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Solomon Lee Van Meter Jr. (1888-1937)

Solomon Van Meter In 1483, in Milan, Italy, Leonardo da Vinci sketched a device that would enable a man “to throw himself down from any great height without sustaining any injury.” In the centuries that followed, many people offered designs for making this imagined device a reality, with varying degrees of success. But in 1910, in Lexington, KY, Solomon Van Meter had an insight while dreaming in front of the fire that would finally bring da Vinci’s idea to life: the first practical backpack parachute.

Solomon Lee Van Meter Jr. was born on April 8, 1888 on a farm near Lexington. He was educated at Miss Collier’s Private School, at Transylvania University, at the University of Iowa, and in England at Oxford University’s Exeter College.

In 1910, a fatal airplane crash caught the young man’s attention. The pilot of the slowly descending disabled craft apparently had climbed onto the wing to attempt repairs. Parachutes, rare in those days, were attached to the plane itself and probably wouldn’t have helped. Many pilots had died when their chutes became entangled with the very machines they were trying to escape. But as he pondered the death of this particular pilot, Van Meter wondered whether a parachute could be folded and packed for the pilot to wear. He began working on the question, and by the following year had completed his invention.

His self-contained device featured a revolutionary quick-release mechanism—the ripcord—that allowed a falling aviator to expand the canopy only when safely away from the disabled aircraft. In 1916, based on drawings and models, Van Meter was granted two patents on “inventions for saving the lives of aviators by the use of parachutes.”

Van Meter joined the Army in 1917 and became one of only three members of his class to be commissioned a first lieutenant in the Corps of Aviation. At Kelly Field in Texas, his instructor wrote four words any pilot would want in his Air Corps logbook: “Cool, consistent, good judgment.”

Classified a pursuit pilot, Van Meter was assigned to the experimental section of the engineering department. At Wright Field in 1918, a model of his invention was built and successfully tested. The Army expropriated his patents, and the Irving Air Chute Company began building parachutes for the government. Lt. Van Meter was assigned to McCook Field in Dayton, OH to continue work on his invention.

The major in charge of the project at McCook hoped to obtain a new patent by improving on the original Van Meter design. He knew that Van Meter already held the patents for a manually opened parachute pack, so he prevented the lieutenant from doing any parachute work. The major’s claims were rejected when Van Meter’s Patent Office records were introduced as evidence in a lawsuit, Van Meter v. US, initiated by Van Meter to recover the rights to his invention.

Although he had been a civilian when he invented the pack parachute, Van Meter was now a member of the military and was barred from suing the government. Doing all his own legal work, he managed to obtain an act of Congress that allowed him to file the lawsuit. He was successful, and the courts awarded him compensation for parachutes already built under the expropriated patents as well as fees for future patent use.

At West Point on June 14, 1926, Lt. Van Meter made a demonstration jump to prove the workability of his original parachute, in part to validate his original patent claim. When Lois, his wife of two years, returned home that day, she found her husband in the bath, soaking a sprained ankle while the phone rang off the hook with congratulations from his fellow officers. Only then did Van Meter realize that he had proven his invention. The self-contained, manually opened device truly was “the Van Meter parachute.”

An outstanding aviator as well as an accomplished inventor, Van Meter was a bomber pilot before bombers even existed. When General Billy Mitchell wanted to prove that bombs dropped from an airplane could sink a warship, Van Meter piloted one of the planes. He scored a direct hit, sinking a captured German destroyer by dropping a bomb right down the stack.

In addition to the self-contained parachute, Van Meter invented what later became the ejection seat. Another invention was a device to separate the crew cabin from an endangered plane and safely parachute it down. The F-111 and other aircraft have used a similar method of crew rescue.

Van Meter eventually retired from the military with the rank of captain, returning with his family to Lexington. He died there at the age of 49, leaving his wife and three children, with a fourth on the way.

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