In the twenties, wingsuit inventor Clem Sohn soared his way to fame. Then gravity caught up with him.
Photo: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
The following is an excerpt from Matt Higgins’ Bird Dream: Adventures at the Extremes of Human Flight, out today from The Penguin Press.
Most discussions of wingsuits begin at Icarus and Daedalus and wend through hundreds of years of records attesting to early winged men in China, England, Greece, Spain, Turkey, and Italy, where Leonardo sketched plans for a glider, and continue into the modern era, beyond the Wright brothers and into the wild wake of 1927, when Lindbergh piloted the Spirit of St. Louis from Long Island to Le Bourget Field, in Paris, demonstrating the range and potential of new flying machines to carry passengers around the world.
It is worth pausing there, though, at the dawn of a new age in aviation, to get acquainted with Clem Sohn, a skydiver from Lansing, Michigan, a performer at the barnstorming air shows during the Great Depression, billed as “the Michigan Icarus” and “the Batman.”
The most popular acts during this era were low-pull contests, games of chicken with the ground among two or more skydivers who exited an aircraft at the same time. Whoever had the balls to delay pulling his rip cord the longest was the winner. The winner, of course, sometimes had death as his prize, a morbid prospect that was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Sohn had success as a low-pull specialist, but he soon devised a plan to guarantee he would be the shows’ undisputed feature attraction.
Looking to the anatomy of flying squirrels and bats for principles to guide design, he built wings using airplane fabric and metal tubing, fastening them between his arms and the side of his jumpsuit. He sewed a tail fin between his legs. The result, weighing eight pounds, was a suit that on sight alone was enough to draw attention. Whether it would fly was another matter.
With a flair for showmanship, Sohn opened testing to the public on a winter day in 1935, in Daytona Beach, Florida. Stepping from a plane more than two miles above the palm-fringed coast, he dropped, according to eyewitnesses reports, two thousand feet in free fall and, gathering speed, spread his arms and legs.
As his wings deflected air, Sohn’s downward speed slowed and he slanted across the sky. A report in Time noted how he bent his knees and somersaulted, banked left and right, leveled off, dove, and pulled up again. At six thousand feet he closed his wings and pulled his rip cord. Under parachute, he landed three miles from his starting point. According to Time, his flight had lasted seventy-five seconds, screaming through the sky at 130 miles per hour. Sohn and his wingsuit landed on the front page of newspapers across the country. Newsreel pictures of his flight sold for $300, a nice sum during the Depression. Suddenly in demand, Sohn earned what Time termed “a tidy living.” Chevrolet sponsored him, its name stenciled on the underside of his wings. Newspaper reporters tailed him, chronicling his stunts. Sohn explained to them that he had grander ambitions: he envisioned a time when anyone would be able to don a wingsuit and take flight; when the military would use wings to drop paratroopers behind enemy lines; and finally a day when he would stall and land his wings without a parachute.
Imitators cropped up in Sohn’s wake wherever he went. Without design standards or adequate training, many of these copycat wingmen wound up dead. Sohn suffered close calls, too. At a demonstration during the opening of London’s Gatwick Airport in 1936, he spun out of control, and although he activated his reserve a couple hundred feet off the deck, Sohn struck a taxi on landing, breaking his arm and injuring his shoulder.
A year later, healed and at the height of his popularity, he arrived at the Paris Air Show, at an airfield in Vincennes, a Paris suburb northeast of the 12th arrondissement. The day was April 25, 1937, and the newsreels said two hundred thousand spectators had gathered under clear skies. Sohn was twenty-six. With his sandy hair, white jumpsuit, and leather helmet and goggles, he cut the figure of the dashing aviator as he slipped coolly into the open cockpit of a single-engine Farman. Before doing so, it was reported that he remarked, “I feel as safe as you would in your grandmother’s kitchen.” The crowd roared its approval as the plane sprinted along the airstrip and into the sky.
Sohn stepped from the cockpit at ten thousand feet and pirouetted into the air. A canister of chemicals attached to his leg emitted smoke, allowing those on the ground to trace his movements. He banked, somersaulted, and dove, gliding through the sky like a swallow feeding on flies, the newspapers said. They reported that his flight lasted nearly two minutes. At one thousand feet, Sohn drew in his wings and pulled his parachute’s rip cord, but there was a problem and it did not deploy. Cutting away, Sohn reached for his reserve and pulled the cord. This time the chute and lines emerged but got snared in his wings. As his parachute flapped limply above, moans went up from the crowd and people turned away, the papers said, as Sohn thudded into a field. The crowd sprinted toward his broken body. Later, a witness told a reporter: “When I realized Clem Sohn was doomed, I felt worse than ever during the World War . . . The hush coming over the crowd was the most impressive thing I have ever seen.... And when Clem Sohn hit the ground, it sounded like an explosion.”
Sohn’s death made newspapers around the world. Footage of his fatal plunge featured in newsreels. Yet grimmer developments soon seized headlines. The day after Sohn’s death, the Luftwaffe terrorized civilians in Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Before the decade’s end, the Nazis would invade Poland, pounding cities and towns from the air with superior bombers. The war altered aviation irrevocably. The world’s top aviators— including airshow stuntmen—were drawn into the conflict as instructors, pilots, engineers, and advisers. When the fighting ended, some resumed working in air shows, but it was soon obvious that their heyday had passed. The culture surrounding flight changed from a hell-for-leather approach to a precision pursuit. The new icons were jet pilots and astronauts, men selected for their superior abilities from among the most elite ranks of aviation. In this environment, amateur wingsuit pilots, with their crude contraptions, were relics, their main appeal the lurid spectacle of a potential fatality, a fact emphasized by those performing under names like Death Dodgers and Death’s Angels.