Mauricio Graiki/Shutterstock

It Takes Two: How Tandem Skydiving Changed High-Flying Thrills

40 years ago, Bill and Ted had an excellent adventure... and now daredevils all around the world benefit.

Unless you have military skydiving experience, you’ve probably never heard of a “static line.” An original method for parachute training, it’s when a cord is attached to both the top of a jumper’s parachute and the plane. When the skydiver exits, the line becomes taut and the parachute deploys, inflating as they fall. It’s still used in some military exercises today, but prior to the early ‘80s, it was the primary way a beginner could experience the thrill of spreading their proverbial wings.

“You’d get some ground school training, and you’d get up in the air,” says the legendary Bill Morrissey, co-inventor of the tandem skydive, which turns 40 this year (and also the owner of a truly impressive mustache). “Once you step out of the airplane, the static line opens up the parachute system.”

And what if there’s a problem with the chute? “Hopefully you remember all the instructions they gave you and have the ability to act it out,” he says. Or, of course, you pray.

Bill Morrissey and his amazing mustache. | Julie Watkines

The static line remains an effective way for training military skydivers. You can jump from lower altitudes—good for combat insertion—and not worrying about parachute deployment gives you the mental space to perfect your arching technique. But in the civilian realm, those just interested in getting their skydiving feet wet, it—along other certification training methods like IAD (Instructor Assisted Deployment) or the more common AFF (Accelerated Free Fall)—can be limiting. Want a bird’s-eye view free falling above the Grand Canyon? Put in the time and money to get certified, and only then you can experience the freedom and score that sweet adrenaline rush. As a result, the average Joe could never truly know what skydiving is like.

That was, until the tandem rig came along. Introduced in the early 1980s, this new contraption allowed newbies to be strapped to the front of skydiving instructors, rendering double-decker birds. Now, after a short amount of instruction on the ground, anyone could be privy to the jump’s natural splendor from a perspective thousands of feet up, all around the world, from Hawaii to Nepal to Morrissey’s favorite country to skydive: Italy.

Today, some 500,000 people try skydiving for the first time each year, most of them in tandem, checking off items from their adventure lists that they might never have been able to before. “With this concept, there will always be an instructor in the harness with the student,” says Morrissey. “It’s a tremendous advance in safety.”

But the idea didn’t come out of nowhere, nor was it developed in the safest of ways. Enter a couple of Florida daredevils.

Hope you like a bird's-eye view. | Sky Antonio/Shutterstock

The US has 350 skydiving dropzones, the most of any country. But if you asked any jumper where the skydiving capital of skydiving was, Florida would be way up there. Not only is there gorgeous scenery, temperate weather, and plenty of schools offering the experience, the state’s resourceful residents have done a lot to advance the sport. Two of them, in particular, actually inspired the creation of tandem skydiving, before there was even such a thing.

The date was July 3, 1975. The new rectangular canopy Ram-air parachutes (called “square” in jumper jargon) were gaining in popularity, and a novice skydiver named Gloria Mabry wanted to give one a try. The problem was, she only had 10 jumps to her name, and those were with a round parachute, the type designed to basically just float wherever the wind takes you. With the Ram-air, you were acting more as a pilot than a helpless dangling passenger; it was made for maneuverability, so the jumper could better control for direction and speed. That took training and practice, which, unfortunately, Mabry did not have. Luckily, her husband, Peter Chase, was a seasoned skydiver armed with both the necessary skill as well as a few tricks up his sleeve.

“She kept pestering and pestering and pestering to go up,” says Morrissey. “And finally, he said ‘Okay, we’re gonna do it.’”

“For me, it was just another fun thing to do.”

They found a guy with an airplane and some time. Chase stuck both his and his wife’s legs into his parachute’s leg straps. But then there was the matter of the chest strap, which needed to extend to accommodate two people. “He took a knife and cut the seatbelts out of the airplane and used that to extend the strap,” says Morrissey. As Mabry told it, the owner of the brand new airplane was not too happy with the quick-thinking solution—but he definitely changed his mind after the trio made history. They flew up to 15,000 feet, opened up the plane’s door, and together jumped, into clear blue sky.

That first attempt went well, thankfully for all involved. Two days later, when Morrissey called to catch up with old friends on a whim, he heard firsthand from Mabry about the thrills. “[Chase] opened up at 9,000 feet so she would have the opportunity to fly the parachute around,” he recalls. “She was really, really excited. And then listening to her—she’s a great story teller—I got really excited about the possibility of taking people so they could experience it firsthand. I thought, ‘I want to do this.’”

Bill Morrissey and Tee Taylor do a tandem test. | Courtesy of Bill Morrissey

Seven years later, Morrissey actually acted on the idea. He contacted his old Army paratrooper buddy Ted Strong, who now owned a parachute business (Strong later passed away in 2011). Morrissey thought he could add one more style to his inventory of round and Ram Air parachutes. “At that time, nobody was using the word tandem,” says Morrissey.

They met at a Chi-Chi’s to discuss the details. “I said ‘Listen, you have to think about making bigger parachutes, so we can take another person in the sky with us,’” Morrissey recounts. Strong was enthusiastic about the idea, but for a different reason: At the time, students could only learn from solo jumps, using equipment that wasn’t as sturdy as today’s. Back then, fatalities weren’t unheard of.

“He said ‘Well, I can go ahead and do this thing for you,’” says Morrissey. “‘And the reason I want to do it is that any time a student wants to learn to be a skydiver, they can do so strapped in with an instructor.’” It was a marriage of perspectives. “For me,” says Morrissey. “It was just another fun thing to do.”

Strong got to work building this new tandem skydiving rig. And on January 15, 1983, he completed the first official tandem skydive in Umatilla, Florida, using the first parachute specifically designed for two adults. His jumping partner was Ricky Meadows, who helped sew the larger parachute.

Strong then trained Morrissey to become the first ever tandem instructor, never mind that he only had two tandem jumps to his name (Strong only had about four). “I made one jump with him behind me, and one jump with him in front of me where I was acting as the instructor in the back,” says Morrissey. “He said, ‘If you’d like a job developing the stuff, the job is yours.’”

Coming in for a soft landing. | Altosvic/Shutterstock

Today, the 84-year-old Morrissey has helped train the next generation of Florida skydivers via more than 3,300 tandem skydives. His early jumps also lead to some modifications, including stronger hardware and adding a drogue parachute designed to slow free fall speeds from 180 mph to 120 mph, a critical addition used to this day. Modern skydiving instructors must have 500 free fall jumps under their belts before even signing up for the certification course, and throughout training, must complete 10 tandem dives in the instructor position.

There are currently around 40,000 licensed skydivers in the United States, and according to the United States Parachute Association, 2021 saw a record low of just 10 skydiving deaths (compared to an annual peak of 50 in the late ‘70s). Statistics show that tandem skydiving has an even better safety rate, with an average of one student fatality per 500,000 jumps over the past 10 years, or one per year.

And Morrissey, who was inducted into the International Skydiving Hall of Fame as one of the fathers of tandem skydiving, is still the method’s biggest cheerleader. Just don’t ask him for advice as a first-time jumper. “I personally stay away from telling anyone in detail what to expect and what they should do,” he says. “ I let the instructor do that, and that way there’s no confusion. What you don’t want in free fall is confusion.”

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She is a fan of high-flying thrills.