British Skydiving Magazine History
The Creation of the Magazine
An early newsletter had been created and circulated for the first members of the fledgling British Parachute Association during 1961. Mike Reilly, first Chairman of the BPA, makes reference to this in correspondence from that year to a member.
The requirement for a BPA magazine was first raised in the autumn of 1963 and the aspiration was noted in the BPA General Committee (the forerunner of the BPA Council and later the British Skydiving Board) minutes for September. American sport parachutists at the time enjoyed three different magazines one of which was the official publication of the Parachute Club of America which later became the United States Parachute Association. It was therefore proposed by BPA Chairman, Col. R. D. Wilson that consideration be given to the creation of a BPA Magazine. Two options were discussed; the first to have an independent magazine controlled by BPA and the second to share a magazine with another sport or pastime. (‘Popular Flying’ was a potential contender at the time) Possibly fortunately, the first option prevailed and the spectre of a magazine entitled ‘Keeping a Goat & Sport Parachuting’ receded. It is not generally known but ‘Sport Parachutist’ was not the original working title as Col. Wilson favoured an independent quarterly publication entitled ‘The British Parachutist’ instead. It was decided that the proposal would be taken to the 1963 BPA AGM the following month and if accepted by the membership, an editorial committee would be created. The resolution was carried unanimously at the AGM.
Topics considered by the Editorial Committee included finance, whether to have a single editor or a team of editors, frequency of publication, and possible use of the successful British Gliding Association magazine as a model. Costs were a key consideration as at the end of 1963 BPA only had £479.2s.11d in the bank and the initial proposal was to produce 500 copies at a cost of 1/6d per copy.
The working title of the new magazine was ‘Sport Parachutist’, and publication of the first edition took place in June 1964, with the first copies circulated at the General Committee meeting on 3rd June by Editor David Pierson who undertook to send out all the magazines personally independently of the BPA Office. The fate of the BPA Newsletter was also discussed at the meeting and it was decided, that as member subscriptions to the new magazine were low, to keep producing this until the new magazine could be supplied to all members free of charge. By the next meeting of the General Committee, on 17th July 1964, prospects for the new magazine were starting to look rather bleak as the first edition made a loss of £150 which was a considerable sum at the time. The then Secretary-General, Group Captain Caster, proposed that the magazine be discontinued as there was a distinct possibility that continuing losses could render the BPA insolvent causing it to close. David Pierson, the Editor, stated that the poor attendance by the public, due to the weather, at the British Championship Finals was the primary reason for the loss. It is interesting to note, that at the time, success of the magazine was viewed as dependent on selling it to the general public rather than just BPA members who had to purchase a subscription as it wasn’t covered by their membership. It was suggested that including the magazine with membership would be the best way forward but this would require approval by the members themselves which would take time. The magazine would probably have been cancelled at this point had not David Pierson offered to cover the printing costs of the second edition personally. Peter Lang also guaranteed £10 towards postage and it was agreed by the Committee that a second edition of ‘Sport Parachutist’ could be produced on these terms.
At the AGM in November 1964, a resolution was passed by a show of hands to increase the annual subscription from £2 to £2.10s to include quarterly editions of the magazine. This was confirmed at the BPA Council* meeting of 16th December 1964 when it was agreed that the new subscription would come into effect on 1st January 1965. It was also noted, that prior to this, magazine subscriptions and interest from non-members, particularly in the USA and Australia, had seen a healthy increase. Against the odds, and despite a shaky start, that would continue for a little longer yet but ‘Sport Parachutist’ was starting to establish itself.
As for the newsletter, it lingered on into the early seventies although by this time it had become a channel of communication for the Secretary-General. Although unconfirmed, the rationale for this is likely to be that the retention of the newsletter allowed communication to the Membership between editions of the magazine particularly as magazine production was sometimes sporadic in the early days. Today, this functionality is delivered by the British Skydiving website, social media and the British Skydiving e-newsletter which is e-mailed to members in the months between magazines.
* The General Committee became the Executive Committee in September 1964 and the BPA Council one month later.
A History of the Magazine Editors
The first edition of ‘Sport Parachutist’ was launched on a wave of optimism in the summer of 1964 with David Pierson installed as editor. However, as anyone who has ever edited anything will tell you, not only is it a sometimes thankless task, readers far outweigh contributors. This was apparent from the outset with an appeal for material in the first editorial; ‘All contributions are very welcome, so please make every effort to keep us supplied for the future editions, and start thinking something up NOW! This is your magazine, get to work!’ There was also a whiff of recrimination for the club secretaries who had failed, in spite of multiple reminders, to respond with information before the editorial deadline. Notwithstanding this, the first edition contained a number of diverse and interesting articles as well as a fair amount of white space which was a feature of the early editions. In his penultimate editorial, in 1966, David Pierson wrote about the current state of the Association; ‘You are the Association and it is there for you and only you. If you don’t help it and take an active part in its affairs, you have only yourself to blame – don’t blame the Association.’ Sage words indeed and, in an organisation such as ours, still ring true today. To some extent, David Pierson regarded his tenure as that of a self-professed ‘amateur’ but this is unduly critical. He nursed the magazine through a very shaky start, covering some financial loss personally following a slow take-up, and produced a total of nine editions.
In 1966 David Drake took over as editor. David, at the time, ran a print shop in Ipswich and it was hoped that this would elevate ‘Sport Parachutist’ to a more commercial footing particularly as David part edited and produced ‘Pegasus’, the Airborne Forces magazine, which enjoyed a good reputation. It was hoped that publication of each edition of SP would generate a profit of £50 to the BPA but this failed to materialise. To make matters worse, as reported in the December 1967 meeting of Council, production of the magazine would incur a potentially significant loss. It was felt this could threaten emerging BPA initiatives and so publication, after just four editions, reverted into the hands of the ‘Amateurs’ once more. Five people in particular rose to the occasion, David Pierson, Dave Waterman, Anne Serpell, John Meacock and Chris Sharman., who in various combinations produced the next five editions between them.
Then in 1969, ‘Sport Parachutist’ acquired a new editor, Bernard Bagge. Unfortunately, this arrangement only lasted four editions due to artistic differences. This culminated in edition 24 of ‘Sport Parachutist’ having no recorded editor or identification. For many years this was referred to as the edition with ‘An 8 way on front cover and 1970 Nationals Report on page 9’. Fortunately for the magazine, John Meacock then stepped in to provide a welcome period of stability and quality between 1971 and 1973. Due to the amount of time John’s increasingly successful parachute centre was starting to take up, he reluctantly handed over the reins to Charlie Shea-Simonds in April 1973 after ten editions. Charlie’s initial ambition, stated in his first editorial, was to ‘try to achieve the same high standard that John has now set.’ Instead he excelled and produced forty-nine editions between 1973 and 1981 at six editions per year setting a new standard for quality and consistency. The halcyon days of Charlie’s editorship were ended, rather abruptly, by his ‘promotion’ to BPA Chairman as Council decided that the two roles were mutually exclusive.
Fortunately for the magazine, Dave Waterman took over as editor with two assistants, Andy Meysner and Sarah Brearley, resulting in a further period of stability that was to last for thirty-seven editions between 1981 and 1987. Time was again a significant factor in Dave’s decision to vacate the editor’s chair and Charlie Shea-Simonds once again saved the day by agreeing to become caretaker editor until the end of the year.
In March 1988, Carol Saunders took over the role and produced six editions of the magazine until, influenced by the turbulent state of the Association at the time, she decided not to continue. Steve Eversfield volunteered to step in as caretaker, ostensibly for two editions, but eventually stayed for eight until artistic differences with Council precluded continuing in May 1990. Despite causing raised eyebrows, and possibly blood pressure, in certain quarters, Steve’s robust style of journalism was popular with the membership. This was the most well documented editorial departure to date with coverage in both ‘Sport Parachutist’, and Council Minutes, resulting in John Horne and Bryan Davies receiving a cunningly worded invitation to take over the hot seat.
In February 1991, Ola Soyinka was appointed as permanent editor drawing to a close a short but turbulent period of the magazine’s history. Ola produced twenty-eight editions before deciding to stand down in the autumn of 1995.
Prior to this point, the editorial role had always been voluntary but it was now decided to engage a paid part-time editor as it was felt this would allow the post holder more time to focus on quality. As a result, Lesley Gale was appointed and produced her first magazine in December 1995 and the rest, as they say, is history. Not one to do things by halves, Lesley injected a huge amount of passion and hard work into the role as she set about creating a new magazine that was fit for purpose. Lesley overcame a number of challenges along the way including a format firmly stuck in the eighties, the unstoppable march of technology which was to change the face of photography and magazine production forever, and the greater commercial pressures and new opportunities arising from increased advertising. Following a phased overhaul of ‘Sport Parachutist’, the eagerly awaited new ‘Skydive’ magazine was launched in June 1999. This was originally entitled ‘Skydive the British Mag’ but the title was shortened to ‘Skydive the Mag’ after just two editions. Lesley went on to produce a total of eighty-nine magazines over fifteen years and was responsible for the transformation of the magazine from an association journal into a publication that could compete with the best and of which the BPA could be proud.
How do you follow an act like that? With difficulty, but all the more credit to current editor Liz Ashley for not only trying but succeeding. Liz took over the role in Autumn 2010 and has continued to develop the Mag with a sure touch to ensure it firmly remains the premier skydiving magazine and a jewel in the crown of British Skydiving. This was acknowledged when Liz received the Royal Aero Club’s prestigious Nexus Sport Aviation Journalist of the Year Award in 2013.
This history is not only a celebration of the magazine but also acknowledges the contribution of all the editors, particularly as, for the first thirty years, they were all unpaid volunteers who just wanted to give something back to the sport. It’s unlikely that any of the editors were left untouched by the experience but, without doubt, their contribution and hard work helped to shape our magazine into what it is today. By its evolution from association journal to specialist skydiving magazine, British Skydiving’s magazine has, at last, achieved its full potential.