Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.~James Stephens
The audacity to jump from an airplane isn’t a sign of fearlessness. Bravery is the courage to perform a task when the outcome is uncertain. The early daredevils who tested their theories and early parachute designs are the ones that exhibited exceptional courage. They faced the fear of the unknown and proved that a parachute was an effective tool to safely descend from great heights. Thanks to these early pioneers, making a skydive today is no longer a sign of valor.
Leonardo da Vinci is credited with conceiving of the parachute in 1495 after witnessing people jump to their death from a burning tower. His sketch depicted a person suspended by a rigid frame parachute floating down to Earth. His idea was revolutionary because it suggested that a person could safely jump from high places. Although his blueprint was crude, the design was sound. In fact, in July of 2000 renowned skydiver Adrian Nicholas incontrovertibly proved Da Vinci’s concept when he safely descended 7,000 feet under a parachute based entirely on the original drawing.
In his book, The World in Air: The Story of Flying in Pictures, Francis Trevelyan Miller documents two men, Paolo Guidotti and Fauste Veranzio, who tested Da Vinci’s theoretical parachute independent of each other. Guidotti tested Da Vinci’s theory, circa 1590, that ended with a broken thighbone. Then in 1617, Veranzio built Da Vinci’s parachute system and successfully jumped from a tower in Venice. His attempt didn’t report any major injuries.
Both Guidotti and Veranzio exhibited exceptional bravery. They tested a radical theory without knowing what the outcome would be; furthermore, their jumps were much more impressive than the modern skydive by Nicholas because they didn’t have the experience of thousands of jumps or a back up system to ensure their personal safety. Both men pushed the frontier of parachute development by putting their lives and bodies in peril, when death or injury was a distinct possibility.
The exploration into parachuting technology continued for several hundred years. The first fatality occurred in 1837 when Robert Cocking’s inverted parachute design failed him. During this period any attempt was extremely dangerous, but the trials and errors pushed the boundaries and increased the knowledge of this fledgling industry. As the technology increased, men and women would attempt several “firsts.”
In 1914 Georgia “Tiny” Broadwick performed the first freefall jump. Unlike today’s skydivers, Broadwick’s skydive required much more fortitude because the delayed opening presented several challenges. Her jump involved an untested deployment system (using a ripcord) and the unknown affects of freefall on the human body. It would take several attempts by numerous people to figure out the issues of stability, body flight, and best deployment practices. Over the next 60-years these issues would be improved upon and completely resolved.
The concept of jumping from an aircraft may seem radical and dangerous, but the most hazardous elements of parachuting are virtually eliminated in today’s sport. Although it is understandable that non-jumpers will see skydiving as a sign of bravery, if contrasted with the courage needed in the early years of skydiving, there really is no comparison. What the early pioneers did was truly the definition of bravery.
Looking at the sport of skydiving through the lens of history makes it apparent that terms like fearless, courage, and bravery belong to the men and women who pushed the envelope of parachuting; not for those who make a tandem skydive in the modern era. For the “bucket lister” or thrill seeker who is pondering making a skydive, I suggest doing it because it is fun, not because it validates a person’s bravery.
Skydiving has been tested and proven for more than half a millennium. In truth, those of us who regularly skydive today aren’t brave. That description belongs entirely to the early pioneers of the sport. We modern day skydivers enjoy a wonderful hobby because we’re standing on the shoulders of giants.