PARASAILING, PARAKITING, AND PARACHUTING FOR THRILLS AND SURVIVAL: THE WWI EXPERIENCE FROM THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY COLLECTION

While enjoying the sun, sand, and surf in Delray Beach this past weekend, I was mesmerized by the sight (and flight) of a few self-propelled parasailors buzzing overhead. Both parasailing (using an ascending-gliding parachute while being towed behind a motorboat) and parakiting (surfing while harnessed into a parachute-like kite) have become popular forms of beach entertainment—at least for the physically fit who aren’t faint of heart! But while neither of these “para”-activities are uncommon sights on the beach, this was the first time I witnessed individuals flying overhead using a parasail, propelled by a motorized air boat fan strapped to their backs!

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The first individual to take to the skies was obviously the more experienced of the three daredevils, as he executed hairpin turns and other bold aerial maneuvers. But considering that all three had caged motorized fan blades strapped to their backs—(much like those one associates with air boat rides through the Everglades)—I couldn’t help but admire their bravery and/or foolhardiness. The landings looked at least as dangerous as the take-offs.

Naturally, the impromptu air exhibition on the beach conjured up thoughts and images from the Wolfsonian museum library collection related to the daring aviators taking to the skies in biplanes during the First World War. Military aviation became important to the war effort in two regards: first, providing aerial reconnaissance of troop movements and defenses; and second, providing appealing images of biplane “dogfights” designed to meet the public’s desire for a more chivalric, romanticized, and sanitized war narrative than the realities of a stalemated and bloody trench warfare.

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Ironically, neither aerial “dogfights” nor aerial bombardment proved at all decisive on the Western Front. Although all of the belligerents in the war touted the exploits of their own cadre of “aces,” it was the far less glamorous work of surveillance that made the lighter-than-air zeppelins and kite balloons, and the winged bi-planes strategically significant.

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Because tethered military observation balloon crews often had to “jump ship” in the face of enemy fire or at the approach of enemy aircraft, German balloons were soon equipped with parachutes.

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PURCHASED WITH FUNDS DONATED BY MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR.

When needed, these chutes could be quickly attached to simple and lightweight harnesses worn around the waist; the British Royal Flying Corp and French observation balloon crews soon followed suit.

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Jumping from a stationary balloon with a parachute was relatively simple; the attempt to adapt this life-saving technology to fixed wing aircraft, however, proved highly problematic during the First World War. The Germans, again, were the first to innovate, installing a bag with a chute in a compartment behind the pilot’s seat in the cockpit.

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The added bulk and weight was one consideration. More discouragingly, experience proved that most pilots found it extraordinarily difficult to deploy a parachute without getting the shroud lines entangled in the wires of an aircraft as it plunged to the ground in a death spiral.

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One German flying ace who by the end of his career had shot down thirty-nine airplanes and nearly fifty balloons, Oberleutnant Erich Löwenhardt (1897-1918), died when his chute failed to open after his plane was damaged in a mid-air collision with another pilot. Hermann Göring (1893-1946), who became the commander of the Red Baron’s famed “Flying Circus” following the death of Baron von Richhofen’s successor in 1918, was once saved by a parachute. But anecdotal evidence aside, statistically speaking more than a third of the first seventy German pilots bailing out with a parachute perished in the attempt. Allied airplane crews were not even issued parachutes at all, as the military command thought it better to encourage pilots to do everything possible to save and salvage their aircraft rather than bail out and abandon (air)ship.

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PURCHASED WITH FUNDS DONATED BY MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR.

~ by "The Chief" on August 14, 2014.

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