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Tragedy of the Sky: The Drowning of Charles Willis in 1920

In March of 1920, Charles Willis of Chicago was tragically drowned when his parachute jump from an army airplane went wrong. We explore the story of his death and the rescue efforts that followed.
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March 4th, 1920 headline
March 4th, 1920 headline

Here’s a crazy story from the 1920s. We dug this up in the Washington Post, printed on March 4th, 1920.

Failure to properly judge the wind yesterday cost one man his life when two parachute demonstrators jumped 1,200 feet from an army airplane into the Eastern Branch, opposite the War College. Charles Willis of Chicago, was drowned before a rescue party could reach him. Floyd Smith, a Californian and inventor of the parachutes used in the test, was saved.

Before leaving Bolling field in a Curtiss J-M-6-H machine both Smith and Willis decided that if they jumped from the plane when it reached a point above the naval air station they would be landed on Bolling field. Instead of carrying them toward the aviation field the wind carried them to the middle of the channel of the branch.

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As soon as it was seen that the two men would be plunged into the river a naval launch was started toward them. If more boats had been placed along the river probably both men could have been saved , but since Smith fell almost a quarter of a mile from Willis it was impossible for one boat to rescue both men. The rescue party picked up Smith, who fell nearest to the boat.

The drowning of Willis was due to the heavy aviator’s costume he wore. A few seconds after he dropped into the water watchers on shore realized he had little chance to keep afloat. For fully two minutes he struggled. First he tried to swim, and then feeling that his strength was leaving him he tried to float.

For just a moment it appeared that he would hold out, but the water-soaked leather suit helped to drag him under and by the time the boat reached the scene the man and parachute were not in sight.

At the time of the drowning Mrs. Willis, young wife of the parachute jumper was en route to Washington from Chicago to join her husband.

The body of Willis was recovered off Buzzard Point, shortly before 5 o’clock, three hours after the plunge. Although the army and naval authorities had five boats searching for the body, it was recovered by the police boat. The body was removed to the District morgue to await the arrival of Mrs. Willis.

This was a tragic end to Willis’ life. He was just 24 years old.

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