From Ballooners to Bombers: A History of the Backpack Parachute

Aviators once scorned the life saving device, seeing it as something for circus performers, not pilots.

At the beginning, pilots didn't want parachutes.

Even in an emergency, one aviator sniffed, "It’s much safer for an operator to remain in his seat." Parachutes weren't safety devices—they were the provenance of inventors and circus performers. They had nothing to do with planes.

The aviators weren't entirely wrong. Since the late 18th century, when Louis Sebastien Lenormand had jumped from the tower of Paris' Montpelier Observatory and floated to ground under the spread of a 14-foot umbrella of wood and linen, parachuting had been more spectacle than science. A few years later, in 1797, André-Jacques Garnerin took a balloon half a mile above up above the Parc Monceau, let go and rode a silk parachute down. By the end of the next century, over in America, parachutes were the provenance of carnival daredevils, like Thomas Scott Baldwin, who in 1885 leapt from a balloon in front of an audience in Golden Gate Park. He had struck a deal with the park manager that paid him $1.00 for every foot he fell.

By the 1890s, performers like Charles Broadwick were making such jumps regularly. Parachuting took preparation, though. In his show, Broadwick would use a rope to secure his parachute to the bottom of a balloon, which carried the chute, with him attached, up high into the air, where he'd activate a cord-cutting mechanism and head back down. This was quite dangerous: His wife and parachuting partner, Maude Broadwick, died in a fall, after getting tangled in the chute's cords.

A year later, Broadwick developed a simple strategy to protect the parachutist: He carefully folded the parachute into a pack. It was still attached to the balloon, by a thin cord. As the parachutist fell, the cord would pull the chute from the pack and then break.

If you look for the patent for this invention, though, you'd find it attributed to Glenn Martin, the aviator whose business grew into today's Lockheed Martin. Martin had met Broadwick in 1912, at an air show in Los Angeles, and the two men starting working together. In 1913, Martin flew Broadwick's new jumping partner, Tiny (who was, really, very small), up in a plane, and, parachute strapped to her back, out she went.

In 1914, Martin applied for a patent for a packed parachute—Broadwick's design, scaled down a bit. His wasn't the only backpack parachute in development, either. A Russian actor created one. Leo Stevens had invented a parachute pack opened by a ripcord in 1908.

Pilots still didn't want parachutes, though. It wasn't until after the Great War, when the Army combined the best features of existing parachutes—the pack, the ripcord, and the little pilot chute that deploys first, pulling the bigger one along behind it—that anyone in aviation took them seriously.