March 1, 1912, Jefferson Barracks, MO.—Captain Albert Berry makes the first successful parachute jump from a moving airplane, touching down at this U.S. Army base just outside St. Louis. The Benoist biplane, piloted by Berry’s friend Anthony Jannus, reached 1,500 feet and was cruising at 55 mph when Berry leaped. By his own account, Berry fell for about 500 feet before his parachute opened—more than twice the free-fall that had been experienced by similarly equipped balloonists. Berry, an experienced parachutist who made his first jump from a balloon at age 16, was unruffled:“[I] admit to feeling uneasy. But, really, the greatest danger was to the pilot of the plane. I am glad he came out of that successfully.”
While the sudden change in the aircraft’s weight was surely a problem for the pilot, an evaluation of Berry’s equipment casts doubt on his modesty. Too bulky to be strapped to Berry’s back, his parachute was carried in an iron cone fastened to the plane’s undercarriage. From the mouth of the cone hung two ropes connected with a trapeze bar, which itself had two leg loops at the end. Berry’s daunting task was to climb down the fuselage to the axle, steady himself with the trapeze bar, slide his legs through the loops, tie a belt around his waist and then cut himself away.While all that was going on, Jannus was charged with flying the biplane as level as possible as Berry attempted to secure himself—one sharp movement in any direction would have been enough render the attempt both failed and fatal.
Berry reached the ground without incident, and he repeated his feat again nine days later, this time before a public, rather than military, audience. With swirling snow reducing visibility, he leapt from an altitude of only 800 feet to ensure that the crowd could watch the jump. That accommodating decision nearly cost him his life—the parachute got below him, and he had mere seconds to fight off becoming entangled in the canopy. Though he did manage to right the chute with enough time to reach the ground uninjured, Captain Berry vowed never to jump from a plane again.
Though parachutes made a limited appearance during World War I, it wasn’t until the interwar period that the technology was refined to the point that aviators began to adopt them as standard safety equipment.
Originally published in the March 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.