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Descents from aeroplanes called for a different technique from that applicable to descents from balloons

A RECORD DELAYED DROP by parachute was made in March 1938 by James Williams

A RECORD DELAYED DROP by parachute was made in March 1938 by a Frenchman, James Williams. He dropped 34,000 feet before opening his parachute. This photograph shows him in the aeroplane before he took off; he was wearing an oxygen-fed mask to assist his breathing at the great height attained. Williams wore two parachutes as a safeguard against one not opening.

WHEN aviation began to develop, a few men applied themselves to the solution of the problem of descending by parachute from an aeroplane in flight — a far different proposition from jumping from a free balloon. A number of professional parachutists were highly skilled in making descents from balloons; prominent among the British professionals was William Newall.

To him fell the honour of being the first to descend in Great Britain from an aeroplane. The feat was accomplished at Hendon in May 1914. Newall’s problem was not only to make a safe landing, but also to leave the aeroplane without endangering its stability and the lives of the men in it and, further, immediately he had left it, to avoid fouling the wires of the machine.

A Graham-White five-seater biplane was chosen for the experiment, the pilot being Reginald Carr. Newall did not propose to jump from the body of the machine, but from a rope seat lashed in position between the two front skid-struts. He sat on this, with his parachute in his lap. The parachute was folded and tied with a cord to prevent it from being opened by the wind pressure.

Newall saw that this uncomfortable, exposed position was not entirely clear and that there was a possibility that either he or his parachute might foul part of the machine when he jumped. To guard against such a calamity, he arranged with T. W. Goodden (the late Major Goodden), an experienced parachutist, to climb down to him, during flight, from the body of the machine and push him clear of all obstructions.

Newall took all the precautions he could think of but did not calculate on the numbing effect of his exposed position. The biplane took off successfully, but eighteen minutes elapsed before it had laboriously attained the 2,000-feet altitude decided upon for the jump; by then Newall was almost frozen. He managed, however, to get into an upright position. Goodden emerged from the body of the machine and climbed down behind Newall. Newall stood poised on his perch, numb with cold, unable to tell whether he was standing on the skid or not and unable to feel the kick that drove him clear of all obstructions into space. His parachute opened and in two minutes twenty-two seconds he was safely on the ground.

This first descent was to Newall the preliminary to displays that he intended to give in public. A small platform was fitted under a machine and a little later he made a public descent. Again he enlisted the aid of Goodden to ensure that there should be no fouling of the machine. The aeroplane ascended to 2,000 feet. Newall was seen to fall several hundred feet with the parachute unopened and disaster was feared. But the canopy opened and Newall landed in a field, the descent having occupied two minutes eight seconds.

THE FIRST DESCENT FROM AN AEROPLANE in Great Britain was made by William Newall

THE FIRST DESCENT FROM AN AEROPLANE in Great Britain was made by William Newall at Hendon in May 1914.

Once Newall came down on the railway near Hendon Aerodrome in front of an approaching train. The alert driver stopped the train and gave Newall time to get himself and his parachute out of the way.

After the war of 1914-18 Newall made many descents at Hendon. One of his displays was the “double parachute” descent. He jumped from a machine and began to descend by one parachute. Having fallen some distance, he opened a second parachute, released himself from the first and descended by the second while the first parachute, relieved of his weight, floated a considerable distance before it reached the earth.

Newall continued his displays until his death in Denmark in October 1922. He jumped, but the canopy of the parachute jammed in the aeroplane. With Newall dangling from the machine, the pilot flew over water and descended to about 60 feet while Newall struggled to free himself from the harness. He succeeded and fell into the water. He was picked up by a boat, but the effects of exhaustion and cold were fatal. His career spanned the period of transition from parachuting

from balloons to descents from aircraft. Although his achievement at Hendon in 1914 is forgotten, it demonstrated in Great Britain that escape from an aeroplane in flight was not impossible. The achievements of other parachutists and the development of the modern parachute are described in the chapter “Parachute Landings”.

Check on Reckless Enthusiasts

After the war of 1914-18 many people became professional parachutists, but only a few contributed anything to the advance of this branch of aviation. The numbers of people making descents, sometimes with fatal consequences, so increased that eventually countries such as Great Britain and the United States framed regulations to check what was becoming a minor abuse.

In Great Britain it is normally forbidden, except in an emergency, to descend from aircraft by parachute. The dropping of articles by parachute — or otherwise — is prohibited. It is not impossible for a person to become a professional parachutist, but steps have been taken to check those who are prepared, for the sake of notoriety or gain, to risk injury to themselves and to other people.

Under the regulations in Great Britain anyone desiring to become a parachutist has first to furnish a medical certificate of general fitness, with special regard to the heart and the lungs. He must make ten trial descents under supervision. The first six drops may not be made for public demonstration, but the remaining four may be so made.

The professional parachutist must hold a ground engineer’s licence for parachutes. As these licences are not granted to minors, this provision automatically debars persons under the age of twenty-one who hope to achieve notice by spectacular descents. The trial jumps, however, may be made by minors, provided that they are under the supervision of a ground engineer who is held responsible for the packing of the parachute.

These regulations apply to parachuting safeguards similar to the safeguards which prevent unqualified persons from flying aircraft. At the time of writing, in Great Britain only five persons hold parachutists’ licences which permit them to jump for public demonstration.

Similar regulations in the United States have checked reckless, inexperienced persons. At one time in the United States parachuting became a craze which did not bring credit to aviation.

The outstanding name among modern parachutists is that of John Tranum. Born in Denmark, Tranum migrated when a youth to the United States. He secured work with the night shift on a Californian oilfield, but his heart was in aviation. Instead of resting in the daytime, he arranged with the proprietor of a flying school to do mechanical jobs at the school, the payment to be lessons in piloting.


THE MOST OUTSTANDING OF MODERN PARACHUTISTS was John Tranum, who did much to advance the development of the parachute.

Tranum was an exceptional mechanic and the proprietor of the school appreciated his bargain. When Tranum had qualified as a pilot he put all his savings into an old machine, buying it for the equivalent of £60. He reconditioned it thoroughly, but it was a war-time model, consuming more petrol than the young man could afford. His problem was to obtain money to pay for the petrol.

At this stage Tranum had not sufficient flying experience to pit himself against the war veterans who performed aerobatics at the Californian air shows; so he had to think of something different. He began by wing walking, playing tennis with another daredevil on the top wing of a biplane and similar displays. He was soon in demand among the film companies and at air displays.

On one occasion a parachutist failed to arrive in time. Tranum made his first descent as a deputy for the parachutist. The experience fascinated him, not only as a means of livelihood but also as a branch of aviation. His clearheadedness, his air sense and his mechanical skill enabled Tranum to achieve eminence.

Nobody before or since has mastered parachuting as completely as John Tranum. He won the respect of aviators of many nations. His devotion to detail, mechanical ability, air sense and sterling character gained him supremacy in his restricted sphere. He was fearless but not reckless, applying his intelligence to feats which other men had died in trying to essay. One man tried a descent at night with flares; he was burnt to death. Tranum felt sure that the feat was possible. He made his first attempt: the glare from the two flares first blinded him temporarily, and then the heat of them compelled him to drop them as he descended.

He made a second attempt, this time wearing goggles to protect his eyes, clothes saturated with chemicals to prevent his body from being scorched, and asbestos gauntlets to protect his hands; as a further precaution he fixed the flares with broom-handles. He thought that nothing could go wrong — but he was mistaken.

Tranum jumped from the aeroplane into the darkness and pulled the ripcord of his parachute. The canopy opened. Then he tried to ignite the flares. Nothing happened. The pilot began to descend and, not seeing any light, missed Tranum by a few feet. Tranum came down in the dark, but he was not defeated.

He made a third effort. This time he worked the times out in detail and with regard to all possibilities. He timed his descent by stop-watch, ascertained the rate at which the flares burned and was able to drop them at the right moment with time to remove his goggles so that he could see where he was landing.

A parachutist drove a motor-cycle over the edge of a cliff 300 feet high, but the canopy fouled the rear mudguard and did not open. The force of the man's fall was broken by the overhead wires of a tramway below the cliff, and he escaped with his life, although he was seriously hurt.

A second man tried the feat; the parachute was drawn into the “dead” air behind the machine and did not open; the man was killed. Tranum located a 1,000-feet cliff in Colorado for his attempt to use a parachute from a motor cycle. He removed the mudguards to ensure that they would not foul the parachute and then drove over the cliff, descending safely.

Oxygen Apparatus and Stop-Watch

When he became recognized as the premier parachutist in the United States, Tranum went on tour to Europe and South Africa. He made hundreds of descents, sometimes at air displays and sometimes before military authorities, to demonstrate the type of parachute made by the company which had hired him as demonstrator. Then he decided to try to set up a world record for a delayed drop which at that time (1933) was 15,000 feet.

Before he began the attempt, Tranum experimented in a decompression chamber to test the reaction of his heart and lungs to sudden changes of air pressure. He made a number of delayed drops with an oxygen apparatus. On May 24, 1933, the aeroplane, piloted by Flight Lieut. Sayer, took off in the afternoon from Netheravon (Wiltshire). The altitude selected was 26,000 feet, but clouds were encountered at above 21,000 feet and Tranum decided to jump from this altitude, to allow full observation. He turned on the oxygen of the container with which he was to drop and climbed from the cockpit to the wing, encountering a temperature of 30 degrees below zero. As he stepped off the wing into space he started his stopwatch, which was strapped to the palm of his left hand. He somersaulted continuously for the first 5,000 feet and then steadied in the attitude of a diver at an angle of about 45 degrees. Despite his goggles, his eyes watered, but he was able to see the stop-watch and the ground.

When, according to the stop-watch, he had fallen 17,250 feet, he pulled the rip-cord of the parachute. The canopy opened immediately and the rest of the descent was normal.

JUMPING FROM LESS THAN 300 FEET, Carl Siemendl demonstrated a new type of parachute in July 1938Tranum’s record has since been beaten (see below). He went to Denmark to conduct experiments for the Danish authorities in 1935. He died in an aeroplane which had ascended to a great altitude. He had fainted from lack of oxygen before lie could attempt what was to have been another delayed drop. Tranum made more than 1,500 descents.

JUMPING FROM LESS THAN 300 FEET, Carl Siemendl demonstrated a new type of parachute at Luton Airport, Bedfordshire, in July 1938. The parachute is the invention of an Austrian, Joseph Eschner. It is not advisable to use an ordinary parachute at heights less than about i,000 feet, although safe descents below this height have been made.

Tests made with dummies show that when a man leaps from an aeroplane for a delayed drop he falls 1,200 feet in eleven seconds and then reaches a terminal velocity of 175 feet a second, or 119 miles an hour. Generally a man oscillates and this reduces the speed to about 110 miles an hour; wind and other causes also affect the rate of fall. After having fallen the first 1,200 feet, the man attains his maximum, which does not increase. The strain of the opening of the canopy is therefore no greater when the descent, as in Tranum’s drop, is much farther.

Some parachutists dive and others jump, but the vagaries of the wind and the air pressure affect their equilibrium before the parachute is opened. Joe Crane, an American who has made more than a thousand descents, states that he has often, for no apparent reason, gone into a flat spin, his body being on a horizontal plane moving forward and backward and at the same time round a definite point. He found no way of getting out of such a spin, although he tried doubling up his legs and then kicking them out, lifting one shoulder and turning his head to one side. The only way to get out of the spin was to open the parachute.

TYPICAL ATTITUDES taken up by Clem Sohn before opening his parachuteSeveral men have tried to control their fall before opening the parachute by fitting “wings” to themselves, notably Clem Sohn, an American who gave demonstrations in the United States, Great Britain and France. Sohn’s equipment was elaborate, comprising two parachutes, his “wings” and a canister of chemical powder to enable spectators to follow evolutions. His weight and that of the equipment totalled about 240 lb.

TYPICAL ATTITUDES taken up by Clem Sohn, who controlled his descent through the air before opening his parachute. He attached “wings” between his legs and between his body and arms. By making suitable movements he was able to change his descent from the vertical and to turn towards the left or right. Sohn used a canister to distribute chemical powder so that spectators could follow the path of his descent more easily.

Sohn jumped from the machine at a considerable height and performed his evolutions until he was near the earth, when he opened one parachute, the other being a reserve. He fastened the canister of powder to one leg and the discharge from it formed a smoke trail. During one descent in England he jumped from an aeroplane at an altitude of 9,000 feet. He spread his tail wing and transformed his fall into a dive. Then he extended his right hand and changed direction to the right, and then his left hand so that his wings were fully open, the trail of smoke showing that the angle of his descent was distinctly out of the vertical. Next he gradually drew his right arm inwards and he turned left. He made another turn before he opened his parachute and descended safely.

Enormous crowds watched Sohn’s displays and on several occasions, when the clouds were low, he took the risk of giving displays rather than disappoint his audience. He lost his life at Vincennes, France, in April 1937.

In March 1938 the French parachutist, James Williams, made a record delayed drop of 34,000 feet. Williams was killed in a parachute descent in France on August 14, 1938. On the same day Gwynne Johns, the British parachutist, made a world record delayed drop in the dark of 18,000 feet over Salisbury Plain. The Russians have developed parachuting far more extensively than any other people, and use parachutes for civil and military purposes on a large scale. There are “paraplane” corps of soldiers who use the aeroplane as a means of transport and the parachute to descend, a battalion at a time. The Russian pioneer, L. G. Minoff, THE BRITISH PARACHUTIST, Gwynne Johnsgave exhibition jumps in 1930 which were followed by a campaign to make the Russian people parachute-minded. Parachute towers were erected and now number about 1,500. In 1935 a million people jumped from the towers, and thousands jumped from aeroplanes in flight.

THE BRITISH PARACHUTIST, Gwynne Johns, climbing into a Miles Hawk monoplane before making a delayed drop of 18,000 feet over Salisbury Plain in 1937. In a delayed drop the parachutist reaches maximum speed in the first 1,200 feet ; after this the wind resistance of his body prevents the speed from increasing. The maxmum speed is between 110 and 120 miles an hour. In August 1938 Johns made a world record delayed drop in the dark of 18,000 feet.

You can read more on “The Caterpillar Club” , “Parachute Landings” and “Work of the Test Pilot” on this website.

Pioneers of the Parachute