January 29, 2013
When stuntwoman Gladys Roy jumped on a frisky mare during the making of The Fighting Ranger in May 1924, she was promptly bucked off, dislocating her hip and earning her a week’s stay in the hospital.
She really should have been wary. It was the 13th, after all, not a good number for Roy: When she was 13 years old, she fell from a ladder and broke her arm. On her 13th parachute jump she struck an air pocket 100 feet from the ground and landed badly. But this was her worst injury yet, causing the (Los Angeles) Illustrated Daily News to remark that for Roy, “it is safer to leap from the wings of a speeding airplane at 16,000 feet than it is to try and stay aboard a horse on a boulevard.”
Roy, barely remembered today, was a popular barnstormer, parachute jumper, and wingwalker in the 1920s. She danced the Charleston perched atop the wing of a biplane, and walked across blindfolded. She’s probably most famous for her stunt with Ivan Unger (above), in which the two played (or pretended to play) tennis on the wing of a biplane in flight. (Postcards of the stunt can still be found for sale.)
While little is known about Roy, the National Air and Space Museum archives has a small collection of her letters. Probably born in Minnesota, by 1921 Roy had moved to Los Angeles. In November of that year she hoped to break the world altitude record for a parachute jump by a woman, leaping from 16,000 feet. It would be her third time in a parachute. While the Los Angeles Times notes Roy’s forthcoming attempt, her success or failure isn’t recorded. But by 1924, at least, Roy’s letterhead proclaimed her the holder of “the world’s low record parachute jump,” from just 100 feet. “Needless to say, I don’t care to make the jump again,” she told the Times in 1925.
Roy was making good money — from $200 to $500 per performance ($2,600 to $6,700 in today’s dollars) — but as she wrote in a 1924 letter to her brothers, “my expenses are very high and it takes every thing that I have to keep going.” The Western Vaudeville Managers’ Association was her agent, booking her at fairs, real estate exhibitions, even auctions. In a December 1924 letter to her brother Chad, Roy wrote, “When I loop I stand on the center section with both hands in the air. Yesterday the photographer tried to get a picture of it though I don’t know if he succeeded or not.”
The work was difficult as well as dangerous. “It was cold as the dickins & cloudy I almost froze to death,” wrote Roy in 1924. “I was told to get some Chinese tissue paper and make a suit of it to wear under my flying clothes & the cold cannot penetrate it & I will keep nice & warm.”
But something happened to her career in 1926. Although Roy was driving a new Cadillac (“cactus gray trimmed in black”), a gift from her husband, she was struggling to get $100 for exhibition performances. Roy’s mother had to send her money. Roy told the Los Angeles Times in May 1926, “Of late the crowds are beginning to tire of even my most difficult stunts and so I must necessarily invent new ones, that is, I want to hold my reputation as a dare-devil. Eventually an accident will occur and then—”
In August 1927, Roy was in Youngstown, Ohio, performing in an exhibition, and preparing for a New York-to-Rome flight with Lieutenant Delmar Snyder. She was having her picture taken with an Ohio beauty contestant. “The picture was nearly finished,” reported the New York Times, “when the woman flier started the engine, stepped down from the fuselage and unconsciously walked into the propeller.” She was 25 years old.
November 26, 2012
Just the title — Transplanting Beavers by Airplane and Parachute [PDF] — of this 1950 report in the Journal of Wildlife Management raises questions. Like, for goodness sake, why? And how? Did they specially make tiny beaver-sized parachutes and goggles, and push them out of the cargo hold, one by one, like a tiny dam-making army? Once on the ground, did the beavers suffer post-traumatic stress from the sudden drop? Or did they spend the rest of their days mourning in rivers, longing for another taste of the sky?
Fortunately, the article by Elmo W. Heter from the Idaho Fish and Game Department answered all our questions. Even before the parachuting began, the agency had been in the practice of transplanting beavers whose populations had outgrown their habitats so that they became an annoyance on farms and orchards. But the mountainous, forested and “generally inaccessible wilderness” in Idaho had “complicated the beaver-transplanting program,” the report explains. The game department tried moving them by horse and mule, but it was “arduous, prolonged, expensive, and resulted in high mortality among the beavers.” Not to mention that the pack animals became “spooky and quarrelsome” after dragging the understandably upset beavers for days and days.
Heter doesn’t say exactly how he and his colleagues came up with the brilliant idea of an airdrop, though we’d like to have been in on that meeting. They got war surplus parachutes from the Idaho Forest Service, and placed the animals in boxes, one pair in each box. Settling on the release mechanism required some innovation:
The first box tried had ends made of woven willow. It was thought that, since willows were a beaver’s natural food, the animal would gnaw his way to freedom. This method was discarded when it was discovered that beavers might chew their way out of these boxes too soon, and be loose in the plane, or fall out of a box during the drop.
Finally, they rigged up a tension-banded box that cinched tight from its own weight in the air, but snapped open to let the beavers out once reaching the ground. After concluding that 500 to 800 feet was the ideal beaver-dropping altitude, it was time to go airborne.
Satisfactory experiments with dummy weights having been completed, one old beaver, whom we fondly named “Geronimo,” was dropped again and again on the flying field. Each time he scrambled out of the box, someone was on hand to pick him up. Poor fellow. He finally became resigned, and as soon as we approached him, would crawl back into his box ready to go aloft again. You may be sure that “Geronimo” had a priority reservation on the first ship into the hinterland, and that three young females went with him. Even there he stayed in the box for a long time after his harem was busy inspecting the new surroundings. However, his colony was later reported as very well established.
During the 1948 fall season covered in Heter’s report, only one of 76 beavers failed to survive the flight to his new home, due to lightweight ropes used on the first set of drops that allowed him to wiggle out of the box and climb on top. “Had he stayed where he was, all would have gone well; but for some inexplicable reason, when the box was 75 feet [off] the ground, he jumped or fell from the box,” wrote Heter.
One wonders what the native fauna thought of all these beavers dropping from the sky. At any rate, transplanting via parachute saved money and man hours, and left the animals healthier at the end of their journey. When Heter’s team checked in on them the following season, each of these Felix Baumgartners of the animal kingdom had acclimated successfully to their new homes.
Thanks to Mal McKay and Kelly Rand for the tip.
September 25, 2012
The countdown for Felix Baumgartner’s leap from the stratosphere is on.
The Austrian jumper’s capsule (which was damaged in a September trial) is fixed, the Red Bull team has certified if for flight, and the jump is set for October 8. Expect delays, though, as weather will figure in the decision to launch the balloon-borne capsule.
When it does launch, here’s how things are supposed to go:
March 1, 2012
Researching yesterday’s post about Albert Berry’s first parachute jump from an airplane, 100 years ago today, made me curious about the other claimant to that honor — Grant Morton — who by some accounts jumped from a Wright Model B airplane flown by Phil Parmelee over Venice, California, in 1911. Most authors have left the matter unresolved as to who really was first. After a little more digging, I think I can settle it.
It was “Bert” Berry, by almost two months. And Morton may not even have been second.
One of the main publications covering aviation at the time was Aeronautics, which put Berry on its March 1912 cover, with the headline “First Parachute Leap From an Aeroplane.” I suppose the magazine’s editors could have been unaware of an earlier jump, but it seems unlikely. And Benoist, the manufacturer of the biplane that Berry leapt from, trumpeted the feat in advertisements for the next couple of issues. No readers came forward to correct them.
Meanwhile, I’ve found no mention, either in newspapers or magazines, of Morton’s jump until April 29, 1912. On that day, at least three newspapers — The Evening World (New York), The Evening Standard (Ogden City, Utah), and The Boston Evening Transcript — carried the news of a parachute jump by “William M. Morton, a professional aeronaut” over Venice the day before. The pilot was indeed Phil Parmelee, and Morton jumped from 2,600 feet. According to The Evening Standard, “The parachute landed in some electric wires and Morton was dropped to the ground, about ten feet, slightly injuring himself. About 40,000 people cheered the feat.” The Boston paper’s headline was “ANOTHER JUMP FROM BIPLANE,” which almost certainly refers to Berry’s leap two months earlier.
Searching through news accounts from the spring of 1912, it’s clear that Berry’s feat led other parachutists, who for years had been jumping from hot air balloons at county fairs, to try to duplicate his stunt. Rodman Law, who had already parachuted from the Statue of Liberty and a Wall Street skyscraper, jumped “from a Burgess-Wright hydroaeroplane flown in Marblehead Harbor by Philip W. Page,” on April 13, according to the April 1912 issue of Aeronautics. By year’s end, Law and his pilot, Harry Bingham Brown, were taking out display ads in the magazine to tout their act.
As for Morton, it’s not clear whether he ever tried another airplane jump. Parmelee died in a crash that June, so Morton would have had to find another pilot.
But if his earlier career as a jumper from balloons is any guide, Morton wouldn’t have been daunted by any setback. Newspaper accounts from the early 1900s — which variously name him as “W.L. Morton,” “Professor W.M. Morton,” “W.N. Morton,” and “Grant Morton” — are full of disasters and near disasters.
All you need are the headlines:
AERONAUT HITS TELEGRAPH POLE (San Francisco Call, May 15, 1905)
THOUSANDS SAW A HORRIBLE ACCIDENT ([Riverside] Press and Horticulturalist, June 30, 1905)
AERONAUT IS DASHED AGAINST TREE LIMB (San Francisco Call, July 3, 1905)
AERONAUT LANDS IN NEST OF WIRES (Los Angeles Herald, October 22, 1906)
With each mishap, the reporters seemed more eager to count Morton out. My favorite lead (maybe in any story, ever) is this one, in the 1905 Press and Horticulturalist article: “Grant Morton, parachute jumper, was probably fatally injured yesterday…”
Then there’s the Los Angeles Herald story from April 28, 1908, under the headline “BALLOONIST CALMLY AWAITS FOR DEATH,” where we learn (four years before his airplane jump, remember) that “W.L. Morton, the Venice balloonist, now lies dying in the Santa Monica Bay Hospital. Morton has been making almost daily ascensions for a long time past at Venice, dropping to earth in a parachute and taking all kinds of chances at falling on heavily charged live wires or blowing out to sea. He didn’t care, and said so. Yesterday his parachute threw him against a pole near the old alligator place.”
After that, who would mind jumping from a moving biplane?
February 29, 2012
Tomorrow afternoon at the Jefferson Barracks military post near St. Louis, they’re having a little celebration, and you’re invited. The occasion: the 100th anniversary of what is generally considered the first parachute jump from an airplane.
On March 1, 1912, U.S. Army Captain Albert Berry climbed into a Benoist pusher-type airplane piloted by Tony Jannus, who two years later would achieve fame as the first airline pilot. At their feet was an odd, cone-shaped contraption with a parachute packed inside. They took off from Kinloch Field, and Jannus climbed to 1,500 feet. According to author Gene Eric Salecker, “As the plane neared Jefferson Barracks Army Base…Berry looked down and spotted an insane asylum. ‘That’s where we both belong,’ he told Jannus.”
The parachutist climbed out of his seat, situated himself on a kind of trapeze bar dangling from the front of the airplane, and attached the parachute to a harness he was wearing.
Then, according to a newspaper account:
Berry gave a quick jerk of a rope and with the parachute shot downward, while the aeroplane, first bouncing up like a cork, suddenly poised and steadied itself.
Hundreds of watchers held their breath as Berry shot toward the earth, the parachute tailing after him in a long, snaky line. Suddenly the parachute opened, the rapidity of the descent was checked, and amid cheers, the first aviator to make such an attempt lightly reached the ground.
“When the aeronaut landed,” the paper reported, “the solders cheered and, lifting Captain Berry in their arms, half carried him to the office of Colonel Wood, the commanding officer, who congratulated him.
The conical container turned out not to be very practical, according to Salecker, and airplane parachutists soon found other methods of packing their chutes. As for Berry — who had gone into the jump with lots of experience parachuting from balloons — he was happy to be on the ground safely, having dropped 500 feet before his parachute opened. Asked if he would do it again, he replied, “Never again! I believe I turned five somersaults on my way down…My course downward…was like a crazy arrow. I was not prepared for the violent sensation that I felt when I broke away from the aeroplane.”
Still, according to an article published a month later in Aircraft, Berry repeated his feat on March 10.
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