Jack Cope prepares for an aerial hot-air balloon stunt in the 1920s. | Chicago Tribune Archive

People have been fascinated by daredevil pilots and parachutists since the early days of aviation. The fascination continues into the 21st century, with crowds flocking to air shows and the world captivated by a parachutist plunging from space and descending 24 miles to earth. Felix Baumgartner may have set the record for distance, but another parachutist may have inadvertently set a record for speed. 

His name was Jack Cope and he was a resident of Forest Park. Cope made his living as an aeronautical daredevil. He first went aloft as a balloon instructor in the Army Air Corps during World War I. He started parachute jumping in 1917, working with a female pioneer of aviation, Ruth Bancroft Law. Cope spent his career thrilling crowds at air shows.

Cope often performed locally at Checkerboard Field (present day Miller Meadow). On Aug. 8, 1928, he shared the bill with a female parachutist, with the apt name of Miss Ethel Dare. Cope amazed the crowd by walking the wings of a speeding plane, skipping rope and clinging to a rope ladder. 

Cope made his most famous jump on July 26, 1931, at Ford Airport in Lansing. It was truly a death-defying stunt.

The air show was sponsored by the American Legion and attracted the country’s most famous aviators, Wiley Post and Harold Gatty. The year before, Post had become the first pilot to fly solo around the world, with Gatty serving as his navigator. For the air show, Post piloted his famous Winnie Mae as the pair flew in from Cleveland. Post, who had lost his left eye in a parachute accident, was later killed with American humorist Will Rogers in 1935, when their plane crashed on takeoff in Alaska. 

On July 26, 1931, a crowd of 2,500 gathered to greet the flyers and watch a parachuting contest, in which Cope and others were trying to hit a marked landing area. Cope jumped from a plane flying at 2,700 feet. The crowd gasped, as they saw his main chute fail to open properly as Cope plummeted toward earth. He finally managed to open his emergency chute, at 100 feet, but it did little to slow his descent.

According to newspaper reports, Cope fell 2,700 feet in 45 seconds. He hit the ground at an estimated 90 miles per hour. Miraculously, his only injury was a broken left leg. Afterwards, Cope, 33, casually puffed a cigarette and made an important announcement. “That was my 2,501st jump and my fastest. It’s the last one I’ll ever make. My first accident is my last one.”

Following the accident, Cope filed a lawsuit against Air Associates Inc., alleging the main chute had not been properly packed. He claimed this was why it did not fully open. When he saw the problem with the main chute, he immediately pulled the rip cord on his emergency chute but it also didn’t open completely. He said that the emergency chute became tangled with the ropes attached to the main chute. 

Cope was seeking $5,000 in damages for the injuries he suffered, a modest amount by today’s standards. However, Judge Hebel ruled against him. His decision stated that Cope had a duty to use his emergency parachute, “when the other parachute failed to fill with air.” The judge, therefore, charged Cope with contributory negligence and denied his claim. 

We haven’t been able to find out where life took him after that.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.