U.S. Military History: Parachutes in the Armed Forces

(U.S. Army Reserve photo by Master Sgt. Michel Sauret)

The history of parachute use in the military dates back to World War I when they were used as a means of escape from various aircraft and observation balloons. Italy has been credited as the first country to stage a combat jump, which took place in 1918, but the history of the parachute dates back centuries prior to its first military use. 

A 1485 sketch from Leonardo Da Vinci shows a man drifting through the air while wearing a parachute. Da Vinci hypothesized that “If a man has a tent made of linen… he will be able to throw himself down from any great height without suffering any injury.” However it was over 300 years later, in 1797, that Andrew Garnerin became the first recorded person to use a soft parachute. His wife would become the first female parachutist 2 years later. 

It wasn’t until the 20th century that parachutes became more prominent and evolved into use for military purposes. Up to that point though, parachutes were not uncommon and were used often to jump from hot-air balloons. Russian actor Gleb Kotenikov holds the credit for creating the first backpack parachute, which paved the way for military use. It’s said that he was motivated to create it after bearing witness to the horrific death of a pilot during a Russian air show. What Kotenikov realized, and helped address, were two needs: 1) The parachute needed to always be on the pilot, and 2) It needed to open automatically. In the years that followed, his design was adapted, implemented, and transformed.

Though there were instances of parachutes used by troops in World War I, they were few and far between. In May of 1940, months before the US completed its’ first successful paratrooper test jump, Germany made the first mass combat drop of World War II, into Holland. On August 16, 1940, the United States Army successfully conducted the first paratrooper test at Fort Benning, Georgia. The test came decades after parachutes began development for use in a military realm, and specifically for airplane pilots. Parachutes and paratroopers became a significant factor in combat during World War II. Their use was most widespread during WWII.  While paratroopers continue to be used into the present day, their use peaked during World War II. But that hasn’t stopped innovation and development for the parachutes used by paratroopers. Today, the U.S. Army uses a parachute design known as the T-11, introduced in 2007. In the 80 years since the first test jump, the T-11 only the fifth parachute design used to date by the U.S. Army. 

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Posted on August 10 2020 in Blog

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