Tuesday, 10 June 2014

CAUGHT On Film: Failed Parachute Attempt by Franz Reichelt



Franz Reichelt, also known as Frantz Reichelt or François Reichelt (1879 – February 4, 1912), was an Austrian-born French tailor, inventor and parachuting pioneer, now sometimes referred to as the Flying Tailor, who is remembered for his accidental death by jumping from the Eiffel Tower while testing a wearable parachute of his own design. Reichelt had become fixated on developing a suit for aviators that would convert into a parachute and allow them to survive a fall should they be forced to leave their aircraft. Initial experiments conducted with dummies dropped from the fifth floor of his apartment building had been successful, but he was unable to replicate those early successes with any of his subsequent designs.


Believing that the lack of a suitably high test platform was partially to blame for his failures, Reichelt repeatedly petitioned the Parisian Prefecture of Police for permission to conduct a test from the Eiffel Tower. He was finally granted permission in early 1912, but when he arrived at the tower on February 4 he made it clear that he intended to jump himself rather than conduct an experiment with dummies. Despite attempts by his friends and spectators to dissuade him, he jumped from the first platform of the tower wearing his invention. The parachute failed to deploy and he crashed into the icy ground at the foot of the tower. Although it was clear that the fall had killed him, he was taken to a nearby hospital where he was officially pronounced dead. The next day, newspapers were full of the story of the reckless inventor and his fatal jump – many included pictures of the fall taken by press photographers who had gathered to witness Reichelt’s experiment – and a film documenting the jump appeared in newsreels.


Eiffel Tower Jump

Reichelt announced to the press in early February 1912 that he had finally received permission and would shortly conduct an experiment from the Eiffel Tower to prove the value of his invention.

Reichelt showed off the suit at the foot of the
Eiffel Tower shortly before his fatal fall.
On Sunday, February 4, at 7 am, he arrived at the tower by car with two friends. He was already wearing his parachute suit. The news footage of his jump shows him modelling his invention in its folded form, which Le Gaulois described as “… only a little more voluminous than ordinary clothing …” (“… un peu plus volumineuse qu’un vêtement ordinaire …”). The suit did not restrict the wearer’s movements when the parachute was packed, and Le Petit Parisien described the method of deploying the parachute as being as simple as extending the arms out to form a cross with the body. Once extended, the outfit resembled “a sort of cloak fitted with a vast hood of silk” (“une sorte de manteau, muni d’un très vaste capuchon de soie”) according to Le Temps.  L’Action Française reported that Reichelt stated the surface area of the final design to be 30 square metres (320 sq ft) with a canopy height of 5 metres (16 ft), while Le Figaro judged the surface area might have reached 32 square metres (340 sq ft). La Croix claimed that the suit may have weighed as little as 9 kilograms (20 lb).  The weather was cold, with temperatures below 0 °C (32 °F), and there was a stiff breeze blowing across the Champ de Mars.

From his arrival at the tower, however, Reichelt made it clear that he intended to jump himself. According to a later interview with one of the friends who accompanied him up the tower, this was a surprise to everybody, as Reichelt had concealed his intention until the last moment. His friends tried to persuade him to use dummies in the experiment, assuring him that he would have other opportunities to make the jump himself. When this failed to make an impression on him, they pointed to the strength of the wind and said he should call off the test on safety grounds, or at least delay until the wind dropped. They were unable to shake his resolve; seemingly undeterred by the failure of his previous tests, he told journalists from Le Petit Journal that he was totally convinced that his apparatus would work, and work well. When questioned as to whether he planned to take any additional precautions, such as using a safety rope, he replied that he would not, since he intended to trust his life entirely to his parachute:

"I want to try the experiment myself and without trickery, as I intend to prove the worth of my invention. (Je veux tenter l’expérience moi-même et sans chiqué [sic], car je tiens à bien prouver la valeur de mon invention.)"

M. Hervieu, who was present to witness the demonstration, also attempted to dissuade him from making the jump. He was concerned that the parachute needed longer to fully open than the few seconds the drop from the first platform would allow, and he also presented other technical objections to which Reichelt could not provide a satisfactory response. Reichelt finally replied that:

"You are going to see how my seventy-two kilos and my parachute will give your arguments the most decisive of denials. (Vous allez voir comment mes soixante-douze kilos et mon parachute vont donner à vos arguments le plus décisif des démentis.)"

After adjusting his apparatus with the assistance of his friends and checking the wind direction by throwing a piece of paper taken from a small book, he placed one foot on the guardrail, hesitated for about forty seconds, then leapt outwards. According to Le Figaro, he was calm and smiling just before he jumped. His parachute, which had seemed to be only half-open, folded around him almost immediately and he plummeted for a few seconds before crashing into the frozen soil at the foot of the tower. His canopy appeared to billow out at the last moment, but by that time it was too late for it to deploy fully or to break his fall.

Le Petit Parisien reported that his right leg and arm were crushed, his skull and spine broken, and that he was bleeding from his mouth, nose and ears. Le Figaro noted that his eyes were wide open, dilated with terror. He was already dead by the time the onlookers rushed to his body, but he was taken to the Necker hospital where he was officially pronounced dead, and then on to a police station in the rue Amelie before being returned to his home in rue Gaillon.


Video


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