Jumping From A Balloon In The 19th Century

Jumping From A Balloon In 19th Century


     There was a time when balloon ascensions were popular attractions at county fairs and other venues all across the United States.  To draw larger crowds, some aeronauts took to making daring parachute jumps, or “drops” from their balloons, generally from altitudes ranging from 2,000 to 5,000 feet, although there were some who jumped from much greater heights.  The parachutes were usually of the aeronaut’s own design, made of linen or silk, and attached to the outside of the balloon, and not in a pack strapped to the back of the aeronaut.   

     When the aeronaut left the balloon, he (or she) would hold on to a ring at the bottom of the parachute, or sit upon a trapeze suspended beneath the parachute, and maintain a hold until landing.  However, there were some who would perform acrobatic feats with the trapeze during the descent.  As one might expect from such an arrangement, not all parachute “drops” ended well.

     The following illustrations from the late 1880s depict how such feats were accomplished.

Balloon ascending with parachute attached to the side.

Balloon ascending with parachute attached to the side.

     The top of the parachute was attached to the balloon in such a way that when the aeronaut dropped, his weight would cause it to release.  


Aeronaut Preparing to Jump With Parachute.

Aeronaut Preparing to Jump With Parachute.

     For obvious reasons, leaping from a balloon under these circumstances required one to be in top physical condition.   Upon leaving the balloon, the aeronaut would free fall for 100 feet or more before the parachute (hopefully) opened with a jerk.  Therefore it was necessary to maintain a strong grip lest he be yanked free by the jolt.  The grip then had to be maintained for at least two minutes or more while making the descent.  If landing on earth, he had to be agile enough to “tuck and roll”, and if on water, a good swimmer.

Safe Landing

Safe Landing

Performing Acrobatics

Performing Acrobatics

Sometimes Parachutes Would Fail

Sometimes Parachutes Would Fail


      Captain Thomas Baldwin, a well known aeronaut, balloonist, and airman of the late 1800s and early 1900s, described to a newspaper reporter what it feels like to make a parachute drop from a balloon.  The following excerpt is from the December 15, 1887 edition of the Democratic Northwest, a now defunct Ohio newspaper. 

    “The first hundred feet are the worst.  The parachute does not fill at once, and so it is like falling sheer through that much space.  And that is another reason why the drop has to be made a little carefully; otherwise I might get turned over, and though, of course, if I hold on ’twill come out all right, yet the wrench on my arms would be violent, and the thing would shake more.  It shakes quite enough, I assure you, although I have improved a little on it in that respect.  You can fancy what a fall of a hundred feet might be, though it is pretty hard to imagine it if you have never been through the thing.  The sensation is not altogether pleasant.  It is a giddy sinking through the air.  The condensation of the atmosphere under the parachute, which is shaped like an umbrella so as to catch the air more readily, brings me up suddenly.  It is almost like a jerk, and to people looking at me I seem to stop for a moment.  After that the decent is more gradual, though it is quite fast enough for ordinary purposes.  The rate of speed is about 1,200 feet a minute.  I have given the point of resistance which the parachute offers with a certain weight and when it is of a certain diameter a good deal of study.  The sensation is pleasant enough in summer.  Floating down through the air in that way is cool.  It is something like coming down a rapidly running elevator.  But your legs are free, and you feel your body with nothing around it.  The oscillations begin, however, and you are swayed from side to side like a pendulum.”          

Louis H. Capazza   

Louis Capazza's Parachute-Balloon, 1892

Louis Capazza’s Parachute-Balloon, 1892

       In 1892, Louis H. Capezza, (1862-1928), developed what he called a “parachute-balloon” in which the parachute served as the upper netting for the balloon until ready to deploy.  (See illustration below.) If the balloon suddenly burst, or developed a leak, the aeronaut would be saved by an automatic deployment of the parachute.  The balloon could also be manually opened via a rip cord operated by the pilot.

     Mr. Capazza also developed the concept of utilizing a parachute as an “air brake”.  Sometimes, for various reasons, a balloon would rise too fast, or continue to rise higher than the aeronaut intended.  Capazza reasoned that by placing a folded parachute beneath the balloon that could be unfurled in such a situation, the rapid ascension could be slowed or stopped.       

     Updated November 11, 2019

A 1906 illustration showing a performer being shot from a cannon suspended beneath a balloon.


     Democratic Northwest, (Napoleon, Ohio), “A Mighty Leap”, December 15, 1887

     Pittsburg Dispatch, (Pittsburg, PA.), “A Parachute Balloon”, November 27, 1892, page 22

     The Middleburgh Post, (Middleburgh, PA.), “To Stop A Balloon”, November 5, 1896

     Kansas City Journal, (Kansas City, Mo.) March 9, 1897, Page 8 

     The Cook County Herald, (Grand Marais, Minn.) “Leap From The Clouds”, November 30, 1901

     Wikipedia –  Louis H. Capazza

     The Interior Journal, (Stanford, KY.) July 6, 1906


Rutland, VT – September 7, 1922

Rutland, Vermont – September 7, 1922 

Rutland Fair Grounds

    On September 7, 1922, a “flying circus” was performing at the Rutland Fair Grounds before a crowd of 30,000 spectators when two accidents occurred. 

     The first accident involved an aircraft piloted by Lieutenant Belvin W. Maynard, (29), a.k.a. “The Flying Parson”.  At about 1 p.m. Maynard and two others, identified as Lt. L. R. Wood, and Charles Mionette, took off in an Arvo 504 bi-plane to perform a series of aerial stunts for the entertainment of the fair goers.  The men were familiar with the routine which they had been performing all week.   The accident occurred while Maynard was performing a tail spin from an altitude of 2,000 feet.   Evidently he was unable to pull out of the spin, and the aircraft plunged nose first into a cornfield at the edge of the fair grounds killing all three men.

     Lt. Maynard was a veteran of World War I, but prior to the war he had studied to be a Baptist minister.  He was a frequent speaker in churches, and had been scheduled to give a talk at the Rutland Baptist Church later in the day.  He had also performed at least one marriage while flying his airplane over Times Square in New York, hence the nick name, “Flying Parson”.

     To see a photo and more info about Lt. Maynard, click here: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/82911271/belvin-womble-maynard

     The second accident at the fair occurred later that same day.  A 43-year-old aeronaut named Smith had been giving parachute exhibitions by jumping from his balloon.  After two successful jumps that afternoon, Smith did a third, but his parachute failed to open and he was killed.

     Smith had been doing parachute jumps for the previous ten years.  In 1920, (Exact date not known.)  Smith was severely injured during one of his jumps in Lynn, Massachusetts. 

Source: New York Times, “Flying Parson Dies, 3 Other Air Men Killed During Fair.”  

Update: October 7, 2016

     Smith’s full name was Henry A. (Daredevil) Smith of Boston, Massachusetts.  He jumped from 3,500 feet and his parachute opened slightly, then closed, and failed to re-open.  He hit the ground about 100 yards east of the Main Street fence of the fairgrounds. 

     In the accident at Lynn, Mass., he was to jump from an airplane, but the pilot lost control and crashed.  Smith fell 800 feet and lived, but the pilot was killed.

     Source: Barre Daily Times, “”Maynard Body On Way Home” – “Another Shock For crowd”, September 8, 1922, page 1

     Update March 20, 2022

     According to an article in the New York Tribune, the men killed in the aircraft accident were identified as Louis Beyette of New York City, not Charles Mionette, and Norman Wood of Chicago, not L. R. Wood.  It is unknown which is correct.

     The same article also mentions a farmer identified as E. C. Ryder as being critically injured after being struck by an object projecting from a passing truck. 

     Source: New York Tribune, “Flying Parson One Of 4 Killed In 2 Crashes At Vermont Fair.”, September 8, 1922, pg. 1

     Still another newspaper, the New York Herald, identified the men killed with Lt. Maynard as being Major Charles Wood of Ticonderoga, N.Y., and Louis Beyette of Plattsburg, N. Y. 

     Source: New York Herald, “Flying parson Dies With Two Air Aids In Nose Dive Crash”, September 8, 1922.  

     Updated March 23, 2022 

     According to a newspaper article which appeared in The Lake Placid News on September 15, 1922, the two men who perished with Lt. Maynard were identified as Major Charles Wood and Louis Walter Beyette.  That article stated that the trio had taken off for a sightseeing flight over Killington Peak which is a few miles east of the Rutland Fairgrounds.  It was during the return trip that the engine failed and the plane crashed in Dyer Woods near the Rutland Fairgrounds. 

     Source: The Lake Placid News, “Ticonderoga Ace Killed In Fall”, September 15, 1922, page 9.  

Another source: New Britain (Ct.) Herald, “Four Are Killed In One Afternoon”,September 8, 1922, pg. 15. 

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