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A Look the development of parachutes to 1945

  • Published
  • By R. Ray Ortensie
  • Air Force Materiel Command History Office

As aviation began to play an important role in military tactics and methods of aerial warfare changed rapidly, a “vital need for the development and availability of suitable parachutes” arose with major changes and developments between World War I and the end of World War II. With this, the parachute experienced many developments even before World War I for the use with military balloons and during exhibition functions with aircraft.

Parachutes utilized during World War II owe the extensive experimentation and testing conducted in Dayton post World War I that led to the fundamental principles in the construction and operation of the large majority of parachutes used by military forces during World War II. The first use of a parachute seems probable traced to Chinese acrobat performances in the emperor’s palaces as early as 1306.

In Europe, the first parachutes were constructed and tested with the ideas of escaping burning towers and tall buildings with Sebastian Le Normans jumping from the Montepellier Observatory in 1783 to demonstrate this possibility. A number of years later, on 22 October 1797, it is believed that Jacques Garnerain during a public exhibit in Paris made the first successful use of a parachute from anything higher than a building when he descended from a balloon; five years later over London for British royalty and nobility he performed an exhibition jump from a balloon.

The first recorded parachute jump from an airplane was made by Captain Albert Berry over St. Louis Army Barracks in March 1912 from an altitude of 4,000 feet from a Wright Brothers biplane. After 1912, professional stunt airplane jumpers became the principle designers and builders of parachutes with balloonists continuing to influence the development. The most noted woman parachutists of the period is “Tiny” Broadwick, credited with as many as 600 jumps.

With the opening of World War I, all balloons were equipped with parachutes as with the introduction of the airplane, the balloons, especially those filled with hydrogen, became excellent targets for machine gun and incendiary bullet fire. It is estimated that more than 800 Allied balloonists were saved by the use of parachutes. However, even though each of the Allied partners had successfully invented and developed parachutes, it was the Germans who first successfully utilized a parachute in a military aircraft.

Development and testing of parachutes during World War I continued but at a slow pace by the French and the Instrument and Testing Division of the U.S. Air Service located in France. Within days following the Armistice, the Airplane Instrument and Testing Division reported of a conference on parachutes held in Paris with all Allies present.

It was learned during the conference that both England and France had placed parachutes in production after extensive tests and experiments with a few deployed to the front. American representatives reported that experimental work had occurred in France since September 1918, looking at ten different parachute types of English, French, and German designs with two evolving into American makes from the best features of all ten. The American representatives reported that “some parachutes had been sent to the front…and that large orders had been placed for production, but that these had been cancelled after the signing of the Armistice.”

During the autumn of 1918, tests were being conducted in France and tests of the similar nature were also being conducted on all available parachutes in Dayton, Ohio, first at Wilbur Wright Field and later at McCook Field. During the Interwar Period, testing on various types of parachutes were conducted to help reduce oscillation and speed of descent, steerability, comfort of the harness, “springless” pilot, rip cord handles, quick release harnesses, and various suitable materials.

With tensions in 1938 and 1939 increasing in Europe, interest in the development of synthetic substitute materials grew, with tests showing that it would not only serve as an acceptable substitute but had several characteristics that made it superior to the best grade of silk with the first test of nylon fabric conducted by the Materials Laboratory at Wright Field in 1939. Continuous efforts were made to improve the quality and to increase quantity of nylon available for parachute material. By the autumn of 1941, one thousand all-nylon parachutes were procured with a survey of production facilities revealing that a maximum of 16,000 nylon parachutes per month could be produced at that time.

The last silk parachutes procured for the Air Force were completed during the spring of 1943, and during the fiscal year ending 30 June 1944, approximately 228,500 man-carrying nylon parachutes were on procurement. Other parachutes for “non-man carrying” items were developed as early as 1920 through 1945.

For a further look at the development of parachutes during this period, see:

Dr. Edward O. Purtee, Development of AAF Clothing and Other Personal Equipment Peculiar to Air Operations, Vol. III: Parachutes (22 May 1945).