Allegations have frequently been made that this simple life-saving device was deliberately withheld from Great War aircrew lest it should lessen their aggressive spirit and become a means of avoiding aerial combat. The story has been repeated time and again over the years, often in the same cliched phrases until it has become part of aviation folklore, but is it true?
The concept of the parachute has been known for centuries; one design is illustrated in Leonardo de Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus of 1492 and another in Machinae Novae of 1595, but only with the advent of the hot air balloon in 1783 did any opportunity to employ such a device arise. After experiments with animals such as sheep or dogs, the first human descent was made on 22 October 1797 by Jacques Garnerin using an umbrella-like parachute comprising 32 stiff ribs hinged from a flat wooden disc and covered in cloth. By the early nineteenth century, such descents had become a fairly common fairground attraction.
The early parachutes used were very bulky, and their attachment to the balloon that had carried them aloft had to be severed with a knife, rendering them unsuitable for emergencies. By 1887, Tom Baldwin was granted a US patent, No 10937, for a “Limp Parachute” and the following year had replaced the original flat cloth circle with a dome-shaped canopy with a small hole in the crown for stability. Further developments followed, but the device remained bulky, difficult to put on, and suitable only for pre-planned descents from a stable platform such as a balloon or piloted aeroplane. Escape from a stricken aeroplane was still not practicable.
In England, the principal advocate for the parachute in the early years of the 20th Century was Ernest Calthrop, a retired engineer, who developed a static line parachute which he named the “Guardian Angel” and which was used by William Newell on 9 May 1914, when he made the first parachute descent from an aeroplane in England. There was no suitable seat or stowage for the parachute on the chosen aircraft, a Grahame-White Biplane, and Newell took off perched on the undercarriage with the ‘chute bundled up on his lap. Although the Royal Aero Club awarded Newell their silver medal for the feat, the event was scarcely mentioned in the press. Undeterred, Calthrop continued to develop his invention, eventually cutting its weight to almost a third of its original 98 pounds. He also improved its opening speed until he could confidently state that it would never fail to open within 100 feet of its initial drop, provided it had been properly packed. However, its packing was admittedly a complex process.
William Newell perched on the undercarriage of a Grahame-White biplane with his parachute in his arms before making the first descent from an aeroplane in England on 9 May 1914.
Following official trials in 1915, orders were forthcoming for parachutes for use by balloon observers, but they were considered too bulky to be carried in the aeroplanes of the day. In any case, aerial combat, had yet to become sufficiently commonplace for the need for parachutes to become obvious to either the high command or the aircrews themselves.
An observation balloon observer is about to make an ascent. His “Guardian Angel” static line parachute is fastened to the outside of the basket, its considerable bulk making it unsuitable for use by aeroplane crews.
A Balloon observer descending by parachute, as often happened if the hydrogen balloon caught fire.
Further trials took place early in 1917 with the pack suspended beneath the fuselage of a BE2c, and the final and most spectacular demonstration of the Guardian Angel’s speed of opening was made in November 1917 when Major T. Orde-Rees made a jump from the upper walkway of London’s famous Tower Bridge. The drop available was just 140 feet, but the parachute was fully deployed before its user plunged into the Thames. Still, no orders ensued as the device was still a static line design, needing the users’ falling weight to pull it from the pack and requiring very complex packing.
BE2c no 1165 with a parachute suspended below the fuselage during trials made in 1917 at Chingford. Although the design had improved over that issued to balloon observers, the device was still far from a practicable proposition for use in aeroplanes.
Ernest Calthrop later claimed to have heard it stated that “possession of a parachute might impair a pilot’s nerve when in difficulties so that he would make improper use of his parachute,” but did not say who had made the statement. This allegation, usually expressed in these same or remarkably similar words, occurs in many books covering the subject. It has become common to attribute the remark to General Hugh Trenchard. Thus, in his “History of the RFC”(published in 1965) Geoffrey Norris states;
“In only one aspect of the air war was Trenchard wrong. The parachute was already a well-known and proven device for saving life in the air, but Trenchard, true to his spartan upbringing, would not have it in the Royal Flying Corps.”
Similarly, Trenchard’s biography, Andrew Boyle, stated that;
“Trenchard’s attitude to parachutes was characteristically spartan; his balloon observers, being defenceless, were issued them, but not his airmen.”
But firstly, as we have already seen, at the outbreak of the war, the parachute was still far from proven as a life-saving device. Secondly, this attribution is extremely unlikely since, when such a decision might first have been taken at the start of the war, Trenchard was adjutant of the Central Flying School and so was far too junior at the time to have been able to exert that kind of authority. Later in the war, when General E. M. Maitland ( who in 1913 had been the first Englishman to make a parachute descent from an airship) proposed the appointment of a committee to investigate the adoption of parachutes, Trenchard who by then was commanding the RFC in France, did nothing to hinder its formation nor its investigation.
Furthermore, the War Office Records, as available at the National Archive, have been closely examined on numerous occasions and by many different researchers without any evidence ever being found to support the allegation that some authority, whether corporate or individual, deliberately prevented the issue of parachutes. Indeed, the news in mid-1918 that Germany’s air service had adopted the Heinecke backpack parachute brought about a sudden outbreak of frenzied activity on the part of what had, by then, become the Royal Air Force to develop their own parachutes. Still, by then, it was already too late as the war was already drawing to its close. And the Heinecke version was far from perfect, failing its users at about one time in three.
The story that parachutes were deliberately withheld is no more than what is known today as an urban myth.
Rip-cord-operated parachutes were developed by the Irving Company and began to be issued to the Royal Air Force air crew in 1925.
Major Orde-Rees jumps from the upper walkway of London’s Tower Bridge in November 1917. Although the drop was only 140 feet, the parachute opened in time to allow him to reach the chilly waters of the river Thames unharmed.