A German pilot being fitted with a parachute.
June 27 1918, Morcourt–The First World War brought many new innovations to military technology, most designed to be more deadly than their predecessors. One of the rare purely defensive technologies that saw first use on the battlefield during the war was the parachute. Although developed and even used from moving planes before the war, they were only used by balloon observers for the first few years of the war. Bailing out of a distressed plane was difficult at best, parachutes were heavy, and there was some concern (especially by the Allies) that pilots would rather bail out than attempt to save their plane. In 1918, the Germans, who desperately wanted to maintain their supply of skilled pilots, first gave them parachutes in 1918.
The parachutes saw their first successful use on June 27, when Lt. Helmut Steinbrecher’s gas tank was hit by an British fighter above Allied lines near Amiens. He was able to steer his craft back towards German lines and descend in altitude before the fire spread, and then he put his craft into a dive and jumped out with his parachute. The jump was by no means perfect; he ended up head down for a good proportion of the fall. Nevertheless, he survived and returned to active service.
Two days later, Ernst Udet, Germany’s top living ace, would also successfully bail out of a plane and return to flying later that day. Not all parachute users were so lucky, however; around a third of those who attempted to use them were killed, typically because the parachute became tangled or did not completely clear the plane before deploying. Among such casualties was Erich Löwenhardt, Germany’s #3 ace during the war, killed in the aftermath of a mid-air collision with another German pilot (who successfully used his parachute).
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FRONT Magazine, Japan, 1930′s