THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH



Right before 40,000 eyes, Jimmy Calhoun fell to earth for the last time.  It was on a warm Sunday afternoon, some ninety years ago,  in Atlanta, when Jimmy Calhoun perished after his final plunge to the Earth.

Jimmy Calhoun, a native of Treutlen County and a one time resident of Dublin, Georgia, was one of those early daring daredevils who were driven to dive out of biplanes and plunge toward the
Earth.

Professor Myers staged the first known parachute jump in Georgia during the October 1887  Atlanta Exposition.  The professor jumped from a balloon and landed safely.  So, did Johnny Mack, who twenty years later, jumped safely from a balloon from 1000 feet in the air in Augusta.

John Brodie planned to defy the odds, by using not one, not two, but four parachutes before an upward gazing crowd at the Tifton Exposition in October 1911.  The first two chutes came off as planned, but the last two tangled and Brodie slammed into the ground, dying instantly as the first known parachutist fatality in the state.

After the first Wright Brothers flight, more parachutists turned to jumping out of airplanes. Captain Albert Berry and Grant Morton are given credit as the first persons to successfully jump from an airplane.

The first known parachute drop in Laurens County came in December 1902 when an anonymous jumper climbed into the basket of a hot air balloon on the southeast corner of West Jackson Street and South Monroe Street in front of Robinson Hardware Company. (Town’s Appliance 2016). Strong northwesterly winds quickly took the balloonist toward the Lanier Quarters where the aeronaut parachuted safely to the ground.  The deflated balloon landed on Quality Hill, an affluent neighborhood along Smith Street.  The stunt was performed in connection with the showing of a movie at the auditorium, which was disparaged as exceedingly poor.

Daily balloon flights were held during the second annual 12th Congressional District fair held in downtown Dublin in October 1912.  Army Captain and Spanish-American War veteran Frank T. Coleman parachuted before thousands of persons who had never seen anyone jump out of a balloon.

During an aerial show just before Christmas 1915, Captain Huffsticker was not so lucky.  The captain, during one of many jumps, landed on a live electric wire, just to the southeast of the courthouse and was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment.

With the coming of World War I, the parachute became more of a military tool instead of an exposition and county fair stunt apparatus.  After the war, with better designed chutes, daredevils once again took to the air to make a living by jumping out of airplanes.

One of the first was “Bugs” McGowan, a native of Laurens County.  McGowan, primarily a stunt pilot, occasionally jumped from his plane beginning in the early 1920s.  McGowan eventually became a part of the famous flying troupe known as Mabel Cody’s Flying Circus.  Cody hired another local man, Jimmy Calhoun, who was bound to make a living falling to the Earth.

Jimmy Calhoun, born James Gaston Calhoun to Samuel and Lizzie Brooks Calhoun in April 1904, grew up between Tarrytown and Soperton, where his father was the town marshal in 1910.  Marshal Calhoun was killed in the line of duty on February 3, 1912.  Like many young men of his day, Jimmy wanted to fly in the sky.  He yearned to be a pilot.  So he traveled to Souther Field, a former World War I aerial training camp in Americus, to train as a pilot. After his first crash, Calhoun decided if he couldn’t fly a plane, he might as well jump out of one. It shall be noted that it was at Souther Field where a 21-year-old Charles Lindbergh took off on his first solo flight.

Jimmy Calhoun became an instant celebrity in the southern United States as a member of Mabel Cody’s aerial shows.  In late April of 1923, Calhoun, then based out of Dublin, leaped out of an airplane flying above Macon’s Central City Park and landed in the middle of the race track.

Calhoun and McGowan began a series of aerial stunts in South Carolina in May.  It was Calhoun’s turn to jump out of McGowan’s plane as it flying in loops over the Isle of Palms.  McGowan was killed during a 4th of July plane crash in the summer of 1923.

It was a warm, Sunday afternoon on the Ides of August in 1926.  Lucille Calhoun, Jimmy’s bride of just a few weeks, was stationed in her boat in the lake at Lakewood Amusement Park, south of downtown Atlanta, ready to pick up her husband as he was to gently  float down into the water. Jimmy had performed that afternoon’s stunt 127 times before.

A.B. McMullen piloted his plane to an altitude of some 2600 feet as he circled the park.  Down below, a reported 20,000 spectators were gazing toward the bright,  sunny sky. As he approached the crowds, Calhoun jumped out of the plane.  At the last moment, Calhoun would pull off his harness and dive the last fifty feet into the water.

His parachute worked perfectly, at least for the first two thousand feet.  In a flash, Jimmy’s harness slipped off his shoulders.  He grabbed one end of it with one hand and hung on for dear life.  A sudden gust of wind broke his grip.  Lucille Calhoun watched in horror as her beloved husband hit the lake waters at maximum velocity.  Calhoun’s broken body was found in the water several hours later.

Lucille and Lizzie Calhoun buried Jimmy in the Pine Crest Cemetery near Vidalia. By surviving accounts, Jimmy Calhoun was the first Georgian to die while parachuting out of an airplane.  He wouldn’t be the last.  Nearly two years later, Louise Gardner of Boston, Massachusetts, couldn’t get the last of her three parachutes to open, falling to her death at Atlanta’s Summer Park.

Parachute jumpers continued to come to Dublin and entertain large crowds.  Irvin Davis, who fashioned homemade “bat wings,” came to Dublin during Homecoming Week in the spring of 1933 to thrill the thousands of people who had gathered for the exhibition game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Oglethorpe Petrels.  Donnie Marshall, another nationally famous “bat wing flyer,” drew large crowds in western Dublin at  Barnes’ Air Field near the current Carl Vinson, VA Medical Center.

On a final, and doubly somber, note, Robert Holler, 50, of Deland, Fla., and Danny Page, 44, of Atlanta, were killed when they collided in air with each other and their parachutes tangled together and the two fell to the ground during a St. Patrick’s Day event at the Bud Barron Airport in Dublin in 2007.

But, in was in those bright sunny days of the Roarin’ Twenties when  daring young men took to the air and put themselves in mortal danger every week.  Many landed safely, but too many had to die while the young girls, mothers and even fathers cried when they fell to the Earth for the last time.  

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