Squadron Leader Harry Ward, AFC, Parachutist, Dies at Age 97By on 2000-09-17
IN THE heyday of the travelling air circuses of the 1930s, the former RAF parachutist Harry Ward toured the world, from Ireland to India, astonishing crowds with his death-defying "birdman" leaps from rickety biplanes. In his winged costume - which imparted a measure of control over the freefall - Ward was an early forerunner of today's skydivers.
Ward's costumes were different from those of his fellow birdmen in one important respect. Far too many of those daredevil parachutists stunned the crowds by making a lasting impression on the ground when their chutes became entangled in fanciful clothing. Ward incorporated a release mechanism into his rig, to enable him to jettison his wings before he pulled the ripcord, so reducing the risk of snagging his parachute. In this way he lived to rejoin the RAF at the outbreak of the Second World War and serve as a parachute instructor.
Henry Wilfred Ward was born in Hackney six months before the Wright brothers first flew. His first passion was painting and he studied at Bradford School of Art from 1919 to 1921. But he was one of seven children and there was no money to support a struggling artist, so he joined the fledgeling RAF and trained as a carpenter-rigger.
He later went to the parachute section at Northolt as a packer, and became a parachutist himself when the commanding officer challenged him to jump with a chute he had just packed. He made his first descent from the wing of a Vickers Vimy biplane bomber. When the RAF's crack parachutist, Corporal Arthur East, was killed making a jump, Ward took his place in the RAF's demonstration team. (During the First World War parachutes had been discouraged on the assumption that flying without them "makes the chaps try harder".)
But when the parachute ceased to be a novelty, the demonstration team was disbanded, and with the RAF in decline as the Twenties wore on Ward left the Service in 1929. On the strength of an RAF driving licence he became a London bus driver, and when the bus company formed its own flying club he volunteered to make a parachute jump at the opening ceremony.
He was soon earning more from display jumping than from bus driving, so he left his job for the life of the travelling air circus. In the days long before steering toggles he attained a high degree of manoeuvring expertise with a simple 24ft canopy.
With the circuses becoming less popular as the decade moved towards its close, Ward worked briefly as a mechanic for Imperial Airways before becoming a civilian instructor at the RAF's apprentice school at Cosford. He rejoined the RAF at the outbreak of the war and was soon helping to set up a parachute training school, to produce airborne forces.
The first aircraft were Whitley bombers, with a hole in the floor in place of the ventral gun turret, through which the parachutists had to jump.Ward produced a prototype helmet, from strips of foam rubber purloined from his landlord's sofa, to afford the troops some protection against the hazards of dropping through the narrow slit. He also helped to prove the feasibility of using barrage balloons for parachutists' initial training.
He was awarded the Air Force Cross in 1942 and posted to the staff of the Army's 1st Airborne Division. He finished the war as a squadron leader at the headquarters of 38 Group at Netheravon.
A civilian again in 1945, he managed officers' clubs in Greece and Germany. Returning to England in 1951, he ran a succession of hotels and pubs in Yorkshire.
He was twice married. His second wife predeceased him, but he is survived by two sons.
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