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Michigan’s flying “birdman” one of the world’s first aerial daredevils

Apr 27, 2017

Eighty years ago, a few years before Bruce Wayne made his comic book debut, our nation experienced its first wave of “bat-mania.”

In the 1930s, the country’s imagination was captured by winged daredevils like Michigander Clem Sohn.

Daredevils like Sohn would jump out of planes in flying suits, glide back down to Earth and pull their parachute cord at the last possible moment to impress crowds at air shows.

Rachel Clark and Mark Harvey with the Michigan History Center joined Stateside to talk about the life and the tragic death of one of the world's greatest daredevils.

Sohn grew up in Fowler, just north of Lansing, and eventually moved to the city, where he graduated from Lansing Eastern High School. Sohn then met a local aviator named Art Davis and that's how it all got started.

Once he got the idea to jump out of a plane, he designed a suit that resembled a bird or a bat.

"The suit that he originally designed was about four or five feet wide and about two feet tall," Clark said. "And it is steel tubing with heavy canvas wrapped around it ... and the other part [of the suit] is a pair of twill or canvas pants with a piece of material between his legs to act the same as a bird tail. Between the two things he could steer, he could float for a while and those were the things that he used to entertain audiences."

Sohn made his daredevil debut in 1935 in Daytona Beach, Florida, and continued to make appearances at air shows, stunning the crowds with his death-defying stunts. Sohn would jump out of an airplane from about 10,000 feet armed with just his wing suit and two parachutes. He would float around in the air and as he made his way back down to Earth, he would wait until he was about 1,000 feet (or less!) from the ground to pull his parachute cord. 

In fact, Sohn held the world record for the longest dive before deploying his parachute: 18,500 feet.

Unfortunately, on April 25, 1937, Sohn's life came to a tragic end in France, when his parachute didn't deploy. He plunged to his death in front of a crowd of about 1,000 people and it was caught on camera (watch video of it below). He was 26 years old. 

The death of Clem Sohn 

(Warning: Sohn's impact is not visible, but the footage could disturb some viewers.)

Listen to the full interview above to hear about the circumstances surrounding Sohn's death. You'll also hear how he may have inspired a very famous cartoon character. 

This segment is produced in partnership with the Michigan History Center.

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