It All Started in Dayton
By Ann Armstrong-Ingoldsby
Many people know that the Wright brothers developed their flying technology in Dayton, Ohio, even though their first flight was in North Carolina. But what a lot of people don’t know is that Dayton continued as a hub of aviation innovation long after the Wright brothers’ time there. By World War I, the U.S. Army Air Service was located in the city at McCook Field, where the development of aviation technologies—including the parachute—thrived. The field, named for the McCook family (Union General Alexander McDowell McCook, his seven brothers and five cousins all fought in the American Civil War), was the home of the first military aviation research facility in 1917 and the first intentional delayed freefall skydive on April 28, 1919.
As the military began using flying technology, engineers at McCook realized that a static-line-operated parachute was not suitable for helping a pilot escape from a damaged airplane in flight since the static line or the parachute itself often entangled with the airplane when the pilot tried to jump out, especially when the airplane was out of control. They began to explore the possibilities of using a manually activated freefall parachute that would allow the pilot to climb out and jump clear of the airplane before deploying. Barnstormer and test pilot James Floyd Smith developed one such manually operated parachute and patented it in 1918 before presenting it to the Army.
In the meantime, 23-year-old Leslie Irvin—who was promoting his static-line parachute designs for testing by the Air Service—was a frequent visitor to McCook Field. The Air Service convinced Irvin, also a former barnstormer, that a manually operated parachute was the future. Because of Irvin’s significant jump experience, the Air Service offered him the opportunity to make the first live jump with a prototype. He and Smith built a parachute together for the test jump, and Smith piloted the plane—a de Havilland DH-9—that carried Irvin to altitude. The rest, as they say, is history. Irvin successfully made the jump with a ripcord-operated parachute design that still serves as the basis for bail-out parachutes used to this day.
Shortly thereafter, the Army Air Service awarded Irvin a contract to manufacture 300 Type A parachutes, and Irvin founded the Irving Air Chute Company (“Irving” was a typographic error that continued until 1970). Smith eventually successfully sued Irvin for patent infringement, but the Irving Air Chute Company remained a success. Irvin built his first factory in Buffalo, New York, in 1928, which manufactured 50 parachutes per week. From this, the Irving Air Chute Company grew to become the largest parachute manufacturing company in the world by the time of Irvin’s death in 1966. It is now known as Airborne Systems.
Since McCook Field was the flight test center for the Air Service, it is no wonder that a test pilot was the first to save his life from a disabled airplane using the new freefall parachute. On October 28, 1922, Lieutenant Harold R. Harris bailed out of his disintegrating Loening PW-2A airplane during a test flight and landed safely in a grape arbor in a north Dayton neighborhood. This demonstrated the lifesaving capability of the new parachute. Following Harris’ lifesaving jump, the Army Air Service issued an order requiring the use of parachutes on all Army flights with few exceptions.
Ultimately, McCook Field proved to be too small for the needs of the Air Service. However, Army aviation remained in Dayton with the opening of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (which encompasses the Wright brothers’ flying field on Huffman Prairie) in 1927. Dayton is also home to the Aviation Trail Parachute Museum, part of Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.
More information about Irvin’s jump is available in the article “50 Years of Freefall” by Norman Heaton, which originally appeared in the April 1969 edition of Parachutist and is archived online at parachutistonline.com/p/Article/50-years-of-freefall-1.
Information about these and other sites on the Aviation Trail is available at aviationtrailinc.org
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ann Armstrong-Ingoldsby, D-18967, grew up with aviation in her blood. Her grandmother witnessed the first cargo flight of the Wrights, and her parents were pilots who flew a 1947 Ercoupe. She began skydiving after her husband and son talked her into it. She lives near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and is on the Aviation Trail Inc. and the Aviation Trail Parachute Museum Boards of Directors.