Sitting together in a Benoist bi-plane, Captain Albert Berry and pilot Tony Janus prepared for one of Berry's first two parachute jumps.
By Rae Whitley, Assistant Curator, National Museum of Military Vehicles
U.S. Army Captain Albert Berry Parachutes for a Second Time 110-Years Ago
On March 10, 1912, U.S. Army Captain Albert Berry performed a stunt for the second time, one he had vowed just 10 days earlier to never do again. It was 110 years ago that the first U.S. soldier jumped again "from a perfectly good airplane."
Sitting together in a Benoist bi-plane, Captain Albert Berry and pilot Tony Janus circled the area above Jefferson Barracks, MO. As they looked for their target, Kinloch Field, they spotted a building. Berry said to Janus that the building was where they really belonged. The building was an "insane asylum".
Regardless, at an altitude of 1,500 feet, Barry went into action. He slid out of his seat, climbed down the fuselage and onto the plane's axle then sat down on a trapeze bar dangling below the plane. While sitting on the unsteady swinging bar, Berry tied a rope around his waist. At least for that moment, safety was on his mind.
Janus' job was equally challenging as he fought to keep the light and flimsy plane steady. Any sudden movement or shift in weight could violently spin the plane out of control sending both men plunging to certain death.
A newspaper reporter described the event:
Berry gave a quick jerk of a rope and with the parachute shot downward, while the aeroplane, first bouncing up like a cork, suddenly poised and steadied itself.
Hundreds of watchers held their breath as Berry shot toward the earth, the parachute tailing after him in a long, snaky line. Suddenly the parachute opened, the rapidity of the descent was checked, and amid cheers, the first aviator to make such an attempt lightly reached the ground.
Captain Berry plunged approximately 500 feet before the parachute canopy was deployed. The topsy turvy drop was anything but graceful. "I believe I turned five somersaults on my way down...My course downward...was like a crazy arrow" stated Berry. "I was not prepared for the violent sensation that I felt when I broke away from the aeroplane."
Both men landed safely in their respective modes of transportation that day. After the jump, which had been watched and cheered by fellow soldiers at Jefferson Barracks, Berry emphatically declared that he would "Never Again!" jump from a plane with a parachute.
10 days later, Captain Berry would set another trend subsequently held by paratroopers throughout history, going against better judgment and pushing the envelope. Berry jumped again, but this time from half the altitude as his first jump.
This second jump was done for a much larger and public audience. Capt. Berry, because of clouds and snowy weather, wanted to jump from just 800 feet. It seemed as though safety was not his highest concern. He wanted to make sure the audience was guaranteed to see the parachute deploy.
But from 800 feet? Berry's previous jump 10 days earlier included a 500-foot freefall before the canopy opened fully. This crowd-pleaser almost lost his life on the second jump. Berry and his parachute were upended, and the chute began to open underneath him as he plunged down to earth. He had mere seconds to become untangled, right the chute, and get the canopy to open before hitting the ground.
After walking away from that second jump, Capt. Albert Berry vowed to never jump again, and he didn't. But the gauntlet was thrown down, the bar was set, the challenge was made. Soon parachutists were doing jumps from planes all over the country. But only Captain Albert Berry could claim to be the first U.S. Army soldier to jump from a plane with a parachute.