Jumping from any elevation, even a knee-high footstool, has never been something I have eagerly anticipated, which makes my lifelong fascination with parachutes hard to explain.
It all started in the early 1960s, I think, with my godparents, who fed my existing airplane addiction with a visit to ParaGear (and it’s still in business!), a sky diving shop near their Chicago home. It sold mostly surplus military gear modified for civilian sky divers. The owner answered all of my elementary school questions and gave me a catalog. It was my bible for making GI Joe-sized canopy’s, harnesses, and containers with elastic opening bands, just like those in the catalog, which he tested from ever higher elevations, from trees to a box kite.
Over time my hands-on fascination calmed down to a persistent interest, which led me to the Aviation Trail Parachute Museum, part of the National Aviation Heritage Area in Dayton, Ohio. Filling the better part of the Trail’s visitor center, I didn’t expect to spend all afternoon there, but I didn’t expect it to introduce me to the pioneers who were behind all of the equipment that captured my attention more than half a century ago.
Given his many contributions to aerospace, I’m ashamed to say that I’d never heard of David Gold, in whose honor the Parachute Museum was established. As a 13 year old, Gold was inspired by an exhibition jumper at Queens, New York. He visited local parachute factories and became acquainted with parachute pioneers Floyd Smith and Colonel Edward Hoffman at the McCook Parachute Branch (two more people I need to learn more about).
Gold became a parachute rigger, designer, developer, and fabricator of specialized parachutes for personnel (including patents for a parachute riser system and the “guidable” parachute) and missile recovery systems, including the Apollo spacecraft. Think, for a second, about that last one. Walking on the moon is one thing, but without Gold’s Apollo parachute work…
Among the parachute pioneers I met at the next exhibit, only one—General William “Billy” Mitchell—was familiar. He was behind the McCook Field Parachute Branch, which commenced operations in October 1918. One member of this team, Floyd Smith, a former circus acrobat, race car driver, and test pilot, made a radical proposal, pilots should wear the parachute, not be connected to one mounted in the airplane, which would allow the airman to open the chute once clear of the airframe. This was radical because in those early days, everyone believed that freefall was a sure cause of unconsciousness.
Harold Harris was the first to save his life with McCook’s freefall parachute when he bailed out of malfunctioning Loening PW-2A monoplane. He landed at 403 Valley Street in Dayton, and when his rescuers reached him, he said, “I’m not hurt, just excited.” I’ll say. Besides preserving his life, Harris became the inaugural member of the Caterpillar Club, named for the insect that spun the silk fiber used in early parachute canopy’s. Membership is earned by employing a freefall parachute when an aircraft ceases safe operation. By the 1950s the club had more than 80,000 members, including Charles Lindbergh, General Jimmy Doolittle, President George H.W. Bush, and two Ohio boys, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.
For dessert, the Parachute Museum served two succulent morsels of aviation trivia. First, most aviation geeks know that Operation Paperclip was the U.S. operation that scooped up the German rocket scientists who were the foundation of the U.S. space program. Paperclip also brought German’s top parachute designers to the United States, and most of them, went to work at Wright Field’s Parachute Branch Equipment Laboratory. And they tested their new designs in a vertical wind tunnel (who knew?), built in 1945 and still in use today. And a vertical wind tunnel might be the only way I’ll ever willingly experience freefall. But if I’m wearing a chute in a plane that breaks… – Scott Spangler, Editor