Bill Morissey is the mayor of Skydive City.
He doesn’t wear a sash to that effect, but it’s evident when the longtime, now retired, skydiving instructor walks the grounds at the adventure-seeking staple in East Pasco.
Even with an 82 Airborne hat pulled down low, and large Aviator sunglasses covering his face and distracting from his large, gray handlebar mustache — everyone at Skydive City recognizes this 84-year-old Zephyrhills man.
They stop what they’re doing — packing shoots or watching jumpers land — to greet a living legend.
Humbly, Morissey shakes their hands, or high fives them before a quick chat.
“Not a lot of people can say they’ve jumped with a legend,” said Chelsea Hylton, of Tampa, whom Morissey has taken a shine to. “And, when he does talk to me, it’s not even about jumps — it’s about what’s going on in my life. That means a lot that someone like him takes the time to ask.”
“I mean, I’ve known Bill since I was 6 years old,” said Cam King, manager of Skydive City. “To me, he’s just Bill, but, yeah, he’s a legend and he’s walking around here in Zephyrhills. It’s hard to put into words what he did for the sport.”
That’s because Morissey is one of the “fathers” of tandem skydiving.
An idea from the sky
It was 1975 and Morissey was talking to his friends, Gloria and Pete Chace.
They were recounting how they tried a tandem jump — a skydive from 15,000 feet out of a Cessna 206, with the two strapped together.
Gloria wanted to jump, but had no experience. Pete didn’t have much more experience, but agreed to it by sharing the harness and Jerry-rigged a chest strap extender by cutting out a seatbelt from the plane.
It wasn’t the most pleasant of jumps, but the couple survived.
Gloria told Morissey all about it.
“I got so excited about (a two-person parachute apparatus) and I wanted to tell someone about it,” Morissey said. “Luckily, I knew Ted Strong.”
Strong was a parachute manufacturer and owner of Strong Parachutes Inc., based out of Orlando.
It would be seven years before the two friends would get together, after Morissey’s marriage ended in New York, in the early ’80s.
The two friends met at Chi-Chi’s Restaurant in Orlando, with Strong sketching an idea of the two-harness tandem system on the back of a placemat. The idea was to have an experienced instructor attached to a student jumper.
“He said, ‘As long as we have an instructor with a student in the harness, we’ll never lose another jumper,’” Morissey recalled. “And then he gave me a big hug because he was so excited.”
Strong, who Morissey called “a real genius” when it came to building rigs, put together the new harness.
On Jan. 15, 1983 in Eustis, Florida, Strong completed a tandem skydive with Ricky Meadows, who helped sew together the parachute.
In October 1983, Strong took Morissey out on a couple jumps in his tandem rig, which was a work in progress. Strong then hired Morissey to be the first-ever tandem instructor and examiner — just after two tandem jumps.
“I really had to figure this (new system) out — on how we were going to do it,” Morissey said. “Because it was not as smooth (a jump) then as it is now, for pretty obvious reasons.”
Coming in drogues
Morissey learned the hard way that the tandem system still needed perfecting.
In November 1983, while at the Turkey Meet at Skydive City, in front of hundreds of other skydivers, Morissey made his third tandem jump, this time with Anibel Dowd, a licensed jumper
However, in the early days of the tandem rig, parachute openings were extremely hard due to the extra weight of the jumpers and faster freefall speeds. On this jump, Morissey and Dowd saw significant damage to the parachute, with all but two of the lines to the canopy breaking and attachment rings stretched into an oval shape.
Morissey had to pull the ripcord to the reserve chute.
“I’m not a religious person, even though I was raised Catholic, but here we are and the parachute exploded. So, I looked up to God and said, ‘If you get me out of this one, I promise to be a good boy,” he said.
A higher power must have been listening, because the reserve opened and both jumpers, while injured, still walked away from the hard landing.
“After that, Ted started putting drogues on the tandem rigs,” Morissey said.
A drogue parachute is designed to deploy from a fast-moving object, similar to what is seen to slow down large planes. Adding this to the tandem system proved to be another one of Strong’s genius moves.
In late 1984, after test after test now employing the drogue, Morissey did a test tandem jump with Jon Stark, another experienced jumper, who is now the director of aviation maintenance at Skydive City.
Jumping from 14,000 feet, Morissey and Stark had a freefall that felt as natural as it would be for a single jumper.
“We were blowing parachutes up and hurting people and it really wasn’t pleasant,” Stark said: “It was exciting, trying new things, but we didn’t know what was going to hurt us or kill us. It was all experimental at that time, but the drogue experiment proved to be the right one.”
Jumping around the world
After other modifications, such as moving the handles for better access to the instructors, tandem skydiving was invented and, by 1986, it was gaining popularity.
Morissey became the go-to instructor for tandem. He traveled the world demonstrating and teaching it. He even became the person who decided that for someone to become a tandem instructor, it would require a 10-jump certification though the U.S. Parachute Association (USPA), the governing body that issues skydiving licenses.
“We would have discussions about how we should teach (tandem), and I’m not saying we just made it up as we went along, but thought that was a good number (of jumps) and that’s what USPA approved,” Morissey said.
Tandem skydiving would be a game changer in the industry. It would bring in hundreds of thousands of people to the sport, allowing an adventure seeker to jump from 13,500 feet, just like the many of the annual visitors at Skydive City.
Morissey would be one of the foremost tandem instructors until he retired from Strong Enterprises Tandem Jumping in 2000. During that time, he taught more than 650 tandem instructors and 113 tandem examiners, and made more than 3,300 tandem jumps.
“Ted Strong deserves every bit of the credit,” Morissey said humbly. “But, yeah, I guess we did (change skydiving) to, a little bit, of what it is today and what you see here (at Skydive City). Certainly, when we started doing it back (in 1983), we weren’t thinking about how it would.”
Legend of the freefall
Tragically, Strong died in a skydiving accident in 2011.
When Morissey recalls his longtime, dearest friend, tears well up in his eyes behind those Aviator sunglasses.
“He was a beautiful, wonderful man,” Morissey says in a low, mournful voice.
However, nothing — not his friend’s death, retirement or age — has stopped Morissey from jumping out of planes.
With more than 7,300 jumps under his chute, Morissey jumped at Skydive City about a month ago and doesn’t plan to stop ever since getting hooked on it as an Army paratrooper in 1959.
Morissey, or D-516 — which is a skydiver’s license level and call number — estimates he still does nearly 100 jumps a year.
So, the 2016 International Skydiving Museum and Hall of Fame inductee will continue to be mayor of Skydive City, for as long as he can pack his own chute and get on a plane to take him thousands of feet above Zephyrhills.
“I can remember my first jump like it was yesterday,” Morissey said. “I still get a thrill out of (skydiving). A jump last week or last month is still as exciting as it was in 1959 or in 1983. I know that’s never going to go away.”
Published March 08, 2023