Frightful Fliers – Chickens and Franz Reichelt
Meet Cynthia! She’s a Sussex pullet, a pondeuse, and we bought her at Boussac market this morning. Ruadhri chose her. The lady on the chicken stall tried to steer him towards one with brown feathers, saying it was prettier, but Rors was adamant. He wanted Cynthia. She’ll spend a few days in a pen to get used to her new surroundings, and then we’ll let her range free with Madge and Limpy.
Now, what do Cynthia and a man called Franz Reichelt have in common? An inability to fly. OK, chickens can technically fly, but it’s more like panicky-fluttering-cum-controlled-falling. There’s always a lot of feathers and wing whirring and clucking. The record for a flight by a chicken is 13 seconds. None of my girls have come anywhere near that length of time. Chickens aren’t good at flying. And neither was Franz.
I missed the centenary of his death on 4th February since I’ve only just found out about him. He was an Austrian who came to live in Paris in 1898 where he soon became known as Le Tailleur Volant (the Flying Tailor) because he invented a parachute coat. He was obsessed with flying but didn’t follow some of his contemporaries into experimenting with large wings or flying machines. Instead he sewed up his special outfit, which weighed 70 kg. He generously intended it for other aviators, to hopefully save their lives if their rickety vehicles fell apart in mid air, which they often did.
The first few tests with dummies wearing the special cloak ended up with them smashing, but our Franz wasn’t put off. He worked on making his costumes lighter, and ended up with one weighing two thirds less at around 25 kg. He tested this himself by jumping 12 metres onto some straw. He broke a leg, but persuaded himself the only reason he had apparently failed was because his parachute outfit hadn’t had time to open properly. So he decided to jump off the Eiffel Tower. Just like that. He didn’t bother testing out with a dummy first and so, sadly, on 4th February 1912 jumped to his death from the first storey of the tower. His parachute cape had wrapped itself firmly around him. He was 34.
This page has some photos of him taken on the day itself.
Many inventors have died as a result of the thing they invented or discovered. Marie Curie died from cancer after studying radiation, Horace Lawson Hunley drowned in his submarine and John Godfrey Parry-Thomas was killed in his record-breakingly fast car Babs. You can’t help thinking that their deaths occurred because they were contributing towards general scientific advance, whereas that of Franz Reichelt … well, wasn’t. He went off at a bit of a tangent from mainstream progress. But you have to admire his confidence, courage and spirit. Rest in peace, Franz.