Franz Reichelt: The Parachuting Pioneer and His Infamous Stunt
On the 4th of February 1912, Austrian-born inventor and tailor Franz Reichelt, also known as the Flying Tailor, died tragically by jumping from the Eiffel Tower, whilst trying out his own creation, a coat parachute. Even though, having worked on the prototype for two years, and having had it rejected numerous times by aeronautic organisations and competitions, Reichelt had so much foolish confidence in his design that he decided to go ahead with his plan; he said: “I want to try the experiment myself, and without trickery, as I intend to prove the worth of my invention.”
“Reichelt’s pride and joy was a wearable parachute, so that airline pilots could deploy it to increase their chances of survival if they needed to eject from their aircraft (because that happens all the time?).Tests with a prototype from his fifth-floor balcony on dummies proved successful, but those prototypes weighed 150 lbs. Nothing like strapping another person on your back for a softer landing! Faced with making a lighter version proved difficult, as he was unsuccessful on all future tests. Thinking his drops were from too short a distance, Reichelt wanted to go large scale—all the way to the Eiffel Tower, where he arrived on February 4,1912, wearing the suit. He had not garnered the approval beforehand to do this himself, but what does the law know? After an hour of arguing, they relented and let him up to his jump site 187 feet up. Suffice it to say, his invention still didn’t work, as 187 feet later he hit the ground and died on impact.” (The Little Book of Big F*#k Ups)
“In the first skipping frames of mote-flecked black-and-white, Reichelt modeled the overcoat…. Reichelt had experimented with the overcoat from a height of ten or twelve feet. It is not clear what happened; perhaps, after leaping from a creek bridge or a rock wall, he blamed his hard landing on the fact that the coat needed more time to completely unfurl. Or maybe, forgetting that it would be quite possible for a human to survive a ten- or twelve-foot drop unaided, he wrongly attributed his survival to the coat. Reichelt received permission to test his suit from the Eiffel Tower. His request said that he planned to make a “dummy drop”—certainly no live person would come down. On a cold February day, scores of onlookers, mostly men, reporters, police, and officials gathered beneath the tower. Imagine their excitement when Reichelt, having just modeled his suit for the camera, decided that he himself should test it. His figure, black and hulking, crept up 347 steps to the first level of the Eiffel Tower. This is the level just above the arches, 189 feet above the ground…. “See you soon,” he called to the men around him, cheerily enough … Rough then describes a 40-second section of the film in which Reichelt hesitates a number of times. Rough suggests that in those seconds, Reichelt may have come to the conclusion that he was about to die but could see no way out of his predicament. Whatever Reichelt’s state of mind, though, he eventually launched: The foot still planted on the chair came forward, and, with his knees folding in defeat, Reichelt merely crumpled over the rail. The magnificent black coat wadded and sloughed over the edge. A camera on the ground recorded Reichelt’s five-second plummet.” (Rough quoted in Jason Laurendeau’s The Ultimate Guide in BASE Jumping).
Unfortunately, the “Iron Lady”, as the Eiffel Tower is commonly referred to, is infamous for being a luring place for self-induced deaths and suicides. Although nowadays various safety measures, such as railings and restricted areas, have been put in place to stop the unfortunate candidates from achieving their ultimate goal, it is said that still too many of them succeed; some of them happen to fall on top of a packed restaurant beneath. Recently, the famous tower has been used as a platform for a number of illicit base jumps – a fashionable extreme sport, which follows the earlier trend of bungee jumping. Therefore, the tower has become a favoured landmark for adrenalin junkies. As for Reichelt, his unfortunate aviatic attempt has so far acquired only one follower – a Norwegian man, who died in 2005 after losing his canopy, while attempting an advertised jump for a clothing brand. This was the first parachuting death at the tower since the time of the tailor-inventor’s tragic stunt. There definitely seems to be a fine line between optimism and reality in the case of some of history’s most daring inventors.