1924 -1931: Flat Spins and Freefall Flight Control

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by Pat Works

Flat Spins and Freefall Flight Control

in 1924-1931

 Spud Manning, 1920s  Freefall Master

Spud Manning, 1920s  Freefall Master

Spud Manning, 1920s Freefall Master

In the spring of 1919 manually activated free type parachutes were both a blessing and curse. Soon after military adoption, long delayed opening falls from ever higher altitudes uncovered a barrier. Unmanageable flat spins.

Delayed-opening freefalling was necessary for emergency high altitude bail-outs. Deploying high was not an option in thin air with no oxygen. Hypoxia, 400 MPH openings and an enemy pilot determined to punch your ticket. Aviation’s uncontrollable new reality was the dangers of flat spins.   

Early free fallers confronted substantial danger from uncontrolled body spins. Flat Spins incapacitated by deadly high G-forces. These are extremely fast and dangerous revolutions where, “Everything becomes blurred and the jumper loses his sight and judgment.”  As a consequence “blood rushes to the head and unconsciousness may result.” Floyd described this deadly roadblock to freefall, “The untrained person in a free-fall spin is about like a novice pilot in a blind spin without instruments.”

Flat spins were an unsolvable problem until controlled flight techniques evolved and were shared. At first, evolution provided resolution only to a very few (Four men) for a few years from 1920-1931. Their freefall control secrets were lost to airmen for over 20 years until rediscovered and shared in 1946 by the man-bird, Leo Valentin. 

Few knew that such skills had been mastered earlier until the comprehensive paper on controlled falls appeared in Popular Mechanics (Feb. 1934 issue) article by the father of the free type parachute.  Floyd Smith wrote on state of the art skills of freefall control used in 1924 by early freefall jumpers: Spud Manning, Kohley Kohlstadt, and Harry Eibe.

A chain of innovation started when T. S. Baldwin introduced the first silk limp parachute in a pack with a harness in 1897. Baldwin's gear and approach opened doors for foldable- packed parachute for other gypsy moths. Later, Broadwick refined that into the Broadwick coat pack type that Tiny jumped. Nobody used a ripcord. By 1919, led by Floyd Smith, Irwin, Russell, Ball, and Sgt. Bottreill made the first non-attached, not static-lined “free” jumps over McCook Field in Dayton Ohio.

Prior to 1919, it was believed that any person falling free would instantly lose consciousness. Live tests proved this presupposition to be false. However Since it was a 'known' scientific ‘fact’ that falling over 300 feet rendered you unconscious and incapable, there wasn't a long line of people anxiously wanting a ripcord for delayed free falls. However, by 1920-21, half a dozen well known skilled parachutists were freefall masters of all skydiving maneuvers. All using the 1918 Floyd Smith "modern free-type, manually operated parachute."

Even then, early free fallers battled the tangible danger of uncontrolled body spins. These are extremely fast and dangerous revolutions where, “Everything becomes blurred and the jumper loses his sight and judgment.”  As a consequence “blood rushes to the head and unconsciousness may result.” As noted earlier, Mr. Smith described this real and present danger as deadly, “The untrained person in a free-fall spin is about like a novice pilot in a blind spin without instruments.”

Floyd Smith on free fall flight control---new 12Control of the human body in freefall. -- Writing for Popular Mechanics in 1934 Smith recalled, “Since that day (of the first “free” jump) scores of men have made long freefalls or delayed-opening jumps." and "I have seen extraordinary progress in the control of the human body in the air."  Unfortunately, such rare skills were the exclusive  ”tribal knowledge” of four American élite free fallers.  Skills unshared are lost. Their knowledge of controlled flight died with them. There was no mechanism to transfer knowledge beyond their small cadre.

The exception was Floyd Smith. 1934 in a popular magazine, Mr. Smith documented control skills they’d learned ten years earlier. He accompanied his descriptions of the positions for free fall flight control with photo-illustrations of each.  (see below).

Sustainable legacy is founded in France. Lost & Found:

American’s mastery of the sky that Smith describes predates the time when Frenchman Leo Valentin 'rediscovered' the secrets of stable freefall. His training syllabus for sport parachutists was adopted in 1947 by the French Government for all 25 of the Nation’s regional schools of sport parachuting. The American’s lost knowledge was resurrected 25+ years later at Les centres de parachutisme français.  Later, in 1953, French state run schools trained the USA’s two most important free fall parachuting missionaries. It was then that Istel and Young learned the arts of body flying that they communicated broadly on their return to the United States of America. These two notable French-Americans, Raymond Young and Jacques A. Istel graduated from the courses then transferred their knowhow to the U.S.A.  (The French federation was created on the 10th of December 1949 and has been under the Ministry of Sports' supervision since 1972.)

Floyd Smith’s descriptions of positions for free fall control accompanied photo-illustrations of each. Smith revealed early American mastery of freefall. He demonstrated positions for a spectrum of maneuvers. Including techniques for:

Floyd Smith on free fall flight control---new 1
Floyd Smith on free fall flight control---new 13

Floyd Smith on free fall flight control---new 5 Floyd Smith on free fall flight control---new 7 Floyd Smith on free fall flight control---new 11

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Floyd Smith on free fall flight control---new 61920-1931 Free Fall Maneuvers*

basic stable

head down

tracking

back tracking

delta

front loop

back loop

 

As well as:

carving

Steering fwd. movement

parachute canopy deployment on your back

head down deployment

flat-stable deployment

Quote: Smith ". .making a quick turnover (front loop); High-Speed Vertical Fall (head down); position for falling Flat, Face down (Basic stable); position for Backward Loop; going into Spiral side; inducing a spin; Position Assumed for Loop with Back inside (Backloop); tracking on your back (back tracking); Using the Arm as a Rudder to Guide the Body (Steering); executing a Slow Roll; initiate a turn".

Floyd Smith on free fall flight control---new 8Adding, "If you lie in the air flat with arms and legs outspread, you will reach a maximum velocity of about 105 miles an hour at sea level." Freefly, "If you take a head-first position you attain the greatest speed." Floyd Smith on free fall flight control---new 5-1Later, Floyd continues, "I refer to a sort of swan dive with the both at angle of about forty-five degrees to the earth. By pulling in one arm you can quickly roll over on your back." And tells what position will "turn you over backward..."

Floyd Smith said that his most difficult position was "straight head first" adding that Manning learned to maintain a head down for 5,000 feet, "to come out gradually and maintain control while slowing up into a swan dive." Causing "considerable horizontal movement... a gliding plane against the air."

“By laying flat and balancing with spread arms you can fall indefinitely at relatively low speed and in perfect position to calculate your distance to the ground." To judge opening altitude Eibe and Kohlstadt relied in counting off the seconds in fall whereas Manning and Smith relied on angular observation AKA “ground rush” to calculate altitude with a variation of less than 100 feet. Thirty years later in Houston, in the 1960’s my freefall RW friends and I relied on this “no altimeter” technique and consistently eyeballed pull time with canopy open deviation of about 75 feet.

  1. Smith, Floyd; Popular Mechanics Magazine, Feb 1934, Vol. 61, No. 2; 1. "Secrets of the “Silk” Sailors”; - pps 226-229 & p. 130A;
  2. "Of Fleeting Fame; Unusual achievements of some unusual people who died in 1956". New York Times. December 30, 1956. Retrieved 2011-11-15. "He invented the modern ripcord parachute ..."
  3. "Died". Time magazine. April 30, 1956. Retrieved 2011-11-15. "James Floyd Smith, 71, onetime dauntless barnstorming flyer and test pilot, who invented the modern ripcord parachute, founder of the Pioneer Parachute Company; of cancer; in San Diego."
  4. "James Floyd Smith, 71.". Washington Post. December 18, 1956. "Aeronautic engineer and pioneer flier who invented the first successful free type of manually operated parachute now used by the Air Force, established three altitude records for seaplanes and was awarded the Aero Club of America Medal or Merit; in San Diego, California
  5. "James Floyd Smith". Catholic News Service in Star-News. December 18, 1956. "Pasadena, California. Memorial services for James Floyd Smith, pioneer aviator and one of the first men to ever parachute from a plane, were held at the Portal of the ..." (Smith was the second man to “free” parachute. He did it the day after L. Irvin)
  6. "James Floyd Smith, 71.". Washington Post. December 18, 1956. "Aeronautic engineer and pioneer flier who invented the first successful free type of manually operated parachute now used by the Air Force, established three altitude records for seaplanes and was awarded the Aero Club of America Medal or Merit; San Diego, California. ..."

Pat Works