SKYDIVING’S BEST KEPT SECRET
2 years ago
Unless you’re an industry insider, you’ve probably never heard of Gérard Fetter. You can drill down to the internet’s virtual bedrock and unearth little to nothing about him. Not only does this suit him well, but it’s also by design.
Gérard has never wanted credit or congratulations for his immense contributions to skydiving – but he’s been integral to the success of Airtec, L&B, X-Shut and SSK, and we all agree he’s overdue for his day in the sun. We are honored that Gérard agreed to share his personal story with us, and thrilled to shine a light on his incredible genius and generous spirit.
THE EARLY YEARS
Gérard is originally from Strasbourg, a stunning river-front metropolis on the French-German border that boasts a spectacular and inevitable mix of architecture, cuisine, and language. Gérard’s father worked in health administration and his mother, when not tending to Gérard and his brothers, volunteered as a companion to terminally ill patients. They instilled values in Gérard that he still holds sacred: faith, humility, generosity and loyalty.
Gérard was fascinated by a number of things as a kid, including Polygone, a military-owned dropzone in the city center that remains in operation today. So frequent were his hours-long visits that he was happily put to work. By age 8, Gérard was a confident – and closely supervised – parachute packer.
Chief among his interests was electronics, but he was discouraged from pursuing a career in computer science. There were “already six computers in France” and therefore there would be no need for additional specialists. Instead, he studied physical therapy.
Ich Bin Ein Berliner
Following a year of mandatory military service, in 1973 Gérard settled in Berlin and continued his physical therapy practice … but his free-time was dedicated to his true passion.
Still a nascent field, Gérard absorbed everything he could about electronics, reading industry publications, studying prescribed curricula, and investing in (and reverse engineering) technology. By the time he was ready to enter the computer science workforce, his expertise outranked that of his formally-educated peers.
In 1977, he officially made the switch. First Gérard was a prized hardware guy, but his knowledge made him equally desirable on the software side and – at his boss’ request – he started coding. By the time he made the leap to skydiving tech 14 years later, he designed and implemented training for all new hires.
Right Hand Man
With the Berlin Wall still intact, in 1978 Gérard made the 500-mile, 8-hour drive to Strasbourg to make his first jump at Polygone. It was here that he met fellow German Helmut Cloth who, following the death of his colleague and close friend Freddy Leising, invented the CYPRES.
AADs weren’t popular back then because they were unreliable and, therefore, not worth the hassle. Gérard himself only used one as a student; once he had 100 or so jumps he abandoned it. But Gérard understood the value of a dependable AAD, and in 1991 he joined Helmut’s cause.
At first, Gérard had no job description – he simply did everything Helmut had no time to do, including translating the technical and user manuals into French. When units wouldn’t sell, they co-conducted a product demo to the Fédération Française de Parachutisme. The hands-on approach paid off and France signed on as Airtec’s first major client.
As Technical Director, Gérard spent an unfortunate amount of time sourcing parts – a common struggle among engineers who strive for precision to the point of perfection. The constant quest led to endless iteration, innovation, and international travel.
Research, development and marketing the CYPRES was no less challenging, but far more exciting. Having served in the armed forces, Gérard’s specialty was on the tactical side of the business. He understood the inner workings of the military, knew who to meet with, spoke the language, and didn’t quit. He worked all week and traveled the world to promote the Military CYPRES on the weekends.
In time, Gérard’s strategic agenda yielded hard-won contracts with Belgium, the Netherlands, the US (a seven-year endeavor), Italy, Spain, France, and eventually with Germany.
Answering the Call
After 12 fast-paced years with Airtec, Gérard accepted an offer from his close friend and SSK co-founder, Cliff Schmucker. Between demo drops, trade shows and daily activations, they’d spent a decade – and hundreds of hours traveling and skydiving – promoting the CYPRES. Their trust and respect was deep-seated and mutual, and Gérard was pleased to more directly support Cliff.
Cliff needed Gérard to steward the military relationships SSK had established across the US through training sessions and demonstrations. Gérard answered the call and in 2004 began making state-side visits, oftentimes back-to-back, 10 to 12 times a year.
Gérard was devastated by Cliff’s untimely passing in 2013. At that time, Gérard had five telephones on his desk – one of which was a direct line to Cliff’s desk in Ohio. So acute was his grief and denial, that he continued to instinctively pick up the receiver a full month after Cliff’s accident. Reflecting on their time together Gérard shared, “Cliff was – is still – a very good friend for me.”
Sort of Retired
At age 71, Gérard is still a vital member of SSK’s extended team and continues to demonstrate his commitment to furthering the industry.
If X-Shut founder Martin Schührer asks Gérard for feedback and support, for example, he will do it. Just as he did years ago when Helmut introduced them to one another and they spent hours talking over the product’s potential. That initial conversation led to Gérard setting up several high-profile meetings with the French military on Martin’s behalf, which in turn led to critical contracts.
Gérard was a key connector when it came to the international success of L&B as well. During his Airtec days, Gérard initiated dialogue between Mads Larsen and the French military after an officer expressed a need for better altimeters. The exchange led to Gérard conducting certifications for L&B in France, and to a substantial contract.
An Attentive & Loyal Reflector
Asked what he’s most proud of, or what he hopes to leave by way of a legacy, Gérard says he is “proud of nothing” and expresses no interest in a legacy at all. And yet, when he matter of factly explains why he deserves neither, he unwittingly and profoundly revealed both:
I just did my work, and tried to do it good. Nothing was really my own … CYPRES is Helmut’s invention. Larsen & Brusgaard had altimeters when I started to jump. X-Shut was produced by Martin.
My passion is making a company work. I didn’t want a company myself. I was blessed. I loved what I was doing. Sometimes you just need someone to reflect on something with you. To say, ‘What do you think about this?’ I am an attentive and truly loyal reflector.
This is Gérard. Humble. Principled. Grateful.
We are honored to know you and to call you friend and colleague, Gérard. Thank you for your steadfast determination, and the monumental advancements that have come from it. You say you “helped a little bit” but in truth your efforts have been transformational.
We look forward to seeing you once the pandemic is a thing of the past and, of course, to learn of your big ideas for what’s next. Until then, Monsieur, blue skies!