A slightly disturbing Santa Claus

The entrepreneur and parachutist Jacques Menget disguised as Santa Claus soon after his landing at the aerodrome of Guyancourt, a suburb of Paris, 3 December 1938. Anon., “Père Noël tombe du ciel.” Excelsior, 4 December 1938, 8.

How are you on this beautiful day, my reading friend? I’m asking you this because the subject that retains our attention this week, as interesting as it may be, is a little bit disturbing. Let me explain.

While yours truly was looking at the December 1938 issues of Excelsior, an illustrated Paris daily, seemingly one of the first dailies with many illustrations, I came across the photo above. Imagine my joy: a skydiving Santa!

It turns out that, on 3 December 1938, Jacques Menget parachuted over the aerodrome of Guyancourt, a suburb of Paris. He had with him many gifts for the children of this municipality and of nearby Voisins-le-Bretonneux. A crowd of onlookers, including many children of the staff of the airfield and from the surrounding area, welcomed him with enthusiasm. I must confess I do not know where or how these gifts were distributed.

Who was Menget, you ask? In general, I like your questions, my reading friend, but I must say that this one embarrasses me a little. You see, Menget was a seasoned skydiver and founder, in 1935, of Études et fabrications aéronautiques Société anonyme, or EFA, today’s EFA Société à responsabilité limitée, a firm well known for its parachutes of various types.

The parachute jump that concerns us was a wonderful initiative, say ye? Yes and no. The fly in the ointment was that Menget organized the jump to promote a military parachute, the M 30, able to support a significant load, in other words weapons, equipment or 2 people. On 19 March 1937, Menget and another parachutist of the Fédération populaire des sports aéronautiques, Pierre Raphael, made 2 tandem parachute jumps in private, to check the operation of the equipment. The next day, they made the first public tandem parachute jump. The 2 men participated in many air shows in France in 1938-39. Would you believe that, at an indeterminate date, Menget allowed himself the luxury of jumping with a Model 1916 37mm quick-firing gun, an infantry weapon weighing nearly 110 kilogrammes (about 240 pounds).

Menget conducted his work in the hope of obtaining orders related to the creation of the first paratroop units of the French armed forces, in 1937. The 2 groups of air infantry created at that time by the French air force, the Armée de l’air, included but a few hundred men. They did not make any jumps in a combat situation before the collapse of the country, in June 1940. Yours truly does not know if Menget’s hopes were rewarded.

Menget also believed that his parachute could be used to bring down the nacelles of military observation balloons burned by an enemy. Again, I do not know if EFA received any orders.

As you probably know, my fascinated by extreme sports reading friend, tandem skydiving occupies a prominent place in the activities of skydiving clubs around the world. The modern tandem parachute jump originated from the efforts of American pioneers such as Michael “Mike / Beanpole” Barber, William R. “Bill” Booth and Edward “Ted” Strong in the 1970s and 1980s.

This being said (typed?), the first tandem parachute jump was made well before 1937. The heroine of this story was one of the most famous British high-flying artists, Elizabeth “Dolly” Shepherd, the “Parachute Queen” or “Queen of the air.” In the spring of 1903, she went to the Alexandra Palace, a hotspot for London’s popular entertainment, to listen to some of the works of an American musician, the “King of the March,” the very popular John Philip Sousa. Unable to pay the cost of a ticket, the 16-year-old girl managed to convince officials to offer her a temporary job as a waitress. Later, going to a table, she met 3 men:
- Samuel Franklin Cody, an aviation pioneer and showman,
- Auguste Eugène Gaudron, a very popular acrobat aeronaut and important balloon maker, and
- John Henderson, the show manager at the “Ally Pally.”
And yes, my reading friend, Cody and the “Ally Pally” were mentioned in some issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee published since October 2018.

Cody’s wife having injured herself during a show, Shepherd volunteered. A grateful Cody gave her a guided tour of the place where the various balloons used on the site were stored. The teenager was fascinated. She kept asking questions. Gaudron asked her a little later if she was interested in the idea of ​​attempting a parachute jump from a balloon. Although surprised, Shepherd answered in the affirmative. Almost a year later, Gaudron asked her to join his team of parachutists. She accepted immediately.

Her aunt, with whom she lived and for whom she worked, in an establishment that manufactures ostrich feather products, was rather hostile to the project but eventually resigned herself. Shepherd, delighted, started working, part time. She made her first jump in 1905. Her infectious enthusiasm, natural talent and good humor quickly made her popular on the team – and with the gentlemen who came to see her show. Tall and pretty, with a navy blue suit with sheer panties, Shepherd was quite the looker. She frequented high society people and ate in great restaurants. A dream life began.

The equipment used by the parachutists of the time was very modest. It consisted of a belt connected to a trapeze. The whole thing was suspended to a balloon, or a balloon basket. Such entertainment was not without risk. Shepherd found herself stuck in the sky for several hours, for example, when the rope of her parachute refused to work and the opening of the balloon got clogged. During another flight, the parachute broke free before the jump and the young woman fell on the crowd. She walked away without serious injury, however.

Fascinated by the stories told by Shepherd, a co-worker, Louise (?) May, joined the team as a substitute. She took to the sky for the first time in the company of her friend. The flight quickly turned to disaster. May’s parachute rope got stuck. Reacting quickly, Shepherd ordered her to place her arms and legs around her neck and waist. Their parachute not being designed to support 2 people, they violently touched the ground. May got away without a scratch. This first jump would however be her last. Shepherd, on the other hand, did not start walking again until a few weeks later, perhaps thanks to a countryside doctor, well ahead of his time, who seemingly gave her electroshock therapy.

As was the case after every incident, righteous people protested and asked that this type of presentation be banned. Shepherd, who found these people a little boring, started jumping again soon. She retired in the spring of 1912, at the age of 25.

Is that it for today, you ask, my reading friend? This is a matter for which you already know the answer. Being curious by nature, I went online to see if one or more people disguised as Santa Claus performed parachute jumps before Menget. The answer to this question was an unequivocal yes. In December 1928, for example, a department store in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, organized such a jump to boost sales. The skydiving Santa in question, unfortunately unidentified, was to land in a park of this small town. For one reason or other, he landed in the Susquehanna River, as many horrified children looked on. One or more policemen on horseback saved the noble old man from the icy waters of the river. This skydiving Santa was lucky. At least one person making a jump in the following years died in the attempt, in the United States.

Despite the risks, various individuals and groups organized parachute jumps at Christmas time over the years. This practice spread gradually in the Americas and Europe. In December 1934, for example, a skydiving Santa delighted many children in the city of Santiago de Chile, Chile.

If I may be allowed to digress, yours truly believes he passed through Wilkes-Barre in the 1990s. This municipality was more or less on the road that a small team from the National Aviation Museum, today’s Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, travelled on at least one occasion to travel to Washington, District of Columbia, to participate in an annual conference known as Mutual Concerns of Air and Space Museums.

One of those long road trips proved especially memorable. A snowstorm forced the museum team to spend 2 or 3 days in Pennsylvania. At the time, it was obeying a police officer who was trying to free the roads. Would you believe that the museum vehicle performed a magnificent spin on a small icy bridge shortly before (after?) this meeting with a representative of law and order? Yours truly remembers making a rather high pitch noise during this somewhat unexpected maneuver. The museum vehicle having finished its course along the protective barrier, I had the pleasure of seeing how impressive was the distance separating the deck of the bridge from the small river below. Hiiiiiii. Sorry.

It was also during one of these road odysseys that yours truly had the opportunity to buy some cotton bolls in a shop at Gettysburg National Military Park, near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. You may remember that my father worked for about 45 years for Dominion Textile Incorporated and C.S. Brooks Incorporated in Magog, Québec, and Sherbrooke, Québec. In spite of the fact that he helped produce incredible amounts of fabric for decades, he had not seen or touched a cotton boll. The purchase made in the aforementioned shop filled this void. My father and / or mother later gave some bolls to relatives and / or friends.

Yours truly wishes to thank all those who provided information. Any error in this article is my fault, not theirs. And that’s it for today. Be careful out there.

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Rénald Fortier