We look again to Michigan’s past for more stories of pioneers in the field of aviation. This time we find Clem Sohn, also known as “Michigan’s Batman.” Current State talks with Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan Historical Museum, where Sohn’s outfit is currently on display.
Michigan has a rich history of innovators in the world of aviation, from the famous Charles Lindbergh, to the lesser known trailblazers like “Sky Man” Philip Parmelee.
Today we look at another of those pioneers, who left his mark on history not by flying planes, but by jumping out of them. Clem Sohn of Fowler was the first man to jump from planes and glide through the sky with manmade wings. Sohn’s wingsuit is currently on display at the Michigan Historical Museum.
Current State talks with museum Director Sandra Clark about "Michigan's Batman."
EDITED INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS
What do we know about Clem Sohn’s early years?
He was born in Fowler. He said later on that he loved watching hawks when he was a boy on a farm outside of Fowler. He was just into the gliding, the swooping and soaring. (That) really caught his imagination. He graduated from Lansing Eastern. (It’s) about the time Capital City Airport is getting going. So as soon as he graduates from high school here he hooks up with a fellow named Art Davis who does air shows. Everything from racing planes to….doing loops and all of that sort of thing, stunts. He learned to fly, but what he really liked…was jumping out of planes.
How did Sohn get into parachute jumping and experimenting with free falling?
He saw a guy named Spud Manning who was jumping out and wasn’t pulling his ripcord immediately and doing free fall. There’s some…competition in all of this. The free fallers would see how far they could go before jumping out of their parachute and see who would chicken out first. But he decides that with wings, he could actually glide.
So he…gets tubular steel and develops these bat wings that are collapsible. He’s also got a strip of cloth between his legs that acts kind of like the tail of a bird in his eyes and (he) actually manages to glide--and as he would say ‘soar’--and delay pulling the ripcord until he’s at about 1,000 feet or less. (No one) today would never wait that long to pull the ripcord on their parachute. (He was) very serious about figuring out how he could glide.
How well-known was Sohn during the 1920s and 30s?
This was front page news and it was news all over the country. He’s in Popular Mechanics, he’s featured in Newsweek. It was a pretty short career that he was doing this, but he really has a national reputation. People know about him. He also performed in Great Britain at airshows in that time span.