Known primarily as a balloonist and a pioneer in aviation, Albert Leo Stevens accomplished a great deal in aerial flight and aviation during his lifetime. He’s now remembered primarily for the innovations he made to parachutes.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1877, Stevens developed a keen interest in human flight when he was young. He was only 12 when he made his first ascension in a hot air balloon. By the age of 20, he began to manufacture balloons, dirigibles and parachutes in New York City. Stevens expanded his manufacturing facility when he moved it to Hoboken, New Jersey.
From approximately 1895 to 1910, he was a professional balloon and airship pilot as well as a stunt man. In 1895 Stevens made his first parachute jump from a church spire in Montreal, Canada. He also piloted one of the first dirigibles to be flown in the United States in 1906.
Stevens and his brother Frank took off in a balloon from New York City in mid-May 1897. They floated out over the Atlantic Ocean and ran into trouble when the balloon lost altitude. They cut the lines to the balloon and then floated on the water in their “car” for more than six hours before being picked up by a schooner. According to The New York Times’ May 16, 1897, edition, “Leo [Albert] and Frank Stevens, aeronauts who, it was believed, were drowned while making a balloon ascension, were brought to this place this evening on the schooner Mary Jane. They were picked up Wednesday night, 10 miles off Highland Light, below Sandy Hook.”
Considered an expert
Stevens made more than 1,000 balloon flights before 1900 and more than 3,000 over the next decade. His first recorded successful airship (dirigible) flight took place on September 30,1902 and his first airplane flight occurred in 1908.
In addition, Stevens has the distinction of being issued the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale-Aero Club of America (FAI-ACA) License #2B (balloon) and FAI-ACA License #6A (airship). He received both licenses in 1908.
In a publicity stunt that went wrong, Stevens ascended in a balloon from Wanamaker’s (department store) in Manhattan for what was supposed to be a trip to the main Wanamaker’s store in Philadelphia. According to a July 9, 1911 article in The New York Times, “…passes above Times Square, gets lost in a Jersey fog bank, and lands at West Nyack.” The balloon “sailed leisurely across the city… and then floated off across the Hudson and was lost in the haze that hung over Weehawken [New Jersey].”
From 1907-15 Stevens was a civilian test pilot for the U.S. Army, testing hot air balloons, airships and parachutes. He also served as a civilian balloon instructor for the U.S. Army at Ft. Omaha and Scott Field. In addition, he was an officer in the U.S. Army from 1917-20.
Stevens was among those who helped establish Bader Field in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1910. It was the “first municipal airfield in the United States to have facilities available for both seaplanes and land-based airplanes.” In addition, it was the first facility of its kind to be termed an “air port” (later airport).
Bader Field, which was later known as Atlantic City Municipal Airport, was a city-owned public-use general aviation airport. Atlantic City later purchased the airfield in 1922. Originally named in honor of Edward L. Bader (a former mayor of Atlantic City), Bader Field permanently closed on September 30, 2006.
Located less than a mile across the Intracoastal Waterway from the city’s original convention hall, it was Atlantic City’s principal airport during the city’s golden age. Airplanes for every U.S. president from Theodore Roosevelt to Gerald Ford landed or took off from the airport during their terms. The airport’s decline began in 1958 when a former Naval Air Station was converted to joint civilian/military use as Atlantic City International Airport.
Stevens also helped establish other airports, including Richard Evelyn Byrd Flying Field in the 1920s. The airfield was named for the famed flyer and polar explorer, who was a Virginia native. Byrd Flying Field is now known as the Richmond (Virginia) International Airport.
Stevens was also an exhibitor in parachute, balloon and dirigible shows and also took part in races such as the Gordon Bennett Balloon Races.
The Gordon Bennett Cup (or Coupe Aéronautique Gordon Bennett) is the world’s oldest gas balloon race, and is “regarded as the premier event of world balloon racing” according to the Los Angeles Times. Often called the “Blue Ribbon” of aeronautics, the first race began from Paris, France, on September 30, 1906. The event was sponsored by James Gordon Bennett Jr., a millionaire sportsman and owner of the New York Herald newspaper.
According to the race’s organizers, the contest’s aim “is simple: to fly the furthest distance from the launch site.” The contest took place from 1906 to 1938 (interrupted by World War I and in 1931), but was suspended in 1939 when World War II broke out. The event did not restart until 1979, and was not officially reinstated by the FAI until 1983.
Stevens was well-known and respected as a balloon exhibitionist and flight instructor. He also regularly took many people aloft. According to an article in the New York newspaper Otsego Farmer, “He had the remarkable record of having made 3,456 flights in which he had carried thousands of passengers with never a loss of life.”
In the latter part of his career, Stevens was a flight promoter and worked with pioneering aviators such as Harry Atwood, Harry Bingham Brown, George Beatty and Harriet Quimby.
Stevens had a lasting impact on the development of safety features for parachutes. He invented a self-contained rip-cord that was opened after the person wearing the parachute had cleared an airplane or balloon. Prior to Stevens’ invention, parachutes were previously opened by a cord or rope that was tethered to the aircraft.