by Jim Bates
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
There are many awards given for achievements in the airplane segment of the big picture
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.
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
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
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
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
had Lt. Selfridge aboard as a passenger. Without warning, at 125 feet in the air, a
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,
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
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.
The Allies (equally reluctantly) also decided to save their most valuable resource—
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.
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
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.
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
After World War One, Stevens was a member of a group of notable parachutists
at the U.S. Army's McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio to develop a reliable parachute for
Floyd Smith and Leslie Irvin were compatriots of Stevens and other notable parachutists
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
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
with his prototype and Floyd Smith was pilot of the test aircraft. Irvin made his test
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,
"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,
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
"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
Medal presented on February 2, 1952 by Augustus Post at New York City.
1952 BRIGADIER GENERAL HAROLD R. HARRIS (RET.! (New Canaan,
"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
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
1954 LT. COLONEL JOHN P. STAPP, USAF (MC) (Holloman AFB, New
"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)
"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
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.
1955 GEORGE F. SMITH
"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
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
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,
"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
at Orange, Massachusetts.
1959 CAPTAIN JOSEPH J. KITTINGER, USAF (Wright-Patterson AFB,
"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
detailed accounts of exceptional parachute-related accomplishments of these A. Leo
Parachute Medal winners.
The author can be contacted via e-mail: ParaHistry@aol.com
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