On This Day: 'Birdman' Gerard Masselin dies after parachute fails

Julian Gavaghan

SEPTEMBER 3, 1963: French daredevil Gerard Masselin plunged to his death on this day in 1963 – after his parachute failed to open properly when he leaped off a plane above Paris.

British Pathé footage captured him spinning to earth - almost certainly knowing his fate – after jumping from a biplane over the French capital.

Masselin, 27, whose brother Guy lost his life in a similar accident two years before, was later filmed lying on the ground as bystanders tried to resuscitate him.

One man even gave him the kiss of life, but it was all in vain – despite the Frenchman’s face showing little sign of the fatal internal injuries he had suffered.

Masselin, who was nicknamed the L’homme Oiseau – meaning “Birdman” in French – had carried out many stunts using his self-constructed triangular parachute.

It enabled him to soar through the air like a bird, while opening up further at the end to allow him to slow down and land safely.

But during his final jump – which was being filmed for a television show – the apparatus would not open properly, causing him to plunge to the ground.

In June 1961, Masselin watched his older brother Guy – also known as L’homme Oiseau - die before his eyes after failing to open his parachute early enough.

The force of the impact embedded his body six inches into the ground.

The younger Masselin, who had also planned to jump at the Doncourt-lès-Conflans air show, had urged Guy not to leap because low clouds made it too dangerous.

















The following year Gerard returned to that aerodrome in northern France and jumped in front of six thousand people over the spot where Guy died.

Early parachutists frequently died because their equipment failed and was not thoroughly tested beforehand.

Franz Riechelt, the inventor of one of the earliest prototypes, died while leaping from the Eiffel Tower in Paris in what would prove a lethal first test in February 1912.


[On This Day: Britain's last Prince George dies in mysterious wartime plane crash]


The apparatus – like Gerard Masselin’s – failed to open and he fell to the icy ground.

Later that year Russian inventor Gleb Kotelnikov successfully tested the world’s first functioning parachute.

But, even without a working canopy, it is still possible to survive a plunging to earth from a great height.

Former Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulvovic holds the unwitting record for the highest fall without a parachute after the plane she was on blew up in mid-air in 1972.

The then 22-year-old plummeted to the ground in the tail section of Yugoslav Airlines Flight 367 after a suspected bomb ripped it apart over what was then Czechoslovakia.


[On This Day: Second Blackwall tunnel opens]


Luckily, the segment landed at just the right angle on a snowy mountain slope of Srbska Kaminice in modern day Czech Republic.

She was the only survivor among the 28 passengers and crew.

Despite being paralysed from the waist down, she learned to walk again after 17 months and continued to fly with Yugoslav Airlines for another 20 years.