From left, pilot Anthony Jannus and Capt. Albert Berry pose aboard the Benoist Type 12 "pusher" biplane from which Berry would later make the first parachute jump from an airplane. The Benoist Type 12 was unique for its day in that the propeller faced to the rear of the aircraft and "pushed" it along at a blistering speed of 55 miles per hour. (Submitted photo)
ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. - Jefferson Barracks in south St. Louis County will open its gates to the public Thursday to mark the 100th anniversary of the first parachute descent from an airplane.
Thursday's festivities will include a 1 p.m. ceremony at the new Joint Armed Forces Reserve Center followed by a parachute jump at 1:30 on the west parade field. The event is the brainchild of the Jefferson Barracks Heritage Foundation in conjunction with the Missouri National Guard, the Gateway Chapter of the 82nd Airborne Division Association and the Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum.
St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan are expected to attend the ceremony and photos of first jump as well as various parachuting displays will be featured inside the Reserve Center.
The first parachute descent from an airplane took place March 1, 1912 at Jefferson Barracks when Capt. Albert Berry successfully jumped from a 1912 Benoist Type 12 "pusher" biplane designed by Missouri native Thomas Benoist (Ben-wah) and piloted by Anthony Jannus.
According to Art Schuermann of the Jefferson Barracks Historic Preservation Office, Berry's feat was considered impossible at the time.
"Nobody thought you could parachute from a plane without having the plane crash," Schuermann said. "People thought the plane would go out of whack when the jump was made. So this proved the concept - that you can parachute from an airplane and that the plane and the jumper will be fine."
News of the successful jump spread quickly, which lead to further innovations in parachute design and performance and changed U.S. military tactics.
"It led to the development of military airborne units which allows you to drop soldiers by parachute behind enemy lines," Schuermann pointed out. "It also gave the military a way to escape an aircraft that can no longer fly. All of that stems from Berry's first jump."
Thursday's parachute jump will be made by 82-year-old Lewis Sanborn, of Imperial, a master parachutist with more than 7,300 jumps to his credit. Sanborn served in the Army's famed 82nd Airborne Division from 1948 to 1952 and has been instrumental in forming several sports parachuting clubs.
"It never gets boring because no two jumps are the same," Sanborn said. "Once I had done 30 or so, I started settling in and then it really becomes fun. It's the only time in your life when you have complete freedom."
Among those watching Sanborn's descent will be Charles E. Benoist, of Bonne Terre, the nephew of Thomas Benoist, who in 1912 operated an aviation school in Kinloch Park.
Born in Irondale, Mo. in 1874, Thomas Benoist became an aircraft designer, manufacturer, pilot, and flight instructor.
"The first parachute jump was not Uncle Tom's only claim to fame," Charles Benoist said. "He stared the first commercial airline in the United States that flew from St. Petersburg, Fla. to Tampa. That was in 1914."
According to family folklore, Thomas Benoist became fascinated with flight after taking a hot air balloon ride at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.
"During that ride, Uncle Tom said, 'There's an awful lot of space up here not being used,'" Benoist recalled.
Despite risking his life repeatedly in experimental aircraft, Thomas Benoist was killed in a streetcar accident in Sandusky, Ohio on June 14, 1917.
"If it wasn't for that streetcar accident we might be riding in Benoist planes today," his nephew lamented.
Jannus also met an untimely demise, dying in a 1916 plane crash in Russia.
Not much seems to be known about Capt. Berry's life after 1916. It is unknown how or when he died.
The public may attend Thursday's ceremony and parachute jump (weather permitting) by entering Jefferson Barracks through the west gate on Sherman Road.
NOTE: Media covering Thursday's event must enter Jefferson Barracks through the front gate on Hancock Drive.
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Lewis Sanborn, 82, of Imperial, will make Thursday's parachute jump at Jefferson Barracks, marking the 100th anniversary of Berry's jump in 1912. Sanborn has more than 7,300 jumps to his credit. (Bill Phelan photo)