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Odette Rousseau leaps from a plane, 1951. Maurice Jarnoux / Paris Match via Getty Images

When a Woman Falls From the Sky

In the 1950s, the male-dominated sport of skydiving found itself upended by a group of flamboyant, French female daredevils.

Reading French parachutist Colette Duval’s account of her first jump—in which the future Parisian fashion model wore red, no less—one is reminded of a fearless matador in the arena. “In every way, I was too impatient and too curious to be afraid,” she recounted in her autobiography. “I jumped automatically. A slap of fresh air, a violent shock at the opening, and the rising sun.” It was 1950. Duval was 20 years old, in the middle of an amicable divorce from her first husband, and thoroughly obsessed with parachuting. “I didn’t have a penny, I was separated from my family, no more husband … and no career! I was alone and I had screwed myself, I didn’t want to think of that. I wanted to discover something insane that I knew would be the joy of my life.”

By all accounts, this insane joy, skydiving, feels more like weightlessness than falling. The plane soars above the drop zone, stalling as the wind whips past the open door—giving the jumper only a moment to collect herself, or else miss her landing mark. After exiting the airplane, also known as “bombing out,” the jumper experiences acceleration for a few seconds before hitting terminal velocity, 120 miles per hour. A surge of adrenaline hits—it’s so strong that she’ll feel withdrawal tomorrow.

Around 4,000 meters (13,123 feet), the temperature outside the plane is about 13 degrees Fahrenheit. The wind whips past her helmet and goggles. She thrusts her pelvis forward, parallel with the ground. After about 45 seconds, she opens the parachute, feeling it catch and pull hard on her back and shoulders. Pulling low—waiting for the last possible second to yank the rip cord—is frowned upon among conservative jumpers; not allowing the parachute enough time to inflate could be deadly. The landing is the most precarious for knees and ankles. Feet out, knees bent is the ideal position—otherwise the jumper might risk breaking an ankle, or worse.

According to the United States Parachute Association (USPA), the number of skydiving fatalities in 2016 was one per 153,557 jumps, or 21 fatal skydiving accidents out of roughly 3.2 million jumps in the United States. “With 14 fatalities, 1961—the first year records were kept—stands as the year with the fewest skydiving fatalities. However, USPA was considerably smaller then, with just 3,353 members,” the organization notes. According to a USPA instructor responding to safety questions on Quora in 2017, accidental water landings were historically a frequent cause of skydiving fatalities.

Colette Duval shooting the film A Bullet in the Gun Barrel (Une balle dans le canon), 1958. Paris Match via Getty Images
Duval modeling a Dior ballgown in Paris, June 4, 1955. Paris Match via Getty Images

Colette Duval was a born thrill-seeker. According to her 1986 autobiography S’en fout la mort (“I don’t give a damn about death”), Duval had a difficult childhood with a tyrannical, alcoholic father. She was born in a small village in northern France near the border with Belgium, where her father had a post with the national railway. “The sun was in the sign of Leo," she writes of the year of her birth, 1930. "France was dancing the rumba … Coco Chanel was beginning to eliminate the corset, and women, shocked to have a waist at ease, physically liberated themselves. They started to cut their hair, but in their heads, the chignon was still there. When the husband started talking, they shut up.” Duval had no intention of staying quiet. “I always managed to be the first. I had to be the best at whatever I did. You have to seek vengeance on mediocrity however you can,” she writes. Though she showed great promise as a classical dancer in her youth, her father told her “dancers [were] whores,” and forced her to take up typing at 17. But a fellow typist introduced her to hang gliding, a hobby that had been around since the 1890s. American inventor Francis Rogallo had patented the "flexible wing" in 1948, making the sport easier to do and ushering in an era of recreational hang gliding in the United States and abroad. Duval’s father didn’t approve of hang gliding any more than he did dance, but Duval found a natural work-around. As she put it in her biography: “To escape [my father’s] rule, I was now at the age where I could marry, and when a friend who hang glided with me asked me to marry him, I couldn’t question whether I had feelings for him; it was providence falling from the sky.” Duval started going hang gliding every Sunday with her new husband. In 1950, soldiers came to train with parachutes at the same facility. “Hang gliding seemed to me extremely dull upon seeing that virile and beautiful action,” she writes about her introduction to parachuting. “Having inquired after an instructor, I learned that several crazy civilians there were trying the sport.” She began training for her parachuting certificate soon after.

Parachute champion Monique Laroche stands with Léo Valentin at Lens Airfield in France, after executing a parachute jump together on May 13, 1952. Keystone/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

In parachuting, records can be set for style (aerobatics), accuracy (landing on target), or altitude (length of free fall). In 1955, five years after learning how to parachute, Duval beat the French national free-fall record for women of 4,235 meters (13,894 feet), which had been previously set by Monique Laroche in 1953.

Laroche, who started parachuting at age 16, had been the first female parachuting instructor certified in France, in 1950; she also won the gold at the first-ever World Parachuting Championships, which took place in 1951 in Yugoslavia. She was the first woman to have her records meticulously recorded by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, and, in 1953, won the French national championship for both men and women—there was no separate women’s category. (Critics said her small stature made the jumps easier, but the parachute alone weighed more than 44 pounds.) Laroche was also the first woman to hold the world record in free fall, which she set in 1951, and is credited with being the first woman to integrate a French parachute battalion during the First Indochina War, which began in 1946 between the French and Vietnamese independence forces. Even though she was technically a member of the battalion, Laroche worked as a nurse, not a paratrooper. “There were other categories of girl soldiers whose jobs, though less glamorous, were just as essential,” writes journalist Bernard Fall in his 1961 book Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina. “This was the case of the parachute riggers of the airborne units. There, in the hellish heat of the parachute drying sheds, each crew of two girls would fold one parachute every seven minutes. Most of the girls were paratroopers themselves—a sport that has attracted quite a few women in France in recent years.”

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Duval behind the scenes of a fashion shoot in Paris, June 4, 1955. Philippe Tellier/Paris Match via Getty Images

Laroche was a pioneer of female parachuting. So when Duval bested her record, the triumph made headlines. Reporters were soon clamoring to find out more about Duval's story. Ashamed of her impoverished background, the 25-year-old concocted a new identity for herself: “I’m a model for Germaine Lecomte,” she claimed to a newspaper, referencing a then-famous Paris designer who was known for her movie costumes. (“There are always those who want the sensational, and those who have it,” Duval writes. “I thought that I would leave with a quip, and I put it out there.”) Worried her fib would be printed in the paper, the young parachutist went to see Germaine Lecomte in person. “My entry into her salon, with my soiled clothes and my worn-down shoes, was not one of a client or model,” writes Duval. The designer wasn’t angry about the untruth; instead, she was amused. “She had me undress, judged me, weighed me, measured me, made me up, did my hair, and dressed me … when the press arrived, I was a model.”

Duval with her parachute. Paris Match via Getty Images
Odette Rousseau-Balési. Paris Match via Getty Images

Because every newly minted celebrity needs a rival, the press soon pitted the glamorous Duval against the practically minded Odette Rousseau-Balési. Born Odette Rousseau in Saigon in 1927 to a French engineer and recreational-pilot father, she moved to France at 19 to continue her studies. In 1950, a poster from the Ministry of Transportation advertising air sports introduced her to parachute training. Rousseau was the only woman in her civilian parachute-training program, and by 1954 she had acquired her instructor’s license, as well as national attention for being a woman in a sport previously reserved for military men. (Her parents, still in former French Indochina, weren’t aware of their daughter’s new pastime; they learned the news when Paris Match published a profile of Rousseau written while she was training.) The same year she obtained her license, Rousseau married paratrooper Vincent Balési. The year after that, she performed a military jump with General Jean Gilles of the 25th Airborne Infantry Division. A military jump, as part of a combat drill, would require jumping on command. The jumper would not deploy her own parachute; rather, she would be attached to the plane via a “static” line that would deploy her parachute entirely as she fell. In the 1940s, a standard military landing required the soldier to fall with her legs together and roll onto her side, while civilian techniques were less regimented. Rousseau-Balési was awarded a certificate as “Military Parachutist” after breaking the world record in August 1955. It was signed by General Gilles, who had served in WWII and the Indochina War. It was uncommon for women to receive this kind of honorary title, not to mention physically difficult; post-WWII, almost all of the gear used by civilian parachutists was military surplus and therefore not designed for women’s bodies. An account of Rousseau-Balési’s 1955 world-record jump, in which she bested the previous record with an 8,200-meter (26,902-foot) free fall, includes an itemized description of her gear: “She was equipped with three flight suits: one in silk, one in linen, and one with fleece lining; three pairs of gloves: two in silk and one in fur-lined leather; one helmet in leather; large antifreeze goggles; an inhalation mask; a portable bottle of oxygen; a little plank board placed on the front parachute bearing two altimeters, the chronometer and the heavy and cumbersome registered barograph of the International Aeronautic Federation.”

Rousseau-Balési parachutes to the ground, 1951. Paris Match via Getty Images

As soon as humans invented a way to get up in the air, they had to invent a way to get down. The frameless parachute—the soft, jellyfish silhouette we’re used to seeing today—was first used by Frenchman André-Jacques Garnerin, who made his inaugural jump in 1787. In 1783, just four years prior, the French Montgolfier brothers had successfully launched their first paper balloon, and, later that year, Dr. Jacques Alexandre Charles made the first flight over Paris in a hydrogen balloon, a pink-and-yellow confection that drew around 400,000 spectators. (He floated seven miles away from the city, and, he recounted, farm workers gathered to follow the balloon’s descent “like children chasing a butterfly.”) “With ballooning, science had found a powerful new formula,” writes historian Richard Holmes in the 2009 book The Age of Wonder. “Chemistry plus showmanship equaled crowds plus wonder plus money.” But when it came to going up and coming down from balloons, women would prove to be the greatest showmen of all. There was the English actress Mrs. Sage, who was remembered for embarking on a 1785 flight in Hyde Park, London, in a low-cut dress; she later boasted that she never even needed to use her smelling salts. Sage was meant to ascend and descend in a balloon with two men—including Italian aeronautic pioneer Vincenzo Lunardi—but with all three of them there, the balloon was too heavy to depart. “Lunardi made a rapid, though perhaps surprising, decision,” Holmes writes. “Realizing that Mrs. Sage was the star attraction ... he himself sprang from the gondola.”

An 18th-century engraving depicting André-Jacques Garnerin making his first parachute descent. Garnerin was a French balloonist and inventor of the frameless parachute. Universal History Archive via Getty Images

At the time, the performative nature of ballooning obscured its risks. In 1798, André-Jacques Garnerin and a 21-year-old woman named Mademoiselle Henry jumped from a balloon for an event in the Paris suburbs. Mademoiselle Henry was said to enjoy a “firm and assured countenance” that inspired Garnerin's confidence and filled female spectators with envy. (“Henry’s place was envied greatly by many other young women,” Garnerin wrote in his summary of the flight.)

But it didn't always go well: Sophie Blanchard, the wife of French aeronaut Jean-Pierre Blanchard and a specialist in firework stunts, was killed in 1819 when her hydrogen balloon was ignited by fireworks. In Wonderful Balloon Ascents; Or, the Conquest of the Skies, first published in 1870, astronomer and author Nicolas Camille Flammarion includes a detailed summary of this event: “The burning of the hydrogen lasted several minutes, during which time the balloon gradually descended.” Unfortunately, the balloon caught on the roof of a house and Sophie Blanchard was thrown out. “When she reached the ground she immediately expired,” Flammarion writes. “Her head and shoulders were slightly burnt, otherwise she exhibited no marks of the fire which had destroyed the balloon.”

Rousseau-Balési about to leap, 1951. Paris Match via Getty Images

In 1955, both Duval and Rousseau-Balési set their sights on the women’s world record for a free fall of 7,200 meters (23,622 feet), with the aim to break the record then held by the Russian parachutist A. K. Sultanova. The heights of what they aimed to achieve were limited by the capacity of their tools: each parachutist would need to climb to 8,000 meters (26,246 feet), which only certain kinds of planes—usually military-grade airliners—could do.

When Duval had broken the national record of 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) with a jump of 5,700 meters (18,700 feet) in Perpignan, France, in May 1955, she had done it with the use of a military-grade jet that could allow for a jump of up to 7,000 meters (22,965 feet). (The extra altitude was needed to bolster the recorded free fall, which is the difference between the altitude and the distance from the ground at which the jumpers pull the rip cord—usually 400 meters, or 1,312 feet.) However, she was refused the use of an airplane that would beat the Russian record.

Rousseau-Balési, 1951. Paris Match via Getty Images

For Rousseau-Balési’s jump, she put in a special request to a member of the cabinet at the Ministry of Defense to train at the Flight Test Center at Brétigny-sur-Orge and use a high-flying military transport vehicle. In Rousseau-Balési’s description of the jump, which occurred in 1955 over Gisy-les-Nobles, she writes, “I effectually rolled from right to left. Remembering the advice from my elders, I returned and took up position ‘in a bowl,’ loins flexed, feet at the height of my eyes, arms on my chest. After around 15 seconds, I had the impression that the air had become more compact.” In the plane, one of Rousseau-Balési’s companions, his hands clumsy from the cold, had lost eight seconds disconnecting her individual oxygen pipe and affixing it to her portable bottle. So instead of falling over soft, grassy terrain, she soared over the Yonne river, landing in what the Journal of the National Union of Parachutists described as “a mat of aquatic plants that sunk beneath her.” Touching the bottom of the river, Rousseau-Balési, who had just beaten the Russian record, pushed herself to the surface and was rescued by boatmen—who reportedly heard her exclaim, “If I have to fall in water for the next record, I’ll still do it!”

Duval in free fall, 1957. Corbis via Getty Images
Women inspect a nylon parachute canopy for flaws over an illuminated inspection table at the Pioneer Co. factory, 1942. Bettmann via Getty Images

Landings, of course, were usually the most dangerous parts of jumps. During a landing in Bamberg, Germany, a “terrible wind” forced Rousseau-Balési into an enclosure with a tank of gasoline guarded by a German shepherd. The parachutist was forced to climb up the tank to escape the dog until its owner arrived an hour later. Another time, in Erlangen, Germany, she landed in an ammunitions park—only to be greeted at gunpoint by the guards stationed there. In 1959, she landed within 160 feet of a highway, where her parachute wrapped around the electric wires of a tram. “It took the help of firemen to liberate her completely,” the Journal of the National Union of Parachutists says.

Duval had her own close calls. After hearing the news of Rousseau-Balési’s record-breaking jump while on her way to Cannes to try to beat the exact same record—“I don’t know if my rage was stronger or my disappointment,” she writes—she survived her own water landing in the Mediterranean, despite not knowing how to swim. After opening her parachute at 400 meters (1,312 feet), “a violent wind took charge and sent me abreast … far from the boats. I had pulled away from my cables, and I elongated myself and I floundered toward the point of Sainte-Marguerite Island. The wind inflated my parachute and dragged me across the surface: I fished for life! Finally, two boats approached. Saved.” (Duval collected a 20,000 franc check—about $82,000 today—from the city of Cannes for her efforts.) In 1956, Duval would increase her world record to 10,000 meters (32,808 feet) with a jump above Rio de Janeiro—after which she survived another water landing, this time in the South Atlantic Ocean. (“The next morning … I was incapable of moving,” Duval writes. “The effort that I had made had broken me. I was like a piece of meat. My adrenal glands were fucked.”) And in 1960, around 50,000 Barcelona spectators crowded Duval’s landing spot during a solo jump and caused her to suffer severe lumbar trauma after landing on concrete in front of the official tribunal. Duval, who says that “the cry I made was received by the public as a cry of joy,” was carried off by her lover, the stuntman Gil Delamare, who she taught to parachute and with whom she developed a stunt act that included a trampoline.

An international competition of parachuters in Moscow, 1960. FotoSoyuz/Getty Images

In the 1950s and 1960s, the media ranked parachuting alongside other forms of masculine thrill-seeking. The 1967 book Motivations in Play, Games and Sports includes a cartoon of two buxom women in wide-brim hats sitting at a bar: “I’m going to leave Herbert, Julia," says one, holding a cigarette and a martini. "The omnipotent feelings he experiences in parachuting are turning him into a big, bossy, insufferable stinker around the home!”

For an article about American parachuting clubs published in August 1959—three years after Duval's 10,000-meter jump—Life magazine reported on the Sport Parachuting Center in Orange, Massachusetts, which catered to the “growing, if still exclusive, coterie of serious-minded and responsible young men in the US who devoutly believe in the manifold physical and spiritual benefits of parachuting.” Featured in the article was 19-year-old Dustin Smith, a parachutist and reformed Greenwich Village–dwelling beatnik who expressed disappointment in his former lifestyle’s comparable lack of stimulation: “I’d tried hitchhiking and for a while I wanted to go to Europe to learn bullfighting,” Smith told the magazine. “Then I heard about [parachuting], and it sounded like something.”

The article did acknowledge the women who competed internationally, including the Russian Valentina Kouliche and her world record for jumping from 11,171 meters (36,650 feet). But it somewhat condescendingly described women who took up the sport as “respectable types … librarians and teachers,” while portraying the men who took it up as being in search of a certain kind of bravado otherwise missing from their lives. “There was an awful moment one gusty Saturday in June when a tiny lady in an oversized chute appeared actually to be climbing for a while immediately after she left the plane, soaring like Dorothy in the opening cyclone in The Wizard of Oz,” the magazine reported. “Normal time of descent after opening is about two minutes. Four minutes elapsed before this lady arrived harmlessly in the woods.”

An illustration of parachuters, circa 1918. Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Today, France continues to exceed the United States in women’s professional participation in the sport. The total number of United States Parachute Association members at the end of 2016 was 38,555, of whom only 13 percent were women. Of the 56,126 licenses granted by the Fédération Française de Parachutisme, more than 35 percent were held by women.

The fact that the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale—which certifies and regulates professional aeronautics associations worldwide—is based in France surely also contributes to the exposure of French women to the sport. Gillian Rayner, the first female executive director of FAI, was recently elected to head the organization’s Parachuting Commission (IPC), which specifically regulates parachuting best practices and records. The regulating body of the IPC is now all women, a development that surprises even Rayner herself.

“Female political representation has increased considerably over the years—proof that the FAI is working toward gender equality,” Rayner explains on the FAI’s website. “Our role now is to show other women that there is a place for them and encourage more and more women to join us.”

Perhaps they'll even make history. In her autobiography, Duval is confident about her legacy: “In the official record, I came in fourth position after Joan of Arc, Napoleon, and General de Gaulle,” writes the parachutist, who died of cancer in 1988. She adds that, after her jump over Rio, “a few babies born on May 23, 1956, were given Colette Duval as their first name.” But there could really be only one.

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