A Portrait of the Parachute as a Young Man

A portrait of the author in free fall.
The author in free fall.

I recently went skydiving for the first time. It was amazing. Possibly the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done in my life. Before the actual jump, there was the half hour ride in a tiny Cessna aircraft that unfortunately gave me plenty of time to think and overthink about the incredibly complex device I was strapped into and the 18-year-old skydiving intern who I saw preparing it earlier in the day. As we climbed higher and higher to the proper altitude, I couldn’t help but stare out the tiny open window, toward the small island that seemed to be descending from me like a Google maps zoom-out. There was no doubt in my mind that the jump would be exciting  but contrary to the teenager’s claims, I felt like it was I who was going to be totally sick, bro. While trying to make reassuring small talk with the perfect stranger to whom I was about to attach myself and leap out of an airplane, I learned that his pack not only had a backup chute, but a backup ripcord, and a backup backup in the form an onboard computer that would release the parachute should he lose consciousness. I felt better. I don’t think I’m alone in trusting a computer more than a teenager. The jump went perfectly: I shouted the obligatory “GERONIMO!” and leapt into the void. It was truly awesome. That is, it actually filled me with awe. The experience didn’t feel so much like falling as it did floating. I was just suspended in air, looking over a beautiful island in the Caribbean. Once I took that first step out of the airplane, there was no worrying about backpacks or parachutes or Google maps or even safe landings. It was just so peaceful. A couple days later, once I had time to process everything, my thoughts returned to that backpack. Whose insane idea was that? Who was the inventor that made it possible for me to survive a fall of 10,000 feet? Some quick research told that that I owed my life to a Russian actor named Gleb Kotelnikov, who created the first parachute more than 100 years ago.

[read the early history of the parachute at Design Decoded]