Early History of Parachuting

The history of parachutes dates back to medieval days. Evidence found in the historical archives of Peking, China, and translated by the French monk, Vasson, indicates that parachute-like devices were used as early as the 12th Century. Stories relate that some form of parachute was used during circus-type stunts arranged to entertain guests at Chinese court ceremonials. The relation between the umbrella, known to have been invented by the Chinese, and this early device appears obvious. 

The first known pictorial evidence of the drag principal appeared in the sketchbook of Leonardo da Vinci in 1514. The device pictured was a pyramid shaped structure by means of which, the sketch implied, a man might leap from a tower or burning building without greatly endangering his life. However, as far as is known, da Vinci did not reduce his sketch to practice.

Leonardo's parachute sketch

Almost one hundred years lapsed before the concept of the parachute was again recorded. In 1595, Fausto Veranzio, a Hungarian mathematician living in Italy, published the idea of a parachute being used as a "fall breaker", and described several successful trial jumps which he claimed to have made from a tower in Venice. This claim to have had successful jumps, however, have not been substantiated.

More authority can be attached to the experiments of the Frenchman, Joseph Montgolfier, who, late in the 18th century, began to put some of the "then current" scientific findings to practical use. Concurrent with his experiments on hot-air balloons, he became interested in the concept of parachute-like devices, and tested the invention he evolved by dropping a number of animals from towers. Subsequently, he himself test-jumped from the roof of his house at Annonay and later from "greater heights", presumably from one of his balloon gondolas. A French contemporary of Montgolfier, Sebastian Lenormand, successfully attempted a demonstration of the parachute concept by descending with the aid of a parachute-like device from the top of the Montpelier Observatory in Paris. It is not certain how far Montgolfier actually pursued his parachute experiments, however, it can be said that his balloons gave parachute jumping a sudden and practical impetus.

Up to this time, professional exhibitionists and stuntmen had been jumping from towers or high buildings. After Montgolfier had demonstrated balloon flying as practical, a more suitable platform was available and an increase in parachute jumping, although still for stunt purposes, is recorded.

The number of balloon accidents which occurred during this period led to the consideration of the parachute as a possible means of saving lives. This trend was accelerated late in the 18th century when Jean Pierre Blanchard, one of the most famous balloonists of the day and the first man to soar out over the English Channel, became interested in the parachute. After trying it successfully on animals, including his own dog, Blanchard personally made several successful jumps. At the turn of the century, between 1797 and 1802, who achieved fame by the number of daring, and success of his jumps, made a series of parachute drops both in England and in France, culminating in a jump from an altitude of approximately 2400 meters in a cylindrical basket suspended from a parachute. All the recorded parachute jumps up to this time had been of a premeditated nature. The first recorded emergency landing by parachute was not made until 14 July 1808 when the Polish aeronaut Jordaki Kuparento descended safely from his burning balloon over the city of Warsaw.

The years of experimentation with parachutes until the turn of the 20th century had produced very little more than crude and sometimes unreliable devices for the purpose of performing stunts and providing entertainment. Inevitably, some parachutists were killed, with a consequent dampening of the enthusiasm of other jumpers. The advent of the airplane, however, changed this situation quickly. Partly because of the new thrill found in jumping from a moving aerial platform, and partly owing to the necessity of providing escape from disabled airplanes, (considering their added complexities of operation), further development of the parachute accelerated. Besides changes to the parachute itself, changes in techniques of use became necessary.

Thus, the advent of the airplane caused the launching of a series of scientific experiments to make the parachute more airworthy and led to the deployable aerodynamic decelerator of today.

First Design Concepts

One can safely assume that the first Chinese parachute was umbrella-shaped. Da Vinci's parachute, however, consisted of four triangular pieces of cloth joined to form a pyramid from which the jumper was suspended by means of ropes. Presumably this parachute would have worked, at least, to a degree. The parachute conceived by Veranzio consisted of a square of linen held rigid on a wooden frame. The jumper held on to four cords, one attached at each corner. Veranzio claimed that his design proved successful, and there is no reason to believe that it would not have worked.

The parachute with which Gernerin conducted his experiments was again umbrella-shaped, and like the umbrella, was reinforced by a central stem. This, at the time, was a revolutionary departure from having the parachute held open permanently by a rigid framework. Gernerin, however, encounter serious oscillatory problems during his experiments, and initiated efforts to find the cause and possible remedies for these discouraging gyrations. Some of his contemporaries also concerned themselves with finding a solution to the oscillatory problem. The English scholar, Sir George Cayley, proposed as a remedy a cone-shaped parachute which would be used with the apex pointing downwards. Cayley developed this idea, and according to his report, it was used with success by the German, Lorenz Hengler. Hengler, in fact, made several jumps with this cone shaped parachute from heights of 30 to 120 meters "without experiencing the least discomfort."

A number of additional jumps were made, and experience proved that the inverted cone-shaped parachute was essentially sound in theory, but the consistent success in practice was another matter. Consequently more accidents inevitably happened. An English artist, Robert Cocking, experimented in 1837 with a parachute design based on Hengler's concept and was killed when his cone-shaped parachute disintegrated during a jump from an altitude of 1700 meters, probably because its construction was not sufficiently strong enough to support the 200 lbs of suspended weight. Since Cocking's parachute had been widely publicized as the solution to the strange behavior of Garnerins parachute, his death caused even wider public disbelief in and disapproval of the parachute concept. Efforts were, however, continued by others to solve the oscillation problem.

The French astronomer Lelandes theorized that the cause of the oscillatory motion of the parachute was the air trapped under the drag-producing surface and spilling out, first under one side and then the other. He alleviated the problem by permitting a constant and steadying flow of air to escape upward through a hole provided in the apex of the drag-producing surface. This was the first vent; and it worked.

Deployment Origins

A solution to the oscillatory problems had now been found and stunts with parachutes continued. Up to now, however, all parachutes used had been of the rigid or semi-rigid type, held open by a wooden frame. Early in 1804 a Frenchman named Bourget proved during a parachute jump in Germany that a completely collapsible parachute was not only practical, but was much more convenient to carry around as well. It would be folded when not in use, and it relied on air pressure alone to hold it open. Experiments with foldable parachutes continued, and in 1887 Captain Thomas Baldwin, an American jumper of much renown, introduced a silk parachute with vent opening in the USA.

In 1890, Paul Letteman and Kaethe Paulus, German exhibition jumpers, demonstrated the first use of parachutes folded and packed in bags. Their innovation grew out of a special act, a double parachute jump, in which both performers left a balloon by means of one parachute; then one made a second jump with the other parachute. A bag-like container was used in this exhibition to keep the entire parachute assembly intact until the very moment it was to be used. This container or bag idea, however, did not take hold immediately, and was not even utilized during the first jumps from the moving platform of the airplane.

Grant Morton, some believe, was the first man to jump by parachute from an airplane, although Captain Albert Berry, who had previously jumped from balloons, is another claimant for that honor. Morton, late in 1911, is reported to have jumped from a Wright Model B airplane flying over Venice Beach, California. Morton carried his folded parachute in his arms; as he jumped he threw his canopy into the air. The parachute opened, and Morton landed safely. Captain Albert Berry, who like his father John Berry, was somewhat experienced with balloons and parachutes, completed a successful parachute jump from a two seated pusher plane near St. Louis. His 36 foot diameter parachute was packed in a cone-shaped container fastened underneath the fuselage. Instead of being strapped in a harness, Berry was sitting on a trapeze bar attached to the suspension lines.

These parachutes and all others used before them were of the "automatic" type, meaning that they were either inflated prior to the jump or were pulled into the airstream from a container fastened to the aerial platform. This type of parachute, however, soon proved to be inadequate for safe escape from moving aerial platforms. In 1908, Leo Stevens devised the first parachute which could be opened by the jumper with a ripcord, although the "free" type parachute was not utilized substantially until 1920.

A patent granted early in 1911 to an Italian inventor named Pino for a flexible parachute, including a pilot chute, must be considered as one of the major milestones in parachute history, as he claimed in the patent, the jumper using this new device could wear his parachute in a pack like a knapsack. On his head would be a hat-like device fashioned into a leather cap, which would blossom out into a smaller open parachute. During the jump, the small pilot chute would pull off the hat and deploy the larger parachute from the knapsack.

Military Development

When World War I began in 1914, very few crew members of balloons or airplanes carries parachutes. The Germans were probably the first to appreciate that a pilots or crew members life must be saved in case of emergency, and that the parachute was the means to accomplish this. Within a year, the Germans had equipped their balloon crews with a parachute developed by the female parachutist, Kaethe Paulus. The British and French soon followed this example, equipping their balloons with parachutes packed in conical containers positioned outside the gondola, and the Americans adopted the French balloon parachute.

An Australian pilot made the first escape by parachute from a disabled plane, on the Russian front in 1916. Three months later, another Australian pilot made a safe escape from another disabled plane. By 1917 the parachute had proven itself, and both Germans and English were equipping their air forces with these life-saving devices. By the summer of 1918, parachutes were in wide use on all fronts.

These early life-saving parachutes were basically of the bag type and operated "automatically". The German version was the Heincke Sack parachute; the English, the Calthorp or "Guardian Angel" parachute. They were attached to the flier by means of a harness, and the bag-type parachute became, when not in use, a sort of cushion. From within its bag, the canopy was attached by a static line to the plane. When the pilot jumped, the tightening static line pulled the parachute from its container ready for action.

Improvements continued to be made to both parachutes during the following year to increase their operational reliability. The Germans successfully incorporated a principal first published by Pino, that of utilizing a smaller pilot chute to deploy the large parachute, although the pilot parachute continued to be deployed by a static line. Further modifications were also made to the "Guardian Angel."

Still, the parachutes used during World War I were, by modern standards, makeshift contraptions. They had proven their worth, however, and formed the basis for experiments in design which were initiated immediately after the war and have continued since.

General William Mitchell, Commander of the US Air Force in France, was primarily instrumental in getting an organized parachute test and development program started in the United States. As a result of his pleas for more and better parachutes for his pilots, a parachute facility was established at McCook Field, Dayton, Ohio, and began functioning in the summer of 1918. In December of 1918, Major E.L. Hoffman was put in charge of the project, which had now become of considerable importance. Major changes in parachute design can be attributed to the collective and individual efforts of the members of this group.

Initially, experiments at McCook Field were conducted on automatic parachutes of two general types. In one, the parachute and its container were attached to the airplane, and the parachute was connected with a rope to a harness worn by the jumper; in the second, the parachute was packed in a bag, worn by the jumper, and the rope connected the parachute directly to the airplane. In either case, the pilot or jumper had only to jump, and when he reached the end of the rope, the parachute was automatically pulled out of its container and into the airstream. Great difficulties were experienced during attempts to perfect this type of parachute deployment, and although hundreds of tests were conducted with these models, none met the rigorous requirements which had been established.

Thought was again given to a "free" parachute to be released from the pack by the operator after he jumped. The first model, known as Model-A, was 38 ft in diameter, a flat circular parachute canopy made of straight-cut silk. It was composed of 40 gores with 40 braided suspension lines and had a vent 40" in diameter controlled by thick rubber bands. It was packed in a back-type pack. This model was later altered to a 24 ft diameter canopy in a seat-type pack.

Considerable effort was expended on the development of the free parachute; on 28 April 1919, after a number of successful dummy tests, the new parachute was live-tested by jumping from an altitude of 1500 ft. Other tests followed, and the free parachute was accepted.

Testing of this parachute type, and further experimentation with other types, continued in the USA and abroad. The first parachute which was standardized by the U.S. Army Air Corps, after considerable development effort and experimental testing, was of the seat type, for use by pilots and crew members. It consisted of a pack containing a flat circular solid-cloth canopy, 24 ft in diameter, incorporating a three-point harness release. It was given the designation S-1, and became standard in 1926. One year later, a second seat-type parachute was standardized under the designation S-2. It retained all the features of the S-1 parachute, except that it used a flat circular solid-cloth canopy 28 ft in diameter, to ensure the safe descent of somewhat heavier crew members. By this time, several other applications for the parachute, aside from insuring the safe escape of crew members, became apparent, and parachutes for such specific applications as premeditated escape (paratroops) and air drop of supplies had to be developed.

Major Hoffman who was in charge of the Parachute unit at Wilbur Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, started the development of a radically new type of parachute canopy, the triangular type, in 1929. In 1932, the triangular canopy was standardized and adapted to a seat-type parachute (S-3). It also found application in the first training parachute (C-1), which was a combination of seat and back type, and in the first quick attachable chest parachute (A-1) for insuring the maneuverability of gunners, observers and photographers within aircraft.


Undoubtedly the largest impetus given the further development of the parachute was the concept of "Vertical Envelopment." The paratroop training program in the United States was launched, unofficially, as far back as the fall of 1928. At the instigation of General Mitchell, six armed parachutist jumped from a Martin bomber over Kelly Field, Texas. This demonstration, however, was regarded as merely another stunt. Although limited experimentation continued, it was not until the spring of 1940 that the United States established an official paratroop training program at Fort Benning, Georgia. The first troop-type parachute (T-1) consisted of two ripcord-opened packs, attached permanently to a single harness with two sets of risers; a back pack containing a 28 ft flat circular solid-cloth canopy; and a chest pack containing a 22 ft flat circular canopy. During subsequent modifications, harness webbing of a lighter weight was substituted (T-3), and initiation of deployment was changed from ripcord actuation to static-line actuation (T-4).

Probably one of the most important improvements in the efficient utilization of the parachute at that time was made by the introduction of the quick-release harness. The quick-release mechanism was patented in 1929 in Great Britain, and manufactured in the United States by the Irving Air Chute Co., Buffalo, NY. In 1944, the quick-release device became standard equipment in the US Army Air Corps, and was incorporated in the seat-type parachute (S-5), the troop-type parachute (T-7), the chest-type parachute (A-4), and the back-type parachute (B-9).

Abroad, actual establishment of paratroop units and their training was initiated somewhat earlier than in the United States and Canada. France, for example, organized its first battalion of air troops in 1938, but abandoned the idea in 1939. Both Russia and Germany were training paratroopers long before this time. The first recorded jump, made by the national Hero Gromov, occurred in Russia in 1927, and at her Sport Festival in 1930, Russia demonstrated the concept of "Vertical Invasion" by having armed men jump from an airplane by parachute to occupy the "headquarters of an enemy." Germany's paratroop program was underway as early as 1935, and further experiments were launched that led to the exploitation of parachutes for other than personnel applications.

In August of 1941, Canada, who had at this time been involved in World War II for two years, recruited and formed the initial Canadian Airborne trainees. These troops were commanded by Major H.D. Proctor of Ottawa and carried out their initial para training with the U.S. Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. On 07 September 1941, the Canadian contingent was saddened by the loss of their Commanding Officer who was killed during his first jump at Benning. The parachute Drop Zone at Canadian Forces Base Shilo, Manitoba was subsequently named Proctor Field in his memory. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion went on to fame when, combined with the British Parachute Division, dropped into combat on 06 June 1944 in advance of the massive seaborne invasion of France, and later jumped into Germany during the attack at the Rhine.

The use of parachutes continued as a mass military transportation media, subsequent to World War II. In May 1954 the French used vast numbers of paratroops in a futile but heroic attempt to relieve their besieged garrison at Dien Bien Phu in French Indo China. During the Korean conflict the Americans, as part of the United Nations Force, carried out a mass airborne drop in South Korea.

During the 1956 Middle East crisis, British and French paratroops combined to form an airborne assault force against Egypt in an effort to capture the vital Suez Canal.

In 1968, in South Vietnam, the United States Army carried out an airborne attack involving 800 paratroopers to gain a positional advantage over opposing North Vietnamese forces.

In recent years many countries have been experimenting with free fall type parachutes to be used in a military offensive role. These are high altitude, low opening parachutes, which are specially built with canopies that allow the parachutist to actually steer himself, and consequently gives him great maneuverability and the capability of making pinpoint landings. This parachute is advantageous in that small, well trained guerrilla groups may be dropped from great heights undetected, fall thousands of feet, deploy their parachutes at the lowest feasible height above ground level and, by using the element of surprise, can create havoc behind enemy lines.

Since the first parachute jump, the parachute has developed into a sophisticated military vehicle and an object of sport for civilian enthusiasts. Improvements in design and functional qualities continue in a never ending challenge to meet the requirements of new aeronautical advancements.