Tee Taylor clearly remembers the day she first heard about skydiving.
"When I was about 16, I can still remember my father coming in. ... He said, 'Hey, I saw this article in this magazine about a new sport. They call it skydiving—when you jump out of an airplane and do acrobatics in the air before you pull the parachute. Doesn't that sound like fun?' I said, 'It does sound like fun.'"
Taylor didn't think about skydiving again until she was 20 years old. "There was an article in the newspaper about some people who made a parachute (landing) on the UA campus. It was some sort of scandalous thing, because they didn't have permission. That was in 1961."
Taylor looked up the people mentioned in the article and found out where to go for training. "Training was pretty short; it was basically what to do in case of a malfunction. They had us jump off the tailgate of a truck and do parachute-landing falls. Then you were hooked up to a static line, so that your parachute was pulled automatically from the airplane, and you jumped—just like that.
"When we made jumps, it was on a dirt road. I think it was probably Sandario Road. At that time, it wasn't even a club. (We were) a group of people who would rent an airplane, find a pilot and a place you could land, and go make parachute jumps."
After a move to Dallas, Taylor continued jumping and began entering competitions. She was the eighth woman in America to earn a class D license, the highest level. In 1963, she won a spot on the U.S. Parachute Team. The next year, she traveled to Germany to compete in the world championships, and became the 1964 women's world skydiving champion.
As I sit with Taylor in her home, she pulls out several photographs and newspaper clippings. In one striking photo, at age 24, she is clad in a jumpsuit and helmet, standing with her feet apart and her hands on her hips. She has a slight smile and looks directly into the camera. When I mention that she looks fearless, Taylor laughs and says, "I probably was."
Case in point: A Sept. 10, 1963, headline from the Dallas Morning News reads, "Arm Cast Aside: Woman Will 'Chute' for National Trophy." Taylor is pictured in her suit and helmet, wearing a cast on her forearm. She says she broke her wrist one night and jumped the next day.
Last year, Taylor was inducted into the National Skydiving Museum Hall of Fame. But instead of talking about herself, she wants to talk about the sport.
"What an exciting and wonderful thing it is today," she says. "How interesting it was to be involved in the beginning, and see the number of people who enjoy it now through tandem jumps, and see the acceptance of the sport. Back then, it was a crazy thing to do. Today, presidents have made jumps."
Taylor also marvels at the advancements in skydiving. When she began, participants purchased parachutes through Army surplus, and needed to hand-cut and sew panels to modify the chutes. Reserve packs were worn as a belly pack instead of on the back. And the landing target, called a "dead center," has gone from the size of a basketball when she started to about the size of a nickel today.
An active, 71-year-old great-grandmother, Taylor says she looks forward to more skydiving and riding the motorcycle she purchased when in her 50s. It's in the shop now, but she is eager to ride.
Skydiver, motorcyclist, grandmother, great-grandmother—Taylor has many roles, but she says that no single one defines her.
"I am a balanced woman ... who has lived with children, grandchildren, had a job and did charity work—all the things that people do," she says. "I just happened to be in on the beginning of skydiving, and did well in it. It served me well in my life."
Taylor hesitates to offer a message for the masses, but she does offer encouragement. "I particularly like for other women, younger women, kids and young girls to see that women can do these things ... and be feminine. They can be accomplished in other areas also, and they can be adventurous."