CHAPTER VI. The Parachute

No doubt many of those who read this book have seen an aeronaut descend from a balloon by the aid of a parachute. For many years this performance has been one of the most attractive items on the programmes of fetes, galas, and various other outdoor exhibitions.

The word "parachute" has been almost bodily taken from the French language. It is derived from the French parer to parry, and chute a fall. In appearance a parachute is very similar to an enormous umbrella.

M. Blanchard, one of the pioneers of ballooning, has the honour of first using a parachute, although not in person. The first "aeronaut" to descend by this apparatus was a dog. The astonished animal was placed in a basket attached to a parachute, taken up in a balloon, and after reaching a considerable altitude was released. Happily for the dog the parachute acted quite admirably, and the animal had a graceful and gentle descent.

Shortly afterwards a well-known French aeronaut, M. Garnerin, had an equally satisfactory descent, and soon the parachute was used by most of the prominent aeronauts of the day. Mr. Cocking, a well-known balloonist, held somewhat different views from those of other inventors as to the best form of construction of parachutes. His idea was that a parachute should be very large and rather heavy in order to be able to support a great weight. His first descent from a great height was also his last. In 1837, accompanied by Messrs. Spencer and Green, he went up with his parachute, attached to the Nassau balloon. At a height of about a mile the parachute was liberated, but it failed to act properly; the inventor was cast headlong to earth, and dashed to death.

From time to time it has been thought that the parachute might be used for life-saving on the modern dirigible air-ship, and even on the aeroplane, and experiments have been carried out with that end in view. A most thrilling descent from an air-ship by means of a parachute was that made by Major Maitland, Commander of the British Airship Squadron, which forms part of the Royal Flying Corps. The descent took place from the Delta air-ship, which ascended from Farnborough Common. In the car with Major Maitland were the pilot, Captain Waterlow, and a passenger. The parachute was suspended from the rigging of the Delta, and when a height of about 2000 feet had been reached it was dropped over to the side of the car. With the dirigible travelling at about 20 miles an hour the major climbed over the car and seated himself in the parachute. Then it became detached from the Delta and shot downwards for about 200 feet at a terrific rate. For a moment or two it was thought that the opening apparatus had failed to work; but gradually the "umbrella" opened, and the gallant major had a gentle descent for the rest of the distance.

This experiment was really made in order to prove the stability of an air-ship after a comparatively great weight was suddenly removed from it. Lord Edward Grosvenor, who is attached to the Royal Flying Corps, was one of the eyewitnesses of the descent. In speaking of it he said: "We all think highly of Major Maitland's performance, which has shown how the difficulty of lightening an air-ship after a long flight can be surmounted. During a voyage of several hours a dirigible naturally loses gas, and without some means of relieving her of weight she might have to descend in a hostile country. Major Maitland has proved the practicability of members of an air-ship's crew dropping to the ground if the necessity arises."

A descent in a parachute has also been made from an aeroplane by M. Pegoud, the daring French airman, of whom we speak later. A certain Frenchman, M. Bonnet, had constructed a parachute which was intended to be used by the pilot of an aeroplane if on any occasion he got into difficulties. It had been tried in many ways, but, unfortunately for the inventor, he could get no pilot to trust himself to it. Tempting offers were made to pilots of world-wide fame, but either the risk was thought to be too great, or it was believed that no practical good would come of the experiment. At last the inventor approached M. Pegoud, who undertook to make the descent. This was accomplished from a great height with perfect safety. It seems highly probable that in the near future the parachute will form part of the equipment of every aeroplane and air-ship.