Human fascination with flight stretches back far into our collective history. Across cultures and generations, there are stories filled with soaring magic carpets, flying Pegasus, Valkyries on the ascent, and even a set of fabricated wings (poor Icarus). Truth be told, humankind is a little obsessed with transcending our gravity-bound status.
So, when did our dreams become a reality? We’re not talking about the mechanical specifics of aviation either—we mean, real body flight. Like, who invented skydiving? And when was that first parachute jump anyhow?
If you’re captivated by flight, you’re in good company! Let’s take a look at the mysterious history of skydiving.
The earliest tale of a parachute jump doesn’t technically involve a parachute. It’s a fun tale, though, so we wanted to share it nonetheless!
Enter: Sima Qian
Now, Sima Qian isn’t the one who did the jumping. No, he just brought us the story. See, Sima Qian is known as the first great Chinese historian, and it is through his recounting that the tale of the first “parachute-less parachute jump” was preserved.
The first individual to supposedly make the leap was named Shun back in 2200 BCE.
As the story goes, when Shun was very young his biological mother passed away and his father quickly remarried. Shun’s new stepmother didn’t exactly model maternal compassion and, after treating him cruelly for a while, she kicked him out of the house around the age of 13. Legend has it, Shun was a gentle and resourceful sort of fellow and had no trouble making do as he moved about from province to province. In fact, because of his natural knack for leadership, he thrived, and he left each place better off than he found it.
This caught the attention of Emperor Yao. Now, Emperor Yao’s sons were pretty useless (all nine of them), and so after a little test of character was conducted, Shun was selected to be the Emperor’s successor.
This caused Shun’s stepmother to become quite jealous. So naturally, she and her biological son (Shun’s half-brother) conspired together to kill Shun.
Shun’s half-brother, Xiang, trapped our buddy Shun atop a flaming barn, and wouldn’t you know? This inspired the first (sort of) recorded parachute-less parachute jump! Shun, level-headed and clever as he was, MacGyvered a parachute out of his conical hat and some cloth, jumped, and landed safely!
We told you the story was fun!
Now, to locate the verified first parachute jump, we’ll need to look forward 3,996 years into the future and do a little globetrotting.
The story above is probably that; just a story. But this is the bonafide real deal.
The first parachute jump with an ACTUAL parachute was successfully completed on October 22, 1797 by the one and only André-Jacques Garnerin in Paris, France.
The jump was completed from a lighter-than-air aircraft (a hot air balloon to be precise) using a parachute that Garnerin had designed himself. After ascending in the hot air balloon to an impressive height of 3,200 feet, he severed the parachute from the balloon and rode it safely to the ground. Interestingly enough, in 1799, his wife, Jeanne Geneviève, became the first female to complete a parachute jump!
While this parachute jump certainly paved the way for skydiving today, it doesn’t account for the first instance of skydiving as we know it. We’re talking about jumping from an airplane, experiencing freefall, and deploying a parachute kind of skydiving …
Well, the credit of the first individual to make an intentional freefall jump goes to a stuntman named Leslie Leroy Irvin.
In 1918, Irvin actually designed his own static line parachute, which he jumped with several times and promoted the device to the US Army. The Army was intrigued and shortly thereafter Irvin joined the Army Air Service’s parachute research team. It is with this team that on April 28, 1919, Irvin made the first intentional freefall jump with a backpack parachute, and the sport of skydiving was born!
Skydiving has come a long way over the last century. From the development of tandem skydiving to the invention of uber precise computers that calculate altitude and can deploy a parachute in the event of an emergency (we call them Automatic Activation Devices or AADs), our amazing sport has evolved exponentially. With state-of-the-art skydiving equipment, powerful aircraft, and premier facilities, our skydiving predecessors would certainly be proud.
Who knows!? We might even be making skydiving history right now.
The largest tandem skydiving center near Northern Virginia, Washington D.C. and Maryland.