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André-Jacques Garnerin (1769-1823)

In 1797, André-Jacques Garnerin became the first person to jump out of a balloon in a small detachable gondola and descend safely to Earth

Issue: 11-2014By Joseph Noronha

The world’s first untethered, free flight of a hot air balloon carrying human passengers, took place on November 21, 1783, in Paris. Although there were many more balloon ascents thereafter, they had an exceedingly small margin of safety and no means of escape for the occupants should the device catch fire or rupture. However, in 1797, André-Jacques Garnerin became the first person to jump out of a balloon in a small detachable gondola and descend safely to Earth. His device was the forerunner of the modern safety parachute that is responsible for saving countless lives.

Garnerin was born in Paris on January 31, 1769. During the French Revolution he was captured by British troops and held as a prisoner of war in Buda, Hungary, for three years. Spending many idle hours in captivity, he hit upon the novel idea of using a parachute to leap off the high prison walls and escape to freedom. However, he was unable to put his plan to the test possibly because he could not lay hands on suitable materials.

After his release from prison, he began to experiment with early parachute designs and decided to attempt his first parachute descent on October 22, 1797, at Parc Monceau, Paris. He managed to assemble a fairly large crowd to witness the feat. His parachute was made of silk, approximately seven metres in diameter and had a pole running down its centre. A rope running through a tube in the pole connected the parachute to the balloon. In its closed state the contraption resembled a giant furled umbrella. It did not have a safety harness. Garnerin sat in a basket (gondola) attached to the bottom of the parachute during the ascent. At a height of approximately 1,000 metres he severed the rope that connected his parachute to the balloon, thus setting the balloon free to float away. This is how he later described the momentous act: “I was on the point of cutting the cord that suspended me between heaven and Earth and measured with my eye the vast space that separated me from the rest of the human race.” Immediately Garnerin, with his basket and parachute, started falling towards the ground. The gondola oscillated violently from side to side (sometimes a full 90-degree swing) during the brief descent, then bumped on the ground and bounced up again into the air. Garnerin emerged uninjured and triumphant, although he was reportedly violently sick as a consequence of the oscillations during the descent – possibly the first recorded case of aviation motion sickness. He came down about one kilometre North of the park and was quickly conveyed back to his point of departure where he was greeted by the enthusiastic multitude.

Somewhere in the large crowd watching André-Jacques Garnerin’s first parachute descent was Jeanne-Geneviève Labrosse. She later met Garnerin, signed up as his pupil and flew with him on November 10, 1798. She subsequently became the first woman to ascend solo in a balloon and, on October 12, 1799, the first woman to make a parachute descent (in a gondola) from a height of about 900 metres. She later married Garnerin. The ballooning and parachute jumping habit spread to Garnerin’s niece Elisa as well. Elisa was just 15 when she learned to fly balloons and she went on to make about 40 parachute jumps between 1815 and 1836.

The early parachute descents, which Garnerin repeated several times over the next few years, were unstable and prone to sickening oscillations. It took some years for him to realise that the instability was a result of the air that spilled out uncontrollably around the skirt of the canopy. In 1802 Garnerin’s friend Jérôme de Lalande, the famous astronomer, suggested that a small hole should be cut in the centre of the parachute, in order that the air might escape from it in smooth and regular fashion. This Garnerin tried and the problem was satisfactorily resolved. The apparatus, notwithstanding its immense size, became perfectly manageable.

Fame came quickly to Garnerin. He was appointed official aeronaut of France. In 1802 he visited England in his official capacity together with his wife. The couple made a number of demonstration flights. On September 21, 1802, he completed a record jump from 2,500 metres in London. In all, over the next few years he made around 200 jumps in various countries. He also strove to conduct useful experiments during the many longduration balloon flights he made – sometimes alone, sometimes with passengers. He was careful to note the speed of the balloon and the direction of flight. He thought it might be useful to convey military instructions to armies much more rapidly than any system of communication then in use. Among the pure science experiments he attempted, he carried aloft vessels filled with water to a great height, then emptied them and sealed them so as to obtain samples of the air at high altitude. Alexander von Humboldt discovered that the composition of the atmosphere does not change with decreasing pressure and increasing altitude.

Ironically, André-Jacques Garnerin’s death did not happen on account of a parachute malfunction but on the ground while he was preparing for a balloon ascent. As he was readying a parachute for take-off on August 18, 1823, a sudden strong gust of wind made the contraption move violently and he suffered a fatal blow on the head from some heavy wooden rigging of the balloon.