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The World of Parachutes,
Parachuting, and Parachutists

by Jim Bates

"Parachutes -- Wondrous Devices!" will bring to readers diverse and wide-ranging information about parachutes, parachuting, and parachutists. The columns will be for those who want to know about parachutes -- how they came to be; their many uses, some of them truly extraordinary (e.g., mine breaks; steeplejack safety); lore; history, military applications (paratroops, HALO, HAHO, LALO; LAPES; guided cargo delivery; midair retrieval systems, both personnel and cargo); parachute forces of nations the world over; NASA's satellite rocket booster (SRB) recovery parachutes and refurbishment; new developments; ideas that did not work; what's in the future; unusual emergency jump stories (experiences of Caterpillar Club members); ejection systems (military and civilian aerobatic); world parachuting records; safety news; parachute rigging; how chutes work; why chutes sometimes don't work (rigging/packing/usage errors); wartime uses; sport parachuting/skydiving; slope soaring/paragliding; powered parachuting; fixed object/ B.A.S.E.-jumping; parachutes in general aviation; parachuting in the movies; parachute postage stamps for collectors; use of rescue parachutes to save hang gliders, ultralight aircraft, and Cessna planes (and their passengers, as well); survival with a parachute, U.S. smokejumpers (and their history of more than 65 years); parachuting as a national sport in the 1930s; air/sea rescue by PJs (parajumpers of the USAF); large sea anchors, parachute patents (abstracts and full patents); notable people in parachuting; parachute humor; book reviews; oddities; things you probably won't find elsewhere; in all, a vast potpourrii of information about that wondrous device, the parachute.
1 2

Leonardo Da Vinci Had a Safety Idea --
but He Didn't Call it a Parachute

In the 15th century Leonardo Da Vinci -- sculptor, painter ("La Gioconda," the half-smiling Mona Lisa"), scientist, engineer, designer and builder of many clever devices that served many purposes -- was renowned for his brilliant mind and prolific artistic and scientific output. It's a reasonable certainty, knowing of his genius for innovation and resolving problems, that he thought of humans rising into the sky and soaring as birds did. And he must have understood that an airborne creature also might fall and be injured, even killed. Perhaps he envisioned some parachute-like device for the safety of those adventurous high-rising souls, but there is nothing on record revealing that concept as his first real safety intent -- or even a later intention, for that matter.

His original idea was apparently meant to be a life-saving device for people to use to rescue themselves from tall buildings that were on fire and there was no other means of escaping.

His notebook looked somewhat like a modern parachute during use while descending. And according to his written notes, modern engineers concede that, as clumsy-looking as it was, it would have worked acceptably, in theory. Its efficiency and ease-of-use, though, are doubtful.

But Da Vinci never took his idea beyond the drawing board. A drawing said to be from his personal notebook has also been shown in various other sketch forms, but no record exists that a working model was ever built, nor has it been documented that a "jump" of any other form of descent was ever made, nor was there ever even an unsubstantiated rumor to that effect.

He apparently thought certain that it would have worked and busied himself with other ideas and inventions. Thus, based on his brief commentary and a rudimentary sketch, Leonard Da Vinci was awarded yet another credit by later admirers -- "father of the parachute."

5 About a century later, another Italian, Fausto Veranzio, said to be an architect of Venice (but also said to be a Hungarian mathematician), published Machinae Nova, a book about new devices of his design. In the book was an engraving titled "Homo Volans" ("Flying Man"), and it seems to be the first clearly printed, well defined depiction of a parachute-like device in use, showing a man descending from a tower, with four lines secured to the man's body to form a harness of sorts, with the upper part of the lines knotted to the framework corners of an oblong, horizontal "sail."

Like his countryman's concept, Veranzio's seems to have remained an idea only. Though his idea was greatly publicized, no evidence has been found that there ever was a homo volans of his of any other time who tested and proved Veranzio's plan.

It would be another 300 years before anyone made what was considered to be an actual parachute descent, and well before the advent of even basic heavier-than-air craft.

It would not be until the early part of the 20th century, when flight became a greater part of human activity, that parachutes became an accepted aviation safety device.

Parachute -- the Word

The background of the now common word parachute is murky and no date can be determined for its coining. But reasonable explanation is possible.

6 Parachute is said to have come into being by putting together the prefix "para" and the noun "chute." Some language analysts say the whole word is a blend of two French terms; others say the prefix is Italian and became combined with the French noun for the modern word. Since both tongues are "romance" languages, and both prefixes date back to an ancient Greek prefix with several definitions, one of them similar to the meaning of both later prefixes, it seems to make little difference who gets credit.

4 However, it is confusing. Because there are varying descriptions, the following is meant to clear the matter. In the ancient Greek language there was a prefix "para" that had several usages, including "against." That prefix is the basis for the Italian "parare," "to ward off," from Latin "parare," a combining word form meaning "a thing that protects from."

The French prefix "para" means "protect against" or "shelter from" as used in parasol ("protect against"/"shelter from" and "sun"). The French noun chute" is based on the Old French word "cheute," meaning a fall, or a declivity (downward slope, or descent); but the term was meant to describe a means by which objects moved from a higher to a lower level, as with water conduits, or coal chutes to move fuel from a street level into a cellar. However, later users decided the fall was also in the sense of one falling from a height.

3 Who actually coined the new word parachute is lost in history, but it certainly seems that someone of France is the likely choice because of the extensive role of the French in building hot air balloons in the 18th century and making many ascents. Balloon-making and flying were trial-and-error ventures, so it was only a matter of time before there were in-flight failures. Then a search began to produce something that would protect against an injurious (or fatal) fall. The stopgap measure of adding cushions or springs on the bottom of the passenger basket just did not work well enough.

That something needed a name and parachute came into usage.

Learn About the World of Parachutes

Some columns will be devoted to a single item of special interest or importance; or an article will present a variety of information, answer specific questions presented by readers, explain a technical matter, detail a variety of procedures, relate history or lore, provide tips and cautions and important warnings.

All in all, readers will be able to learn about a major adjunct of aviation that has a history predating heavier-than-air flight.

The author can be contacted via e-mail:

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This section is meant as an educational tool. If there are any topics of interest you wish to see here or are learning in school/college or wish to comment on the content please email either the author, Jim Bates, or with your input.

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