CURTISS JN4 TAKES OFF ON JULY 5, 1919 WITH FRANK ELLIS AND DON RUSSELL
Frank Ellis made a landmark parachute jump on July 5, 1919 when he became the first Canadian to parachute from an airplane over Canada. He was interviewed in 1974 by Gordon Emberley, a founding member and former Executive Director of the Western Canada Aviation Museum. This tale is an extract of the audio tapes in the Museum’s archives.
In 1919, Ellis was a mechanic at Allied Aeroplanes Ltd in Brantford, Ontario, a job he got through his ex-war pilot friend Don Russell. Allied made its money mainly by charging $10 to take passengers on a ten-minute flight from its airfield at Crystal Beach, Ontario – a resort town on the eastern end of Lake Erie that was largely a summer enclave for Americans.
IRVIN AIR CHUTES: SYMBOLS OF SAFETY
Irvin was a fledgling company at the time, long before it sold hundreds of thousands of chutes to the Armed Forces during the Second World War. They wanted to test a new parachute – a backpack model, that featured a 15-foot length of quarter-inch diameter rope – one end attached tightly to a solid fitting in the aircraft and the opposite end firmly sewn to a canvas panel on the pack which was to keep the chute in place until needed. When the rope became taut, the panel opened and the chute was released. Although the ripcord was still to come, this chute was the forerunner parachutes used today.
The successful Irvin ‘test’ into Lake Erie took place on July 4, 1919 involving Bill Chilson, an American parachutist, with Don Russell as pilot. Because the chute was soaked from the jump, Irvin left it with Allied to dry out on the understanding that they would come back and reclaim it.
The chute dried overnight. The next day, Ellis recalls: “we got the notion that we would test it out ourselves.”
First though, they had to figure out how to repack the chute, something that neither one of them had done before and for which there was no manual, not even a meagre page of instructions. It was pure guesswork on their part. “It looked like a bag of laundry more than anything else and weighed as much as a sack of cement.”
The twosome took off. For Ellis, the flight was uncomfortable from the beginning. His gear consisted of one-piece bathing suit, the cumbersome parachute and, for life-preserving purposes, the inflated inner tube from the plane’s spare wheel. He knelt facing backwards in the rear cockpit where the seat cushion had been removed. “My knees hurt like blazes by the time we leveled off.”
Ellis then ventured out of the left side of the plane onto the wing. “It took all my strength to struggle out. The prop wash hit me with terrific force and with all that gear, I was a perfect target for the blast. Finally I was clear, standing precariously on the wing.”
“We had planned that Don would make a climbing left turn as I left the machine, to prevent any possible fouling of the chute in the tail assembly. Suddenly I realized Don was doing just that. For a split second I stood balanced on the wing. A fraction later, the wind whipped me off, and I plummeted down.”
“I don’t remember the fall too well. It happened too quickly. When it did open, the chute made a tremendous noise and I thought for a second or two that it had burst, but when I looked up I could see that it was fully opened.”
“There were quite a few boats on the water and they all looked like specks. When I went into the water – feet first of course – the rubber tube that I had around me went under too, but the buoyancy shot me right back out and I came up almost as high as though I was standing there on the water. A nearby boat picked me up.”
Not satisfied by the experience, or just plain loopy, Ellis and Russell had “another go at it” the next day. It too was a success.
An odd circumstance, guess work, the unauthorized use of property, plus Ellis’s intrepid spunk all contributed to this jump into history. “If anyone had told me on July 4, 1919, that the next day I would be the first Canadian to parachute from an airplane over Canada, I would have thought he was completely mad.” Mad, perhaps, but right.