Victor Brunner was a Mishawaka man who served in World War 1 as a balloon scout in Panama. He sat in a balloon tethered to the ground and scanned the skies for enemy aircraft. In case of emergency, he could parachute to the ground. After being partially deafened by an artillery blast in 1918, he was discharged and came home to Indiana to make parachute jumps into a money-making spectacle as “Victor of the Air” and “The Man Who Flirts With Death.”
A colorful character, Brunner gradually went from billing himself as “Private Victor Brunner” to “Professor Victor Brunner”. He owned a mountain lion named Teddy, which he sometimes did parachute jumps with.
By 1920, he was experimenting with jumping out of airplanes rather than balloons. He had rigged up a breeches-like harness he could step into after moving from the cockpit to the wing. The parachute was tethered to the airplane to make deployment automatic. It worked once, at a Notre Dame field. Unfortunately, his system of deployment was somewhat dangerous: it involved using a knife hung around his neck to cut the rope connecting his harness to the airplane.
On August 20, 1921, the 30-year-old Brunner made a balloon ascension in Bremen, complete with fireworks, that thrilled the spectators. High winds prevented a parachute jump, so he was rescheduled for the following Saturday to jump from a plane as the grand finale of the Old Settlers picnic at the Lake of the Woods. It was only his second jump from a plane.
On the afternoon of August 27, 1921, Brunner left Teddy the mountain lion on the ground with his wife Hazel. Harry Fawcett of Dowagiac piloted the airplane to a height of 1500 feet amid threatening clouds, and Brunner stepped out of the cockpit onto the wing. But something went wrong. In the course of cutting the support rope, Brunner also cut one of the webbing lines on his harness. The sudden lack of support on one side pitched him sideways and out of his simple harness.
There were no screams from the spectators. The parachute fluttered to the ground, leaving the crowd worried but uncertain of what had happened. Unseen, the daredevil had already crashed in a bean field west of the lake. The man’s fall had only been spotted by the young daughter of Jesse Guard, who was out on their farmhouse porch with her mother.
The pilot Fawcett knew something had gone wrong as soon as he saw the empty parachute and quickly landed the plane. Volunteers rushed to find the body and discovered it hundreds of yards away from the parachute; it was horribly mangled and all but unrecognizable. Brunner’s wife, present but not part of the spectators, was not told of the accident for more than an hour.
The body was taken to Huff Funeral Home and later transferred to Coats of Mishawaka. Victor Brunner was buried with military honors. Confusion over the exact nature of the accident led the family to put an epitaph on the gravestone saying “HIS PARACHUTE FAILED TO OPEN”.
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