One of the many sketches of Leonardo Da Vinci features a man dangling below a parachute. Along with this sketch from 1485, he also suggests what size of a parachute would be needed for a person wearing the chute to fall safely.
Da Vinci’s declared: “If a man has a tent made of linen of which the apertures (openings) have all been stopped up, and it be twelve braccia (about 23 feet) across and twelve in depth, he will be able to throw himself down from any great height without suffering any injury.”
There would be a few men who would demonstrate devices based on Da Vinci’s rigid parachute design. One would be Faust Vrancic, a man from Croatia, who in 1617 jumped from a tower in Venice with the Da Vinci style parachute.
Video: Testing Leonardo D Vinci’s Parachute
The first soft parachute was deployed in 1785 from a hot air balloon when a Frenchman named Jean-Pierre Blanchard dropped a dog in a basket attached to a parachute from a hot air balloon. He claims to have jumped himself with a parachute from a hot air balloon in 1793 to escape an explosion. Though he is credited with the first foldable silk parachute, there were no witnesses to his jump.
[Read: Drop Into a Football Stadium With the U.S. Navy Parachute Team]
Four years after Blanchard’s claim in 1797, Andrew Garnerin became the first person recorded to utilize a soft parachute. From an altitude of 3,200 feet in a hot air balloon, Garnerin made his jump. During his first descent, his parachute did not have a vent in the top, which caused him to swing wildly all the way down. Despite this, he did manage to land unhurt. His wife would later become the first female parachutist in 1799.
Then in 1890, Kathchen Paulus not only helped invent the first method of packing a chute into a backpack, but she also created the intentional breakaway chute. When this small parachute is opened, it pulls the main chute open.
With the first flight occurring in 1903, it would be 1911 before parachutes were associated with aircraft. In that year, Grant Morton and Captain Albert Berry would be the first two to parachute from an airplane. However, the first freefall jump would be in 1914 by Georgia “Tiny” Broadwick.
WWI & Pilot Parachutes
In World War I, the Germans began experimenting with parachutes for their pilots. Though a few pilots were saved by the parachute, in most instances the lines of the chute would become entangled with the spinning aircraft. Allied commanders did not issue parachutes to pilots, fearing they would simply jump from a plane versus trying to save it.
After the war, advances were made in the parachute design so that pilots could safely get away from a damaged plane. Since tethered parachutes could be caught up in a spinning aircraft, members of the U.S. Army developed the Airplane Parachute Type-A. This design incorporated the best elements of past parachute designs like 1) storing the chute in a soft pack worn on the pilot’s back, 2) a ripcord so the pilot can deploy chute safely away from a plane, and 3) a pilot chute that, when deployed, draws the main chute from the backpack. In 1919, one of the developers of the Type-A, Leslie Irvin, became the first to intentionally free-fall by parachute from an airplane.
Airborne Troops Begin
Though the United States planned to use airborne troops during WWI to drop behind German troops in 1919, the war ended before the operation could happen. In the latter 1920s, several countries began to experiment with airborne troops. In 1927, it would be Italy that would perform the first real drop of airborne forces. Around the same time, Russia began planning to drop entire paratroop units, including their vehicles. In front of foreign observers in 1935, the Russians dropped a corps-sized military unit. This capabilities demonstration included no less than 1188 airborne troops dropped all at once.
First Airborne Troops Dropped Into Combat
The Soviet Union was the first to drop airborne troops into battle. During WWII, the Germans used airborne troops to capture Norway in April 1940 and then France in May 1940. The Japanese dropped airborne troops during several battles in the Dutch East Indies during 1941-1942. In North Africa during 1942, the 509th Parachute Infantry was the first American unit to conduct an airborne operation during Operation Torch. In Europe, United States airborne operations would be launched behind enemy lines into France during Operation Overlord, the landings at Normandy. In the Pacific on September 5, 1943, the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment dropped onto New Guinea to secure an airfield during Operation Alamo.
American Airborne Operations
In 1951 during the Korean War, United States Airborne units would conduct airborne operations during Operation Tomahawk and the Battle of Yongju. During the Vietnam War, the only major air operation was Operation Junction City. The 82nd Airborne Division participated in two airborne operations in the 1980s. First, in 1983 there was Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada and then Operation Just Cause in Panama. The last U.S. airborne operation took place in March 2003 with the insertion of airborne troops into Northern Iraq.
Low-Level Parachute Jumps
There are low-level parachute jumps at 800 feet like the Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Division demonstrates in this video. These airborne operations are conducted at low altitudes to reduce exposure of paratroopers to enemy fire. These troops are tethered to aircraft so that when they jump their chutes open automatically, slowing their descent to the earth.
Inside the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division: Parachuting from a C-130 Aircraft
Paratroopers Jump From C-17 Globemaster III Planes
High Altitude Low Opening Jumps
There is also High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) jumps, as demonstrated in the following video by members of the Air Force’s 38th Rescue Squadron. These jumps allow smaller specialized units to jump from very high altitudes far from their objectives so the enemy cannot hear or spot the aircraft or the troops. These small units glide toward their targets and when they get near the ground deploy their chutes. As you see in the video below, these airborne units jump at altitudes where oxygen is often needed.
High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) Jump GoPro Footage
Parachutes for Pilots
With earlier military propeller-powered aircraft, a pilot with a plane in trouble could open a hatch or the canopy and jump clear of the craft to open their chute. With fast-moving and high altitude jets, pilots needed help escaping their damaged planes. Instead of a pilot simply jumping off the edge of a plane, ejection seats would be developed that fire the pilot’s seat out of the aircraft and then an attached parachute would help bring them to the ground.
First Ejection Seat Testing
The first ejection seat test was not conducted in the late 1940s along with early jet development. It actually took place in 1910 using a dummy and a bungee cord for propulsion.
First Ejection Seat Systems
The first operational use of a propulsive element to help a pilot escape their aircraft was by Germany during WWII. The Germans began testing their ejection systems in 1938 and had 60 successful ejections of pilots from German aircraft during WWII. Today’s ejections seats accelerate up to 20 Gs to get the pilot out. The ejection seat system is able to determine that the pilot’s seat is moving slow enough to deploy the parachute while avoiding having it ripped off. Aircraft that have more than one seat will deploy at two different angles or at an interval of a second to keep the two seats from colliding.
Eject! The History and Workings of the Modern Ejection Seat
Watch a great video below of the Leap Frogs, the U.S. Navy Parachute Demonstration Team founded over 60 years ago. The footage demonstrates a HALO jump, which is a freefall parachuting jump from a C-130 Hercules into a college football stadium in Knoxville, TN.