John Berry Sherman, veteran, skydiving legend

June 7, 2024

John Berry Sherman (born Engle), 85, died Tuesday, May 7, 2024. He was a skydiving legend. 

John was born Feb. 25, 1939, in Chicago, Ill., to John E. Engle, GM engineer, toolmaker and turkey farmer, and Sara Jo Berry Sherman, NBC fashion editor and radio personality.

He was raised on his father's turkey farm before moving to live with his maternal grandparents in Monterey, Tenn., and eventually to North Attleboro, Mass. John joined the U.S. Army in 1957, serving in Germany as one of the Army's first long-range reconnaissance patrol members for nuclear target acquisitions. There, he made his first parachute jump in 1958. John attended Tennessee Technical University to study engineering but soon found himself engrossed in the folk music scene of Nashville, leading to a stint as a folk musician. An accomplished guitarist, John made his way to Los Angeles in 1961, rubbing noses with budding folk artists such as David Crosby, Peter Paul and Mary, The Kingston Trio, and The Smothers Brothers while living and working at a famous Los Angeles nightclub, The Troubadour.

He met his first wife in Nashville, where they owned the first folk bar and venue called the Third Floor. John eventually settled down in Michigan, working as an engineer for Chrysler Corp. He was an early advocate for the turn to front-wheel-drive-based architectures, including his concept for what would eventually become the K-car-based minivan that Lee Iacocca introduced in 1984, a concept for which he was forever proud.

In the late 1960s, John was reintroduced to skydiving and became obsessed, often leaving work on a Friday afternoon, driving overnight in his custom Dodge van to a weekend skydiving boogie to jump all weekend, and hop back in his van and make it back to the office Monday morning. Tired of jumping with old retired military equipment, as was common in the day, and already being an accomplished parachute-rigger, he began to experiment with equipment design. John invented the first modern piggyback harness/container system to be issued as a single-unit certification by the FAA. It was dubbed the Super Swooper Tandem, based on a nickname given to John by the legend of the sport, Ted Strong, which later became the Racer, revolutionizing the sport. As a leader in the skydiving industry, John introduced new design concepts, such as the pull-out pilot chute, main riser covers, anti-line-strip deployment bags, Teflon cutaway cables, the anti-float bag and container concept, the first truly elliptical main parachute, the first tandem system with a 3-point drogue release incorporated into the cutaway handle, and countless other safety features that have been emulated by other parachute-equipment manufacturers. John was a founding member of the Parachute Industry Association, serving as technical committee chairman, creating the first PIA electronic bulletin-board system, including the popular "rec. skydiving" forum on the internet. John was the first U.S. skydiving competitor to medal in what were then all of the disciplines of speed style, accuracy, and relative work, in national competition. He was instrumental in introducing relative work as part of the U.S. national competition, having written the rules for the original four-way event. He pioneered Ten-Way Speed Star techniques that are still in practice today, designed the first 3-dimensional skydives, and was largely responsible for the successful design of the first 200-Way World-Record Formation, as well as many other monumental skydiving formations. John was the meet director for the first Thanksgiving Day 10-Man Meet in 1969, later the Turkey Meet. Notably, John has been a teacher and mentor to hundreds of riggers who now serve their skydiving communities around the world. He has trained some of the most successful riggers in the world. Virtually every major U.S. manufacturer has trained under John or has consulted him to improve their products and processes.

In 1987, John started a new company called Decel, and was awarded a grant to redesign the Mid-Air Refueling Probe and Drogue system used by the U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force. John received a U.S. patent for the design, which was to become the NATO standard.

John lived many lives, more than most, and like a cat, survived many deaths, including a car crash in 1964, where he died for six minutes, a plane crash, several parachute test-jumping incidents, a heart attack in 1990, a stroke in 2021, but ultimately met his match with a carton of milk (he loved milk) from McDonald's.

John is survived by his wife, Nancy; sisters, Patty, Marty and Judy; daughters, Margaret (Chase) and Eliza Beth (James); son, Johnny; and grandchildren, Quela and Thomas.


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