1950s: Deployment Origins

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by Pat Works

Deployment Origins

  Notion de sauter avec l'aide d'un parapluie < Notion of jumping using an umbrella > to make a jump (or descent)


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 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.

parachute test and development program started in the United States


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.