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The A. Leo Stevens Parachute Medal
- A Baker's Dozen of Early Recipients

by Jim Bates

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Joe Crane, of Mineola, New York, and proprietor of the Joe Crane & Co. Parachute Loft, was the first recipient of the A. Leo Stevens Memorial Fund Medal. It was presented to him on September 4, 1948 by Augustus Post at the Early Bird banquet held in the Hotel Carter, Cleveland, Ohio, during the National Air Races.

"For having instructed several hundred students in parachute rigging and jumping; parachute construction consultant; and credited with having made 689 parachute jumps."

Airplane Awards

There are many awards given for achievements in the airplane segment of the big picture of aviation. That's understandable, considering the countless kinds of airplanes and their many roles in civil and military aviation since the Wright brothers made their flights at Kill Devil Hill, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903.

A little more than a decade later aerial combat was devised as yet another new mode of battle, altering both ground and naval warfare.

In time of peace, flying machines were used in an amazing array of aviation endeavors - humanitarianism, meteorology, forest fire control, air/sea rescue, space research, entertainment, ad infinitum.

Today, museums round the world are dedicated to glorifying and preserving airplanes and related artifacts and photographic and written history.

Balloon Awards

Lower on the attention and preservation scale, balloons command small exhibits, though most material often remains in storage, waiting for more exhibition space in visitor areas; and perhaps there are several file drawers of documentation.

However, there are many splendid medal and certificate awards for feats of ballooning— altitudes reached, distances traveled, outstanding design, lifting capacity, and other achievements.

Early Ballooning

Huge bags, capable of carrying humans aloft—at first inflated with the heat of fires on the ground and later by airborne fires lifted with the balloon and tended by passengers—have been rising into the sky since November 21, 1783. On that day the Marquis d'Arlandes and Pilatre de Rozier, aboard their Montgolfier hand-crafted hot-air balloon, rose in the air and floated in gently moving air over the lofty towers of Notre Dame de Paris cathedral. Their flight lasted twenty minutes and two excited passengers landed safely. Human ascension into and passage through once unreachable heavens became realities.

Early balloonists and glider and airplane pilots, each in their successive eras, were ridiculed, called hare-brained and fools. But soon afterward they were called high-minded adventurers, pioneers of a new frontier, heroic seekers of progress, daring visionaries. The mystique of aviation grew quickly. The thrill of rising into and being part of the sky attracted countless people to various modes of flight.

However, the perils of flight did not escape the minds of some in aviation. They realized that trouble-free flight and safe landing could not be guaranteed. Though "Murphy's Law" had not yet been defined in the 18th century, it was nonetheless in effect—"Whatever can go wrong will go wrong—and at the worst possible moment!"

That "worst possible moment" for balloonists came when fabric bags of heated air—and later dangerous flammable hydrogen gas—gave way and the passenger basket and collapsed fabric plunged to earth.

One prudent balloonist prepared for such a contingency and his foresight paid off. Polish aeronaut Jordaki Kuparento took his "fire balloon" aloft for another of many exhibition ascensions for an eager public and rose above Warsaw on July 14, 1808. The basket had a container to serve as the portable heat source and bundles of straw for fuel. Hot air was generated by a large fire beneath the opening of the inflated balloon. Unexpectedly, at a "considerable altitude," the fire's flames reached the bag fabric, which burned rapidly. The balloon lost its form; Kuparento started his dreadful fall to earth.

Restraining panic, Kuparento quickly equipped himself with a parachute he had wisely brought along. His lifesaving apparatus, carried aloft on all flights, was a foldable silk parachute he had made, one with hand grips at the ends of suspension lines. Firmly clutching the hand grips of his folded canopy, he launched himself from the basket. The canopy snapped open sharply, almost causing Kuparento to lose his tight grips; he hung on desperately and landed safely. Kuparento entered history as the first person to save his own life by using a parachute.

In World War One scores of British soldiers saved themselves from burning to death or death by crashing into the ground. Not long after the British army had started sending tethered "kite" balloons above front lines in France to spot German artillery positions and troop and supply movements, the Germans countered ferociously with fighter planes setting hydrogen-filled balloons afire with incendiary bullets.

Early Powered Flight

With the onset of powered flight, the likelihood of a fatal fall from on high had to be realistically faced. But that realization was cavalierly slow taking place because so many flights took off, flew, and landed without serious incident; so if nothing was going wrong why worry about nebulous probability?

Powered aviation—affected by the law of diminishing returns—experienced its first fatality when U.S. Army Lieutenant Thomas E. Selfridge became the first person to lose his life in an airplane accident. During a demonstration flight to the army at Fort Myer, Orville Wright had Lt. Selfridge aboard as a passenger. Without warning, at 125 feet in the air, a propeller shattered and the stricken plane fell to earth. Lt. Selfridge died of a fractured skull and Orville suffered several fractures and severe shock.

Now horrifyingly warned, most thinkers opined that safely escaping from a helpless falling aircraft was next to impossible, so early inventive efforts were for saving the craft itself, including passengers.

The U.S. government issued many patents to designers of innovative parachute concepts for safely letting down planes and passengers in the short span between the Wrights' four flights and the start of the 1914-1918 "Great War' (later termed "World War One"). However, the U.S. Patent Office would grant patents for concepts only and there doesn't seem to be any record of most ideas ever reaching even a prototype stage.


Airplanes and Parachutes

Germany was the first military organization to opt (albeit reluctantly) for saving the lives of flyers by equipping combat aircraft with static-line parachutes, similar to the stowage and deployment systems used by balloon personnel. In 1917 a German plane was destroyed by machine-gun fire from an Allied plane. The German pilot leaped overboard using a Heinecke seat-type parachute equipped with an eight-foot static line and landed safely, apparently becoming the first airplane pilot to save his life with a parachute.

path1911The Allies (equally reluctantly) also decided to save their most valuable resource— people— and authorized parachutes for flying personnel. Before America could get parachutes to airmen in France, an armistice was signed and the war ended on November 11, 1918.

Parachutes as a life-saving device were slowly accepted in aviation from 1920-onward and over the next 75 years great advancements were made in their technology and uses. Along that same route, parachutes were also used for recreation and for sporting events.

Parachute Awards

Lowest on the attention, recognition, and preservation scale of aviation history are parachutes, parachuting, and parachutists.

To complement awards presented to aviators and plane designers, and to the ballooning community, establishment of the A. Leo Stevens Memorial Fund was a major step in correcting aviation's oversight of recognizing people who made truly significant contributions to the art and science of parachutes and, most important, to saving human lives.

A. Leo Stevens (1876-1944) was a pre-World War One exhibition balloonist and parachutist who later developed new concepts of parachute canopies and harnesses. Arthur Lapham and Frederick Law made exhibition static-line jumps with Stevens' parachutes, leaping from bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and airplanes.

Static-line rigs, mounted on an aircraft, had saved lives in emergency situations but sometimes aviators were entangled in deploying suspension lines and canopy and died because they could not get clear of a spinning airplane.

While Stevens was commercially designing and manufacturing various parachutes for making static-line jumps, he was also toiling to create a manually controlled parachute assembly that could be deployed by a free-falling aviator after leaping from a disabled aircraft. He had conceived a freefall parachute as early as 1908 but had not developed a practical rig.

After World War One, Stevens was a member of a group of notable parachutists assembled at the U.S. Army's McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio to develop a reliable parachute for aviators.

Floyd Smith and Leslie Irvin were compatriots of Stevens and other notable parachutists in the McCook Field group and Smith and Leslie had each independently arrived at similar configurations for a back-style freefall parachute assembly (though history is not clear as to who actually was first). Major Hoffman, commanding officer of the military unit charged with developing the emergency freefall parachute, assigned Irvin to make the first test jump with his prototype and Floyd Smith was pilot of the test aircraft. Irvin made his test freefall jump from an altitude of 1,500 feet. It was successful and a new age had arrived for aviation by proving that freefall parachuting was safe.

This article opened with basic facts about the first presentation of the A. Leo Stevens Memorial Fund Medal to a venerable and honored figure in parachuting—Joe Crane. Now learn about the rest of a "baker's dozen" of recipients who were awarded the prestigious recognition annually through 1959 (including an additional special award in 1954).

1949 COLONEL E. VERNE STEWART (Santa Barbara, California)

"For his services while Office in Charge of paratroop training at Ft. Benning, and later Officer in Charge of the Parachute Equipment Laboratory at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio."

Medal presented September 3, 1949 by Brig. Gen. Frank P. Lahm (Ret) "the world's first military aviator"; at the Early Bird banquet in the Hotel Carter, Cleveland, Ohio during the National Air Races.

1950 ARTHUR J. LAPHAM (Union City, New Jersey)

"For being the second person to jump with a Stevens Manually Operated Safety-Pack Parachute in 1913 at San Juan, Puerto Rico; and at Oakwood Heights, Staten Island, New York; and credited with having made approximately 100 parachute jumps."

Medal presented April 12, 1950 by Augustus Post at New York City.

Mr. Lapham was City Commissioner of Union City, New Jersey for seven years.

1951 LT. COLONEL WILLIAM R. LOVELACE, II, M.D. (Albuquerque, New Mexico)

"For his invention and demonstration of the bail-out oxygen bottle with which he made his first parachute jump from a B-17 bomb-bay at an altitude of 40,200 feet, for scientific research."

Medal presented on February 2, 1952 by Augustus Post at New York City.

1952 BRIGADIER GENERAL HAROLD R. HARRIS (RET.! (New Canaan, Connecticut)

"For having made the first emergency parachute jump from a U.S. Army airplane, at McCook Field, Dayton, Ohio, on October 20, 1922, which resulted in the U.S. Army Air Force issuing an order requiring all airmen to wear parachutes on all flights."

Medal presented by Maj. Lester D. Gardner (Ret.), founder and first president of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences, at New York City.

1953 AMOS R. LITTLE, JR., M.D. (Helena, Montana)

For his outstanding services as a medical officer under the Second Air Force Search and Rescue Program; the Forest Service School Training Program in Missoula, Montana, in accordance with Forest Service Smoke Jumper standards; the U.S. Army Parachute School Program; the Second Air Force; the Continental Air Force Command; and various rescue jumps over the U.S. National Parks and elsewhere, for the purpose of rendering medical aid and assistance to injured airmen."

Medal presented on January 29, 1955 in Helena, by Gov. J. Hugo Aronson of Montana, on behalf of the Awards Committee, while the Montana State Legislature was in session.

1954 LT. COLONEL JOHN P. STAPP, USAF (MC) (Holloman AFB, New Mexico)

"For having successfully accomplished deceleration from a velocity of 632 mph in 1.4 seconds and 690 feet in his aeromedical research sled test run on December 10, 1954; designed to reproduce conditions experienced by airmen in supersonic bailouts."

Medal and an accompanying scroll presented on January 18, 1956 by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, on behalf of the Awards Committee, all of whom were present, at a Wings Club special luncheon in the Hotel Biltmore, New York City.

1954 CAPTAIN. THOMAS E. WILLSON, USAF (McClellan AFB, California) (Special Award)

"For successfully maneuvering the burning C-46 transport plane he was piloting with 15 chaplains aboard as passengers, and two other crew members, until all of them parachuted to safety; after which he jumped and the aircraft crashed in flames on the Los Angeles city prison farm."

Medal presented on December 8, 1954 by Brig. Gen. Harold R. Harris (Ret.), on behalf of the Awards Committee, at the Wings Club, New York City.


"For his contribution to Aviation Medical Science on February 16, 1955, while testing an F-100 Super Sabre which became crippled at an altitude of 35,000 feet and he ejected himself from the diving fighter at an estimated speed of 777 mph from an altitude of 6,500 feet over the Pacific. He is the first man known to have made a supersonic bailout and live. His escape approached human survival limits and contributed greatly to the science of medicine in aeronautics. The skill and daring displayed by him were in keeping with all the fine traditions of the pioneers in aviation."

Mr. Smith was a test pilot for North American Aviation at the time. The medal and a scroll were sent to him at his home.

1956 DR. HELMUT G. HEINRICH (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

"For outstanding contributions to the science of aerodynamic retardation and for the development of a new type of parachute with exceptional dynamic and aerodynamic characteristics for human and cargo descent."

Medal presented on January 15, 1958 by Lieutenant General James M. Gavin, on behalf of the Awards Committee, at the Wings Club, New York City.

Dr. Heinrich conducted research and development of the Guide Surface Parachute, Personnel Type, at the Wright Air Development Center, Dayton, Ohio, starting in the fall of 1949 and continuing until March 1951.

Dr. Heinrich is Professor, Aeronautical Engineering, Institute of Technology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

1957 MAJOR ROBERT F. OAKLEY, USAF (Yuma Test Station, Arizona)

"For having designed and developed a troop-type parachute which provided performance superior to the parachute previously used by the U.S. Army and Air Force personnel engaged in premeditated jumping. This parachute, designation as Type T-10, has been adopted as standard by the USAF and U.S. Army Pararescue teams. Major Oakley's achievement reflects great credit upon himself and upon the aviation service."

Medal presented on October 15, 1958 by Brig. Gen. Harold R. Harris, on behalf of the Awards Committee, at the Wings Club, New York City.

1958 JACQUES-ANDRè ISTEL (Orange, Massachusetts)

"In recognition of his contribution in the development of techniques used by parachute sportsmen and the airborne personnel of the U.S. Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps, in overcoming the hazards which may be encountered in long-delay freefalls incidental to emergency and premeditated jumping."

Medal presented on May 2, 1959 by Lieut. Gen. James M. Gavin (USA, Ret.), on behalf of the Awards Committee, at the dedication of the first sport parachuting center in the U.S. at Orange, Massachusetts.

1959 CAPTAIN JOSEPH J. KITTINGER, USAF (Wright-Patterson AFB, Dayton, Ohio)

"Outstanding contribution in the investigation, by personal experiment, of human physiological functions, limitations, and subjective reactions during stabilized freefall."

Medal presented on September 27, 1960 by Brig. Gen. Harold R. Harris (Ret.), on behalf of the Awards Committee, at the Wings Club in New York City.

This achievement was in connection with the Excelsior Project Balloon Bailouts from extremely high altitudes, the last one being 102,800 feet over New Mexico.

Capt. Kittinger was also the winner of the 1959 Harmon Trophy and he holds the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The succinct wording of each person's award and accompanying notes does not truly do justice to the significance of their actual achievement. Hence, future columns will give more detailed accounts of exceptional parachute-related accomplishments of these A. Leo Stevens Parachute Medal winners.

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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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