The Parachute

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in History of Flight

The Wright brothers didn’t use parachutes although parachutes existed long before the Wright brothers introduced the airplane to the world. Leonardo da Vinci designed a parachute centuries ago and dare devils jumped out of balloons with parachutes in more recent years.

The introduction of the parachute to airplane pilots occurred during WW I when it became apparent that lives could be saved. German pilots were the first to use them. The Germans designed a chute that could be harnessed on the pilot’s back and could be deployed safely after bailing out of an airplane airplane. The pilot was saved to fly again.

The Americans had chutes but were poorly designed and often became tangled with the airplane while exiting.

General William Mitchell, commander of the U.S. Air Corps in France, observing the success of the Germans, was influential in establishing a parachute center at the Air Force’s Engineering Center at McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio in 1918.

Earlier, Captain Albert Berry was the first pilot to make a successful jump from a moving airplane in March 1912 at an U.S. Army Base located just outside St. Louis. He jumped at 1,500 feet while flying at 55 mph. His chute opened after a fall of 500 feet.

The parachute he used was too bulky to be strapped to his back, instead it was carried in an iron cone fastened to the airplane’s undercarriage. Two ropes connected to a trapeze-like bar hung out of the mouth of the cone. Two leg loops were provided at the end of the bar.

Berry had to climb down the fuselage to the axle while steadying himself with the trapeze bar, slide a belt around his waist and then cut himself away. All this time the pilot had to fly the biplane as level as he could. One rapid movement in any direction would be fatal to Berry.

Despite the difficulty involved, Berry reached the ground safely.

Nine days later he decided to repeat the feat, this time before the public. This time the airplane flew lower at 800 feet to assure that the crowd had a good view of him.

All did not go well this time and the lower altitude almost cost Berry his life. The parachute somehow got below him and was seconds away from becoming tangled in the canopy. Fortunately, he was able to right the chute with enough time to reach the ground safely. Berry decided that was enough parachuting for him and he never tried it again.

On December 17, 2006 the First Flight Society enshrined Albert Berry in the Wright Brothers Memorial visitor’s center in Kitty Hawk, NC.

Berry’s two jumps were admirable, but not practical. The Army Air Corps needed something that didn’t require a circus act for pilots to use in an emergency.

As noted earlier, the Engineering Division at McCook Field was given the job and they developed a parachute that was lightweight while retaining great strength. It was made of Japanese silk, attached to a harness of linen webbing with dimensions 24 feet high and 19 1/2 feet in diameter in the open position.

With hinges attached, the weight of the parachute was 17 1/2 pounds yet it withstood a tensile strain of approximately 10,000 pounds. Metal fittings were of drop forged nickel steel, subjected to a pull test of 2,500 pounds each before assembly into the harness. These strengths were designed to withstand the forces met when a pilot is forced to leave his airplane going at a high speed.

On October 19, 1922 Lt. Harold Harris was the first pilot to jump from a disabled airplane with a manually operated parachute that saved his life. At the time he was flying a test flight over Dayton, Ohio.

His Loening W-2A fighter plane had been outfitted with new ailerons that were supposed to be more aerodynamic with improved maneuverability. He was participating in a mock dogfight when his ailerons whipped up and down, tearing the wing’s fabric surfaces and sending his plane plunging toward the earth.

The windblast scooped Harris out of the cockpit. He was able to manually activate his parachute and save his life. The parachute had been tested under experimental conditions, but never before in an actual emergency situation.

After Harris’ jump the Army required airmen to wear parachutes on all flights.

References: “Albert Berry’s Leap of Fate,” Aviation History, March 2007

“A Little Journey to the Home of the Engineering Div. Army Air Service, McCook Field,” undated.

Previous post:

Next post: