Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The History of Parachuting and its Emergence as a Recreational Activity

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Throughout history, mankind has been fascinated with aviation, and the ability of animals and machines alike to fly. Perhaps the Achilles heel of our race is our need for adventure, and our thirst for danger. With the development of the parachute initially in China during the 11th century, man ventured onto the once new and unexplored volar plateau, where we looked to accomplish what some hold as our greatest goal that has not yet been achieved, to fly.

While there is some stipulation as to the first actual appearance of the parachute or a device similar to it, it has now been generally accepted that some time during the 11th century in China the parachute was used as an entertainment tool in a circus. While amusing children and adults alike, these shows also bestowed a sense of awe within the audience. A dream once thought unimaginable was fulfilled as man took to the sky, and that was just the beginning of a journey that is still continuing today.

The first written account of the parachute can be found within the journals of famous artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci expanded upon his idea of what became our modern day helicopter to create a pyramid shaped structure wrapped tightly in cloth. The design of a pyramid if the base is removed can serve as a high-drag device for lowering someone or something onto the ground. Da Vinci never did actually construct his pyramid, but in spite of that, he is generally given credit for creating the idea of lowering someone or something to ground based in large part upon the drag principle, which is defined as the degree of resistance involved in hauling or movement.

The first true test of the parachute came in 1617, when Fauste Veranzio constructed an apparatus similar to that of da Vinci’s. Veranzio took his idea a step farther by building and then testing his device. He jumped from a tower in France, and though perhaps not as smooth as he would’ve liked, he sailed to the ground. This test was an absolute landmark in the development of the parachute, as it took an idea once deemed absurd and made it a reality. Though further development of Veranzio’s trial was not begun until more than a century later, Veranzio’s trial marks an essential point in the development of the parachute.

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The next trials of the parachute occurred in 178, over 150 years after Veranzio’s jump from the French tower. This time, Sebastian Lenormand was the risk-taker, jumping from a tower using a parachute 14 feet in diameter. His test was much more successful, as the larger diameter provided more wind resistance, and he was able to maintain the longest hang time in history to that point. The increase of drag in the new parachute was attributed to the larger parachute, which allowed more air to be captured within it, and allow for more fall time.

The next great innovation involving a parachute has become one of the most important in today’s society. Because the parachute still seemed like an absurd idea to some, it was not explored as a life saving device. Though it was not planned, Jean Pierre Blanchard became the first man to test a parachute as a life saving device after his hot air balloon exploded; Blanchard used a parachute to coast back to solid ground. Though to some it may have seemed like an insignificant event, it actually helped to shape our modern day aviation. Many of our modern planes, especially military aircraft, are equipped with a set of parachutes for each crewmember and/or passenger. The addition of these parachutes to the aircrafts have saved lives both in civilian and military airlines alike, and parachutes continue to be the most practical and safe method of escaping an air-emergency

Up until 177, all parachutes had been constructed using a wood frame, filling the interior with a fabric that could absorb the wind well. In 177 Andrew Garnerin tested the first parachute to be built without a sold frame, jumping from an altitude of 8000 feet. As a French astronomer witnessed Garnerin’s jump, he noted the extreme oscillation that occurred during the freefall. Wind was constantly being push out the sides of the parachute, decreasing hang time and making the ride back to the ground much more turbulent. His solution was to put a small hold in the top of the actual parachute, allowing air to pass through in small amounts, keeping more air within the parachute. This modification to the parachute, both removal of the frame and the insertion of the hole in the top of the parachute, may be (together or individually) the most important event(s) in the history of the parachute. High-altitude jumps would be virtually impossible without either of these innovations, and high-altitude jumps are what give parachuting the excitement surrounding it today.

Throughout the following two centuries, the parachute underwent a series of new innovations allowing for higher altitude, longer fall-time jumps. With the addition of a harness and deployment devices, parachuting began to show it’s promise as a social activity. That promise has blossomed into an avid following of the parachute industry. Today, thousands of people take to the skies each sunny day, hoping that they may not need the parachute to deploy to control their airborne journey. Though they never can, they return as much as possible, each time taking to the air with a smile on their face. So this once absurd idea, dismissed by the masses has become one of the few ultimate thrills in our society today.

Man’s journey to the sky has spanned centuries, but after all the work the benefits are being reaped. An idea once dismissed as unworthy and impossible has become a reality, and man has finally flown, if only for a short while.

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