Safety, Edwardian-style


If you still can’t believe World War One pilots were never issued with parachutes, this glimpse into Edwardian attitudes may help…

Last post, I shared Flight magazine’s account of the first fully documented spin recovery (‘Parke’s Dive’), from August 31st, 1913. But before we move on, here’s an editorial that appeared just two weeks later, on September 13th, 1913.

Even though Parke was restrained (and very likely saved) during his spin by “a wide belt strapping him to his seat”, Flight’s editors felt sure that safety equipment – and parachutes in particular – would never catch on.

Accidents, Belts and Parachutes

While flying a B.E. biplane near Farnham the other day, Kemp*, who has been doing very sensational banking lately by way of testing the factory-built machines, suddenly lost control of his aircraft at an altitude of about 2,000 feet. The stopping of the engine was apparently the initial cause of the mishap, according to the only accounts at present available. The reports say that he turned over several times in the air, but at last succeeded in regaining control of his machine and in alighting safely.

Whatever the cause and details of the accident may be, one of the morals to be drawn from it is, of course, the fundamental advantage of flying high. If anything approaching the story of the mishap actually took place, it is quite apparent that Kemp would have been dashed to pieces had he been flying at a low altitude.

Royal Aircraft Factory (and later Short Bros.) test pilot Ronald C Kemp.
Royal Aircraft Factory (and later Short Bros.) test pilot Ronald C Kemp.

Yet another important point is associated with the question of securing the pilot in his seat. We do not know whether Kemp was strapped in, but the fact remains that he was not thrown out. It was one of the sad features of Cody’s fatal accident* that both he and his passenger were projected from the machine and thrown to the ground an appreciable time before the machine itself struck the earth. As a matter of fact the fall of the machine was considerably broken by the trees into which it pitched, and although by no possible stretch of imagination could one say that such an accident was of other than the utmost seriousness, it is just conceivable that the occupants of the machine might not have been killed if they had fallen with it. There have, at any rate, been several instances in which pilots have landed in timber without very seriously hurting themselves.

We do not wish to argue from this that it is necessary to wear a belt, because pilots feel at the present time that the pros and cons are pretty equally divided. There is at any rate a peculiar horror associated with being tied to the wreckage of a burning aeroplane, and although belts are made so that they can be instantly detached under normal circumstances, there still remains a certain amount of doubt as to their action in emergency. Furthermore, special attention needs to be given to the adjustment of the belt if it is to avoid causing serious internal stress in the event of a sudden shock.

Little future for the parachute

We anticipate, as a consequence of the foregoing remarks, a further batch of letters from enthusiasts of the parachute. Whenever there is an accident, we always receive an extraordinary crop of correspondence in which the same sort of safeguards are recommended over and over again.

A 1913-vintage B.E.4 built by the Royal Aircraft Factory. Kemp may have been flying this model, or the later B.E.8 with a twin-row Gnome rotary engine. (IWM 67031 via wikipedia)

Cody himself once had an idea that it might be useful to carry a parachute coiled up like a turban on his head. We question very much, however, whether Cody was ever the man to have used it if he had had one made, and we doubt still more whether, had he been using it at the time of his fatal accident, it would have been capable of saving his life.

Frankly, we see very little future for the parachute as a life-saving apparatus in emergency on aeroplanes; with dirigibles it might be another matter. Nevertheless, we are far from dissuading the ingenious inventor from persevering with his attempts to devise a really satisfactory folding parachute that can be applied to the body in a moment, and that will open out with absolute certainty when the person jumps into the air.

…the very remarkable experiment…

Before Pegoud* took to flying upside down he made, it will be remembered, the very remarkable experiment of jumping out of an aeroplane in full flight. He had a parachute attached to his body, and he alighted in safety. It seems to us that the value of the experiment is related very closely to the circumstances under which it is carried out, that is to say, we fancy that there may be more to be said for the ability to intentionally leave an aeroplane that is in perfect control than for the possible virtue of the parachute as a means of checking an aviator’s fall in the event of disaster.

In military reconnaissance it is quite conceivable that it might mean a very great deal to be able to drop an observer in a certain place where it might be physically impossible to alight with the machine. If the observer could safely descend by the aid of a parachute it might be an undertaking that, upon occasion, would be well worth the risk.

A German pilot lies dead in his crashed airplane in France, in 1918. Ironically, the Germans were issuing parachutes by War's end. (National World War I Museum, Kansas City, Missouri, USA)
A German pilot lies dead in his crashed airplane in France, in 1918. Ironically, the Germans were issuing parachutes by War’s end. (National World War I Museum, Kansas City, Missouri, USA)

One reason why the parachute is hardly likely to become the safety device on aeroplanes that some people seem to wish, is because it is so highly improbable that the average pilot or the average passenger would systematically wear it. Accidents are not limited to flights of great moment, such as might seem worthy of special preparation in advance, but they are just as likely to happen, as did Cody’s accident, in a trial spin round the aerodrome.

A pilot’s job is to stick to his aeroplane

We cannot exactly see in our mind’s eye the modern pilot strapping on his parachute for such events. As well might one expect the seaside tripper who drowns himself with such exasperating regularity every holiday time, to wear a cork jacket when he gets aboard his row-boat for his annual display of foolishness.

It is this human factor in the situation that militates against even the trial of such schemes, and this same human factor is a very good index to the relative values in the case. A pilot’s job is to stick to his aeroplane. It was Kemp’s duty to try and regain control of his machine, and it would have accomplished nothing to- wards the progress of aviation as such if he had been thrown out, or if he had jumped out. As it is, his experience has a real value. It is a first-class object lesson in the importance of flying high, which is always taught but not always practised, and it is calculated to instil greater confidence in the natural security of aeroplanes than even the prepared and very wonderful exploits of Pegoud.

So far as Kemp himself is concerned, he doubtless had an exceedingly mauvais quatre d’heure, but he has the supreme consolation of knowing that he succeeded at his job, and the congratulations that he will have received on his escape should on that account be worth to him infinitely more than those that he might have had had his machine been wrecked, and he himself been lowered from heaven on a string.

'Lowered from heaven on a strong...' Testing of the Cirrus CAPS ballistic parachute system. (NASA photo)
‘Lowered from heaven on a strong…’ Testing of the Cirrus CAPS ballistic parachute system. (NASA photo)

*Some useful extras 

‘Kemp’ was Royal Aircraft Factory test pilot Ronald Campbell Kemp (1890 –1978); Royal Aero Club Aviator’s Certificate No.80. (May 9th, 1911); later Chief Test Pilot for Short Brothers until he was injured in a crash at Brooklands on February 23rd, 1914.

Aviation pioneer Samuel F Cody (1890 – 1913, RAeC Aviator’s Certificate No.9) was killed with his passenger William Evans on August 7th, 1913, when his Cody Floatplane suffered an in-flight structural failure. And yes, he was a famous Wild West showman in the UK, born Samuel Franklin Cowdery in Davenport, Iowa – but NOT Buffalo Bill Cody (whose surname he proably adopted).

Adolphe Célestin Pégoud (1889 – 1915) learned to fly in 1913. He became a test pilot for Louis Bleriot, was given credit (wrongly, as it happens) for performing the first loop. He also made the first parachute jump from an airplane, and was the first ace of World War One.

This article originally appeared in Flight magazine, September 13th, 1913.

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