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Wonders of World Aviation

Every Member’s Life Has Been Saved by a Parachute

FOUR TIMES A CATERPILLAR, Col. Charles A. Lindbergh

FOUR TIMES A CATERPILLAR, Col. Charles A. Lindbergh. All four emergency descents occurred before Col. Lindbergh won renown for his solo flight in May 1927 across the Atlantic. On two of the occasions, on March 6 and on June 2, 1925, he was a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Corps reserve Officers. His other two descents were on November 3, 1926, when he was an air mail pilot.

THE Caterpillar Club is a fraternity of about 1,700 men and a few women, of many nationalities, whose lives have been saved by the Irvin Air Chute. It is not a club in the normal sense of the word, as the members do not meet for social occasions. There are no fees, no rules and no headquarters. The only tangible sign of the club’s existence is a gold pin bearing a caterpillar design. The caterpillar, which lowers itself to earth by a silken thread, was selected to represent the action of the parachute.

After an aviator’s life has been saved by the Irvin Air Chute, he sends particulars to the makers of the parachute. When the details have been verified he is presented with the Caterpillar Club’s pin. Membership is restricted to aviators who have been compelled to make a descent. Practice, exhibition, training and other premeditated descents are not considered. The inventor of the Irvin Air Chute, Leslie L. Irvin, has made more than a hundred descents, all premeditated, but he is not - so far - a Caterpillar, because he has never had to jump to save his life.

The Caterpillars include record breakers, test pilots, Service, commercial and amateur pilots, observers, radio operators, aircraftmen and passengers. They are scattered all over the world.

The Caterpillar pin is a symbol showing that the wearer has passed through an ordeal which no man desires: he has jumped for life from an aeroplane disabled in the air. Some men have had more than one escape.

The most remarkable Caterpillar is Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh. Four times his life has been saved by parachutes. On each occasion he was comparatively unknown, as the events happened before May 1927, when his flight from New York to Paris made him world-famous.

Two of Lindbergh’s emergency descents by parachute were made when he was a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Corps Reserve of Officers in 1925, and two when he was an air mail pilot in 1926.

The badge of the Caterpillar ClubHis first escape was at Kelley Field, Texas, on March 6, 1925, when another pilot, First Lieutenant C. D. McAllister, was saved also. Their single-seater fighters were among nine machines practising diving attacks on an aeroplane at 5,000 feet. They collided, locked, and began spinning together to destruction. Lindbergh jumped first. He saw that the aeroplanes might strike him: so he delayed pulling the rip cord. When he was clear he pulled the cord. The parachute opened, and Lindbergh saw McAllister descending above him by parachute. The locked aircraft struck the ground and burst into flames. Meanwhile, Lindbergh manipulated his shroud lines to steer clear of bushes and scrub, and landed on a ploughed field. McAllister descended safely also.

Less than three months later, on June 2, 1925, Lindbergh was testing an aeroplane at St. Louis, Missouri. He was flying at 2,000 feet when the machine went into a spin which could not be corrected. Lindbergh persevered until he was only 300 feet from the ground. Then he jumped - and lived.

His other two escapes occurred within less than two months of each other, in 1926. Both were made at night on the St. Louis-Chicago air mail route, and on both occasions the mail was saved. Lindbergh was trapped by fog when flying on the night of September 16, 1926. He flew over a fog-bound town and tried to locate the airfield.

Searchlights were switched on and barrels of petrol were lighted on the airfield, but the fog was too thick and too deep for Lindbergh to see these signals. He flew round, trying to find a clear patch. Then his petrol began to give out. He climbed above the fog to 5,000 feet, when the fuel supply failed and the engine stopped. Lindbergh jumped into the night, pulled the rip cord and opened his parachute. As the pilotless aeroplane dived, a little petrol drained into the carburettor, and, the switch being on, the engine came to life for a few moments, driving the machine in spirals towards the descending parachute.

Lindbergh manipulated the shrouds and sideslipped clear. Then, as parachute and aeroplane descended into the fog belt, he hoped for a clear landing. He was fortunate; he landed in a field of corn. He folded the canopy of the parachute and went to find a road and assistance to locate the machine, which had crashed somewhere in the fog. The aeroplane was found two miles away, with the mail intact, near Ottawa, Illinois.

Jump from 13,000 Feet

On the night of November 3, 1926, snow, rain and mist trapped Lindbergh once more. He descended to 600 feet and dropped a parachute flare, intending to land by its light. The flare fell vertically and was useless. Lindbergh repeated his previous tactics of using the last of his petrol to climb. Aviators confronted by such circumstances use all their petrol so that when the machine comes to earth there shall be no danger of fire from that cause.

This time Lindbergh gave himself more height. He climbed to 14,000 feet. The fuel was exhausted, and he switched off before he prepared to jump. He then saw that he might foul the machine, so he resumed control and altered the path of descent. The aeroplane was at 13,000 feet when he jumped.

As be descended with the parachute open he flashed a torch to try to pierce the darkness and show any watchers his position. He landed on barbed wire, but his flying suit saved him from harm. He extricated himself, packed the canopy and discovered that he was at Covell, Illinois. Efforts to find the aeroplane failed. He flew over the district in another machine in the morning, sighted the wreck, landed and recovered the mail, which he took to the nearest airfield for dispatch.

A number of Caterpillars are survivors of collisions in the air. Many of them are Service pilots whose machines have collided while engaged in mock combat. On more than one occasion the collision between single-seater machines has wrecked two machines and initiated two more Caterpillars. The aviators are not always fortunate, as they may be killed by the shock of the impact. The pilot of one of two aeroplanes which collided in France was seen to leave his machine; his parachute opened, but the pilot was dead.

TWO EMERGENCY LANDINGS have been made by Major James H. Doolittle, the U.S pilot and recordbreaker. The first was on September I, 1929, at Cleveland (Ohio), and the second on June 23, 1931, at Robertson (Missouri). On the second occasion, Major Doolittle was making an attempt on the world’s landplane record, which he gained in 1932 with a speed of 473·82 kilometres (294·41 miles) an hour.

Life is so precious to the individual that it would be untrue to say that the parachute is of more importance to one class of aviator than another. It is significant, however, that many of the test pilots of Great Britain are Caterpillars. Test pilots occupy a particular niche in aviation. Civilian pilots test new machines for manufacturers, and their colleagues in the Service test machines for military flying. They are all men of exceptional flying skill.

In pre-parachute days the mortality among test pilots was high. Inventors, who were not always aviators, tempted skilled pilots by offering them substantial fees to take new machines into the air. Many of these machines crashed, and killed or injured the pilot.

Without parachutes, test pilots flying machines of new types for the first time would have been justified in allowing a wide margin between the limits which the designers had established in theory or from models and the limits necessary for human survival. Many test pilots who went too near the limit of safety were killed.

The parachute has not made test pilots safe, but it has made them safer. If a new machine comes to grief on test and the pilot escapes by parachute a public inquest is not necessary, and the details investigated at the official inquiry are not disclosed. All concerned are much wiser, however, than in the days when the test pilot was generally killed by a mishap.

When Test Pilot H. J. Penrose was saved by parachute at Woodbridge, Suffolk, on August 21, 1934, he was the fourth test pilot to join the Caterpillars in less than twelve months. The others were Test Pilot F. B. Tompkins, at Manchester, on January 18, 1934; Captain J. Summers, at Brooklands, Surrey, on November 23, 1933; and Flight-Lieutenant C. S. Staniland, near Hayes, Middlesex, on September 11, 1933. Captain J. Summers descended from the machine at the same time as Mr. J. Radcliffe, an engineer, who was with him.

The brother of Captain J. Summers - Test Pilot M. Summers - is also a Caterpillar. He was testing a new machine at Brockworth, near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, in June 1937, and was flying upside down. Spectators saw the wings fall off and heard a loud report. Parts were hurled from the machine and the fuselage began to spin. Then the pilot emerged and dropped, his

parachute opened and he was seen hanging limply in the harness. As he neared the ground watchers saw that he was bloodstained and injured. He landed in Brockworth Aerodrome sports field. Rescuers hurried to his aid, and he was promptly taken to a nursing home.

Meanwhile, the fuselage of the aeroplane, with the engine working at full speed, roared towards a main road, burst through telegraph wires and embedded itself several feet in the ground within a few feet of a bungalow. Petrol and oil splashed the walls of the bungalow and the impact of the machine hurled soil over the roof. The tenant of the bungalow, who was gardening, picked pieces of the machine out of his potato bed.

There was neither fire nor explosion. The wreckage was promptly roped off and covered with canvas to await inspection by Air Ministry officials.

The pilot had escaped from the fuselage when it was upside down. One spectator said he thought that the tail of the fuselage had hit him as he left the machine.

A wing fell off the aeroplane which Test Pilot H. J. Penrose was putting through its paces above Martlesham, Suffolk, on August 21, 1934. The crippled machine dived and got into a spin. The pilot landed by parachute at Woodbridge, some miles from where the aeroplane had crashed into the River Deben. The petrol tank was found about a hundred yards from the wreck, the wing was found two miles away, and the tail two miles from the wing.

When the machine which Captain J. Summers was testing, with Mr. J. Radcliffe, came apart in the air above Brooklands on November 23, 1933, parts of the machine were seen falling and a report, as of an explosion, was heard. Then the two occupants were seen floating to earth. Captain Summers landed in a tree. Neither he nor Mr. Radcliffe was seriously hurt.

The well-known test pilot Flight-Lieutenant C. S. Staniland was testing an aeroplane near Hayes, Middlesex, on September 11, 1933, when it went into a flat spin at about 1,400 feet and began to hurtle towards the earth. A friend said that the pilot was knocked into the back cockpit when he first tried to jump. He made a second effort and succeeded when the aeroplane was only about 700 feet above the ground; he landed safely. The aeroplane pancaked on its wheels. A test pilot subjects a machine to abnormal strains, and possession of a parachute enables him to go beyond safety and still have a chance of living. The more normal purpose of the parachute is to enable aviators to be saved in an emergency.

THE CONTROLS OF THE AEROPLANE FAILED on June 13, 1924, when Second-Lieut. Walter Lee was flying as low as 150 feet

THE CONTROLS OF THE AEROPLANE FAILED on June 13, 1924, when Second-Lieut. Walter Lees, U.S. Air Corps, was flying as low as 150 feet. Despite the low altitude, the parachute worked perfectly. This photograph was taken at the spot where Lees landed, at Dayton, Ohio. After an aviator’s life has been saved by the Irvin Air Chute, he sends particulars to the makers of the parachute. When the details have been verified, he is given the Caterpillar Club’s pin. Membership is restricted to those who have made an unpremeditated descent.

As Service machines often fly in abnormal conditions which civil aircraft are not required to encounter, many Caterpillars are members of the Air Forces of the various nations. The British Empire and the United States claim many Caterpillars; other countries represented include Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Japan, Poland, Sweden, the U.S.S.R. and Yugoslavia.

On September 12, 1934, just before midnight, a twin-engined bomber added four Caterpillars to the club. It was being flown to give searchlight crews practice in locating aircraft, and was passing above hilly and wooded country near the Hog’s Back, in Surrey, when one engine seized. The pilot intended to fly on the remaining engine to Brooklands, but fire broke out. The machine was then at 2,000 feet. He ordered his three comrades to jump, which they did within a few seconds of one another. By then the machine was down to 1,000 feet.

The pilot jumped also, receiving a blow, but not a serious one. All four made safe descents, although one man had to climb over a hedge to avoid cattle which his arrival had alarmed. The four men were collected by a motorist. The burning bomber crashed in a field, the impact putting the fire out.

Mr. W. S. Soule, a Canadian student learning to fly at Hamble, Hampshire, went up on March 6, 1934, in a machine piloted by a friend, Mr. A. S. Hell, of Vienna. The machine was doing a slow roll and was upside down at 4,000 feet when Mr. Soule fell out. Apparently a pin securing the straps was not fastened securely, and Mr. Soule left the aeroplane.

“I shot head over heels three times before I could pull the rip cord of the parachute,” said Mr. Soule. “The parachute worked perfectly. I went down for about a thousand feet when I began to rock. I landed comfortably, just missing some tall trees.”

Within twenty-four hours Mr. Soule was hurt in a car accident. He was swathed in bandages, and he went to a microphone and broadcast the story of his escape by parachute.

Fire in the air is a danger from which several Caterpillars have emerged alive. One of them was at an altitude of only a few hundred feet near Rochester, Kent, when his machine caught fire. He escaped by parachute.

AFTER THE RIP CORD HAS BEEN PULLED, the pilot parachute is the first to openFog blinds the pilot and blots out the ground. One pilot was flying at Romsey, Hampshire, on March 4,1934, when he was cut off by fog. He flew until his petrol was exhausted, and then landed safely by parachute from a height of 2,000 feet.

One pilot who jumped from a spinning machine was struck by it as machine and man were falling through the air. He had not pulled the rip cord, and the parachute had therefore not opened. The blow broke an arm, but he managed to pull the rip cord. The parachute opened and he landed alive.

When two military machines collided in the air in Iraq the pilot of one was flung out by the impact, opened his parachute, and descended safely. In the machine was an Air Gunner, who, instead of jumping, took over control and landed the machine down wind with the engine on. The aeroplane, as might have been expected, turned over, but the young man escaped death.

AFTER THE RIP CORD HAS BEEN PULLED, the pilot parachute is the first to open. The main parachute must be made to open promptly, and must be able to withstand the shock of a 200-lb load falling through the air at a speed of 300 miles an hour. During tests of the Irvin Air Chute jumps have been made from aircraft travelling at 303 miles an hour and from altitudes up to 30,000 feet.

The tradition of the air is that the pilot gives the order to abandon the aircraft before he jumps. Once the order has been given and the pilot is sure that it is understood, it is every man for himself, as split seconds are valuable in a falling machine. Many pilots have perished through remaining at the controls and trying to save the aeroplane instead of their lives. The point is one that can be decided only by the pilot concerned, according to the circumstances. No instance is known of a pilot having abandoned the controls of a machine and jumped without having done his duty by his comrades.

Time and again Caterpillars have made what were previously thought to be impossible escapes. Mr. Tang Pao Sun, a student at an aviation school at Hangchow, China, jumped from a spinning aeroplane at a height of only 150 feet and descended by parachute in safety. This was on September 13, 1933, and made the student the first Chinese Caterpillar, although on August 18, 1927, Master-Sergeant Robert G. Frey, U.S. Marine Corps, made an emergency descent at Hsin Ho and was presented with the first Caterpillar pin for a landing in China.

Major James H. Doolittle, the U.S. pilot and record breaker, is among the Caterpillars who have made two emergency landings. His first was on Sep tember 1, 1929, at Cleveland, Ohio, and his second on June 23, 1931, at Robertson, Missouri. On the second occasion he escaped from a machine designed for an attempt on the world landplane record. He remarked laconically: “Plane failed: chute worked.” In 1932, Major Doolittle gained the record (since broken), with a speed of 473·82 kilometres (294·41 miles) an hour.

Some Caterpillars have emerged from trouble at high altitudes. First Lieutenant Julian B. Haddon flew, on January 26, 1929, to a height of 32,000 feet above Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio. When the temperature was 60° below zero he fainted. The aeroplane fell 22,000 feet with the unconscious man. At 10,000 feet he recovered, and tried to right the machine. A connecting rod in the engine broke under the strain. The aircraft burst into flames - still descending; at 3,000 feet Haddon jumped and landed safely after the aeroplane had crashed.

For speed, the escape of Second Lieutenant Walter Lees, at Dayton, Ohio, on June 13, 1924, is one of the most remarkable. He took off and was only 150 feet up when the controls jammed and the machine banked vertically. Lees flung himself out, pulling the rip cord before he left the aeroplane; the parachute opened in a flash and lowered him safely.

When Lieutenant-Commander G. Falconakis, with Mechanic P. Vannopolus, was testing a machine above Tatoi Aerodrome, near Athens, on June 19, 1931, the right aileron broke at 4,000 feet and the machine dived, out of control, at some 200 miles an hour. Both men jumped, becoming the first Greek Caterpillars.

Home-Made Parachute

The Caterpillars include a general - General Augustin Justo, Minister for War, Argentina - who was flying above La Rioja, on April 12, 1927, when the machine was struck by a violent storm at 6,000 feet. General Justo was flung out. He opened his parachute and landed safely.

Mrs. Irene McFarland had made her own parachuLESLIE IRVIN, inventor of the Irvin Air Chutete for a demonstration descent at Cincinnati, Ohio, on July 4, 1925. She was instructed to wear, in addition, a U.S. Service parachute. When she jumped, her own parachute fouled the machine and she dangled helplessly from it until she pulled the rip cord of the Service parachute. The canopy opened, pulled her clear of the tangle and lowered her safely to earth.

LESLIE IRVIN, inventor of the Irvin Air Chute. He was the first aviator to make a descent with a “free type” manually operated parachute. The photograph shows him wearing the “Quick Release” harness and “Seat Pack” type of Irvin Air Chute. Although Leslie Irvin has made more than a hundred descents, he is not - so far - a Caterpillar, as these descents have all been premeditated.

The success of the Irvin Air Chute is no accident. Exhaustive tests were made over a considerable period, with the object of eliminating all possible weaknesses and of producing a parachute that would respond instantly in all emergencies. To that end the designers set up a number of standards to which the Irvin Air Chute has to conform.

The aviator must be able to leave the disabled aircraft, irrespective of the position in which it may be. The operating device must not depend on the aviator falling from the aircraft. The parachute equipment must be fastened to the body of the aviator all the time he is in the aircraft. The operating device must not be complicated, liable to foul, or susceptible to damage in ordinary service conditions. The parachute must open promptly and must be capable of withstanding the shock incurred by a 200-lb load falling at a speed of 300 miles an hour. The parachute must be steerable to a reasonable degree. The harness must be comfortable, strong and so designed that the shock of opening will not injure the aviator.

Many of the Caterpillar Club escapes have confuted theories of what can be done with a parachute, or of what a man in peril who keeps his nerve can do.

[From Part 3 & Part 4, published 22 & 29 March 1938]

You can read more on “Parachute Landings” and “Work of the Test Pilot” on this website.

The Caterpillar Club