TRAGEDY OF THE BIRD­MAN

France played an im­por­tant role in the early his­tory of avi­a­tion. But when Franz Re­ichelt jumped from the Eif­fel Tower by para­chute, he se­cured a place in his­tory for all the wrong rea­sons, as Katie Jarvis ex­plains

France - - Contents -

Learn about Franz Re­ichelt and his para­chute jump from the Eif­fel Tower.

It’s a strange thing, pre­science... Watch­ing the grainy, blotchy, jerky (fas­ci­nat­ing) Bri­tish Pathé news­reel of a world in black and white; know­ing that you are tres­pass­ing on the last mo­ments of a man’s life.

To be­gin with, this man is stand­ing there in front of you, his han­dle­bar mous­tache giv­ing him the slightly raff­ish air of a dandy. There are few clues, at first, as to why these early cam­eras are trained on him: for a sec­ond, your eyes wan­der to the un­lit gas lamps in the Parisian back­ground; to the skele­tal win­ter trees, fogged by the film’s age.

But then, as this man gra­ciously turns this way and that, you re­alise he is invit­ing you to look a lit­tle more closely at the back­pack he is wear­ing that bulks and squares his shoul­ders to Su­per­man pro­por­tions. Then, in­stead of be­rat­ing you for your mor­bid cu­rios­ity, this man po­litely doffs his cap at you, as if tak­ing his leave.

When next you see him, he has as­cended way, way up. From his vantage-point – high on the Eif­fel Tower – the trees lie like stalks of grass be­neath him. His back­pack has been opened out into a para­chute that sur­rounds him like a shroud; and he is stand­ing on a stool, which, in turn, is bal­anced on a ta­ble. The scene has a daunt­ingly pre­car­i­ous look to it that, per­haps, is re­flected in the man’s down­cast face. His feet are now level with the guard-rail that nor­mally pro­tects the view­ing pub­lic from the ter­ri­fy­ing drop the other side.

A mo­ment later (surely he re­alises what we all know! Surely he un­der­stands that the flimsy cloth to which he is en­trust­ing his life will bury, not save, him!), he flaps his arms, ex­per­i­men­tally; and edges his way on to the nar­row rail that sep­a­rates him and thin air.

He places his foot ten­ta­tively on to its rim. He pauses. He edges. He pauses. He jumps. There is no re­sis­tance to the in­ex­orable force of grav­ity to which he cedes. He mim­ics no feather. He is a stone.

It is Fe­bru­ary 1912. The fol­low­ing month, a dy­ing Robert Falcon Scott will write “for God’s sake look af­ter our peo­ple” as a bru­tal Antarc­tic bliz­zard buries him and his de­feated com­pan­ions. In April, a liner on her maiden voy­age will col­lide with an ice­berg.

But the bird­man, whose plum­met to earth is just long enough for the knowl­edge to pen­e­trate, will know noth­ing of these things.

Bal­loon­ing craze

In 1879, in the town of Štetí – which lies around 60 kilo­me­tres to the north of Prague – the Re­ichelt fam­ily was cel­e­brat­ing the birth of a son, Franz. Who knows what dreams these par­ents had for their new prog­eny; but this was cer­tainly an age for soar­ing dreams. Flight – the once-myth­i­cal abil­ity to mimic the birds – was tak­ing off; and much of it was hap­pen­ing a thou­sand kilo­me­tres away, in France.

As he grew up, the young Franz would have been well aware of the craze for bal­loon­ing that had be­gun a cen­tury be­fore. In June 1783, the Mont­golfier brothers had launched an un­manned hot-air bal­loon in the mar­ket­place of their home­town, An­nonay in Ardèche. Three months later, at Ver­sailles, they suc­cess­fully launched a bal­loon con­tain­ing a sheep, a rooster and a duck, to the amaze­ment of an au­di­ence graced with the pres­ence of Louis XVI and Marie An­toinette.

That year, the achieve­ments came thick and fast: in Novem­ber, the

brothers set afloat a bal­loon with hu­mans aboard (though not the con­demned crim­i­nals the King had sug­gested). And on 1 De­cem­ber, a crowd of 400,000 watched, agog, as Jac­quesCharles and Ni­co­las-louis Robert climbed into a hy­dro­gen bal­loon in the Jardin des Tui­leries in Paris and as­cended to 45 me­tres, land­ing a cou­ple of hours later 36 kilo­me­tres away in Nesles-la-val­lée.

Franz’s dream was dif­fer­ent. A tal­ented tai­lor, he left his home­land and ar­rived in Paris at the age of 19, set­tling in an apart­ment in Rue Gail­lon in the 2nd ar­rondisse­ment. Hard-work­ing and de­ter­mined, he es­tab­lished a suc­cess­ful dress­mak­ing busi­ness, be­com­ing a nat­u­ralised French­man in 1909. But it wasn’t just cloth and thread that filled his head. Franz (also known as François) had stud­ied the wings of a bat, and he was con­vinced that in their unique web­bing lay the se­cret he longed to dis­cover: how to glide through the air.

His was a clever idea: it is no co­in­ci­dence that bats come from the or­der called Chi­roptera – the Greek word for hand-wing. In fact, a bat’s wing re­sem­bles a hu­man arm and hand much more than it does a bird’s wing. Franz took this prin­ci­ple and wove it into a pro­to­type safety-suit de­signed for early avi­a­tors. In an emer­gency, it would bil­low out, like the wings of a bat, when de­ployed in mid-air; be­tween times, its rel­a­tive el­e­gance would al­low the pi­lot as much free move­ment as pos­si­ble to con­trol his air­craft.

Franz, of course, was not the first to cre­ate a para­chute. In the 16th cen­tury, Leonardo da Vinci had made a rudi­men­tary sketch of one in a note­book. And French­man Jean-pierre Blan­chard not only made sev­eral suc­cess­ful jumps us­ing one of his own in­ven­tion, but coined the very word ‘para­chute’ in 1785, de­rived from a Latin/french root mean­ing ‘against a fall’.

But para­chutes, up un­til then, had used fixed canopies; Franz’s re­lied on a canopy that could be stowed away within a hood of silk, re­leased by the wearer ex­tend­ing their arms. Franz be­gan by test­ing it on dum­mies, launched from the fifth floor of his apart­ment build­ing. The story goes that, when Paris’s head of po­lice fi­nally granted him per­mis­sion to test his in­ven­tion from the Eif­fel Tower, the of­fi­cial be­lieved Franz would be us­ing yet an­other tai­lor’s man­nequin. How wrong he was. On the day of the jump, Franz re­vealed, “Je veux ten­ter l’ex­péri­ence moi-même et sans chiqué, car je tiens à bien prou­ver la valeur de mon in­ven­tion.” (“I want to try the ex­per­i­ment my­self and with­out trick­ery, as I in­tend to prove the worth of my in­ven­tion.”)

Un­doubt­edly, Franz was feel­ing op­ti­mistic, even as he made out his last will and tes­ta­ment the day be­fore. At 32, he was un­mar­ried, but – thanks to his thriv­ing busi­ness – had as­sets to dis­trib­ute in case of his death. How likely that death seemed to him is un­cer­tain; but we do know, as he signed his pa­per­work, that news­pa­per boys were yelling on the streets of Paris that a steeple­jack by the name of Frederick Law had parachuted more than 65 me­tres from the raised hand of the Statue of Liberty in New York. Law had landed heav­ily; but he had limped away, declar­ing his feat a suc­cess.

Law seemed to have jumped on a whim. For Franz, there was a lot more at stake. A cer­tain Colonel Lalance had of­fered a prize of 10,000 francs (a sat­is­fy­ing amount: Franz’s apart­ment cost him 1,500 francs a year in rent) for the suc­cess­ful in­ven­tion of a light­weight para­chute for avi­a­tors. Since the Wright brothers had pioneered the mod­ern air­plane less than a decade ear­lier, there had been a ver­i­ta­ble rush to the skies, in­clud­ing by the mil­i­tary; but safety de­vices were still lack­ing.

Me­dia in­ter­est was high as – early on the win­try morn­ing of 4 Fe­bru­ary – Franz showed off his con­trap­tion to the Bri­tish Pathé cam­era­men, who hud­dled in the cold along­side some 30 other jour­nal­ists. He had al­ready patented his unique gar­ment, with its idio­syn­cratic

Franz had stud­ied the wings of a bat, and he was con­vinced that in their unique web­bing lay the se­cret of how to glide through the air

silk hood. Tests had been some­what in­con­clu­sive, but Franz told friends that was sim­ply be­cause no plat­form had been high enough. To­day would be dif­fer­ent: he would put it through its paces him­self from the first floor of the Eif­fel Tower, a height of nearly 60 me­tres.

The ex­pec­tant crowd was held back by the po­lice as Franz and two friends be­gan the steady climb up. There are var­i­ous re­ports as to what hap­pened next. Some say he had sec­ond thoughts and, ini­tially, re­fused to go ahead; but pres­sure from those watch­ing forced him on. Oth­ers de­clare he was con­fi­dent and de­ter­mined.

Cer­tainly, he looks hes­i­tant in those fi­nal frames. He didn’t know that his chute was far too small to save his life. But he prob­a­bly sus­pected that his jump was pre­ma­ture; that an­other dummy test, at least, would have been ad­vis­able.

You can see, as he places a foot on the guard rail, that he is will­ing him­self on. He looks down; he glances up; he makes to jump.

And then, af­ter un­bear­able sec­onds more, Franz Re­ichelt tum­bles more than leaps. Down into obliv­ion.

The ground was frozen on that win­ter’s day but, even so, the crater that Re­ichelt left was 14 cen­time­tres deep. His canopy had, in­deed, be­gun to open, but far too late to save him. Some say he died of a heart attack on the way down, though his in­juries in­di­cated oth­er­wise. The news­pa­per Le Fi­garo noted that, in death, his eyes were wide open, as if in ter­ror.

Franz Re­ichelt achieved one of his goals: he won a place in his­tory. Mil­lions have seen the footage of his leap from the Eif­fel Tower; and many lives have been saved by the in­ven­tion of the para­chute. His, sadly, was not one of them.

You can see footage of Franz Re­ichelt’s tragic jump on the Bri­tish Pathé web­site at british­pathe.com

ABOVE: A frame from the Bri­tish Pathé news­reel footage, show­ing Franz Re­ichelt mo­ments be­fore his fa­tal para­chute jump from the Eif­fel Tower in 1912

ABOVE: A con­tem­po­rary il­lus­tra­tion of the Mont­golfier brothers’ bal­loon

The Eif­fel Tower, the Champ de Mars and the old Tro­cadéro Palace in around 1909

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