Today we are well used to seeing parachutists both civilian and military leap from aircraft and land with better precision and safety than ever before. It has become a staple of military forces to project power anywhere on the globe by inserting a force through the air by parachute. But did you know that the first parachute design was by Leonardo da Vinci back in the 15th century?

Da Vinci’s parachute was far ahead of its time and consisted of sealed linen cloth held open by a pyramid of wooden poles, about seven meters long. In fact, his idea was so far ahead of available technology, that it wouldn’t be practically designed until 1783. But while parachutists had leaped from balloons, it wasn’t until the 20th century that one leaped from an aircraft in flight. 

On March 1, 1912, U.S. Army Captain Albert Berry would lay claim to being the first parachutist from an aircraft. Berry and pilot Tony Janus took off from Kinloch Field, Missouri and flew about 18 miles to Jefferson Army Barracks in a Benoist pusher-type airplane. They climbed to an altitude of 1,500 feet. In a book published about his feat, Berry supposedly looked down and saw an insane asylum. “That’s where we both belong,” he said to Jannus.

In the tiny aircraft, Berry had to climb out of his seat, climb down the fuselage on the axle and set himself on a trapeze bar dangling from the front of the airplane Then slide his legs through some loops and tie a rope around his waist. The parachute was too bulky to be strapped to Berry’s back, as is the custom of today, so it was packed in an iron cone fastened to the plane’s undercarriage. 

Jannus had to keep the flimsy aircraft as level as possible while Berry climbed down and attached himself to the parachute. A sudden movement in any direction could have been enough to destabilize the small plane and kill both men.

Berry suspended below the aircraft on the trapeze bar.

A newspaper reporter was on the scene and reported the events as they unfolded,

Berry gave a quick jerk of a rope and with the parachute shot downward, while the aeroplane, first bouncing up like a cork, suddenly poised and steadied itself.

Hundreds of watchers held their breath as Berry shot toward the earth, the parachute tailing after him in a long, snaky line. Suddenly the parachute opened, the rapidity of the descent was checked, and amid cheers, the first aviator to make such an attempt lightly reached the ground.