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A full third of the first 70 airmen to bail out died, in some instances due to tangled lines, the canopy fouling on the fuselage or the harness breaking free. But it sure beat the alternative. (Illustration by Gregory Proch)

The concept of the parachute dates back to the 15th century sketches of Leonardo da Vinci. By the early 20th century balloonists had successfully used parachutes, while designers had tested other types in experimental jumps from airplanes and stationary towers, including one failed 1912 attempt from the Eiffel Tower caught on an early newsreel.

In 1918 Germany issued its airmen a compact parachute pack designed by Unteroffizier Otto Heinecke, a ground crewman in Feldluftschiffer Abteilung 23. Similar parachutes were available as early as 1916, but high-ranking officers on both sides of the war had debated whether their issuance would undermine aircrews’ determination to fight or encourage them to abandon planes that could be ridden to the ground.

Some airmen grumbled about the 30-odd pounds Heinecke’s parachute added to their weight and initially doubted its reliability—a full third of the first 70 airmen to bail out died, in some instances because the static line tangled, the chute caught on the fuselage or the harness broke free. Reinforced harnesses with wider leg straps addressed the latter problem. The first reported successful bailout in combat came on April 1, 1918, when a Vizefeldwebel Weimar jumped clear of his stricken Albatros DVa. In late June Leutnants Helmut Steinbrecher and Ernst Udet likewise floated safely to the ground beneath their Heinecke chutes.

While parachutes improved pilots’ odds of survival if forced to bail out, the British did not issue them to Royal Air Force squadrons until September 1918. France and America did not allow their pilots to use them during the war.