Today we are well used to seeing parachutists both civilian and military leap from aircraft and land with better precision and safety than ever before. It has become a staple of military forces to project power anywhere on the globe by inserting a force through the air by parachute. But did you know that the first parachute design was by Leonardo da Vinci back in the 15th century?
Da Vinci’s parachute was far ahead of its time and consisted of sealed linen cloth held open by a pyramid of wooden poles, about seven meters long. In fact, his idea was so far ahead of available technology, that it wouldn’t be practically designed until 1783. But while parachutists had leaped from balloons, it wasn’t until the 20th century that one leaped from an aircraft in flight.
On March 1, 1912, U.S. Army Captain Albert Berry would lay claim to being the first parachutist from an aircraft. Berry and pilot Tony Janus took off from Kinloch Field, Missouri and flew about 18 miles to Jefferson Army Barracks in a Benoist pusher-type airplane. They climbed to an altitude of 1,500 feet. In a book published about his feat, Berry supposedly looked down and saw an insane asylum. “That’s where we both belong,” he said to Jannus.
In the tiny aircraft, Berry had to climb out of his seat, climb down the fuselage on the axle and set himself on a trapeze bar dangling from the front of the airplane Then slide his legs through some loops and tie a rope around his waist. The parachute was too bulky to be strapped to Berry’s back, as is the custom of today, so it was packed in an iron cone fastened to the plane’s undercarriage.
Jannus had to keep the flimsy aircraft as level as possible while Berry climbed down and attached himself to the parachute. A sudden movement in any direction could have been enough to destabilize the small plane and kill both men.
A newspaper reporter was on the scene and reported the events as they unfolded.
Berry gave a quick jerk of a rope and with the parachute shot downward, while the aeroplane, first bouncing up like a cork, suddenly poised and steadied itself.
Hundreds of watchers held their breath as Berry shot toward the earth, the parachute tailing after him in a long, snaky line. Suddenly the parachute opened, the rapidity of the descent was checked, and amid cheers, the first aviator to make such an attempt lightly reached the ground.
“When the aeronaut landed, the soldiers cheered and, lifting Captain Berry in their arms, half carried him to the office of Colonel Wood, the commanding officer, who congratulated him.”
Berry had dropped 500 feet before the parachute fully deployed, and while he had plenty of experience parachuting from balloons, this new and more dangerous method was enough to take him aback a bit. He was asked, once on the ground, if he would do it again. His answer:
“Never again! I believe I turned five somersaults on my way down…My course downward…was like a crazy arrow. I was not prepared for the violent sensation that I felt when I broke away from the aeroplane.”
However, less than 10 days later, Berry would indeed repeat the feat in front of a public, rather than a military, audience. Because of swirling snow conditions that reduced visibility, he jumped from an altitude of only 800 feet, so the crowd would be assured of seeing the jump unfold. That decision nearly cost him his life: Berry and the parachute got upended and his chute unfurled beneath him. He had only seconds to fight off becoming hopelessly entangled in the canopy. He was barely able to right the chute with enough time left for it to deploy before he hit the ground. Berry vowed never to jump from a plane again.
The conical container turned out to be very impractical, and it wasn’t long before parachutists began wearing their chutes on their backs. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the technology was refined to the point that aviators began to use parachutes as standard safety equipment.
The military use of the parachute rapidly evolved as well. Just 32 years after Berry’s first jump, two entire American divisions and a British division parachuted into Normandy hours ahead of the D-Day landings. The airborne troops that have followed since then owe a tip of the cap to Albert Berry.
Da Vinci’s parachute design would finally be tested some 500 years after he initially sketched it. On June 26, 2000, a British parachutist, Adrian Nicholas, dropped from a hot air balloon 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) above ground in Mpumalanga, South Africa. Nicholas was told by “experts” that the canvas and wood contraption would not fly. The Da Vinci parachute weighed as much as a man — 187 pounds. But Nicholas safely floated down and landed without a problem. He stated that the ride was smoother than with modern parachutes. Da Vinci was far ahead of his time.