.

“Mathews Jumps In Air Race.” The McHenry Plaindealer. 6 Jul 1933: 1. Web. 19 Feb 2019.

“Local Airman Meets General Balbo.” The McHenry Plaindealer. 20 Jul 1933: 1. Web. 19 Feb 2019.

“St. Mary’s Carnival To Be Held Aug 12-13.” The McHenry Plaindealer. 3 Aug 1933: 1. Web. 19 Feb 2019.

“Woman Killed In Jump At Aurora Picnic.” Belvidere Daily Republican (Belvidere, IL). 7 Aug 1933: 1. Web. 19 Feb 2019.

“Big Crowd Expected At St. Mary’s Carnival.” The McHenry Plaindealer. 10 Aug 1933: 1. Web. 19 Feb 2019.

“Church Carnival At McHenry Sunday.” The Daily Sentinel (Woodstock, IL). 12 Aug 1933: 1. Web. 19 Feb 2019.

“Benefit Show At Aurora Airport Next Saturday.” The McHenry Plaindealer. 14 Jul 1933: 5. Web. 19 Feb 2019.

“Will Organize Parachute Club.” The McHenry Plaindealer. 14 Sep 1933: 8. Web. 19 Feb 2019.

“Sullivan-Mathews Nuptials Friday.” The McHenry Plaindealer. 28 Sep 1933: 1. Web. 19 Feb 2019.

“They Belong To A Unique Organization.” The Sunday Star. (Washington, D.C.) 6 Aug 1933: 1. Chronicling America, Library of Congress. Web. 19 Feb 2019.

“Two Ladies Join The Caterpillar Club.” The Sunday Star. (Washington, D.C.) 6 Aug 1933: 1. Chronicling America, Library of Congress. Web. 19 Feb 2019.