AUSTRALIA'S first female parachutist once made history right here in the Hunter Valley.
The event occurred at the old Newcastle Racecourse some 129 years ago, but over time the feat's been overshadowed by similar follow-up events in bigger cities in colonial Australia.
The historic first descent from the skies by a woman parachutist was made at the racecourse by a member of an American acrobatic company on Saturday, February 8, 1890.
And this first parachute fall was made not from an aircraft, but rather from a hot-air balloon instead. There was a good reason for this - aeroplanes hadn't yet been invented!
And making it all the more interesting was that this parachute pioneer - one Valerie Van Tassel (or Tassell, or Tasel) - in the best showbiz tradition was scantily clad (to attract the male punters) and went afloat hanging from a trapeze slung beneath the balloon.
It took a lot of daring and nerves of steel to carry out her performance - but she soon wasn't alone.
She was one of two sisters called Freitas who changed to the stage name of Van Tassel, to be part of a travelling troupe.
The other Van Tassel sister was called Gladys and she made her descent, again at Newcastle, a week later.
Adding a thrill, which became a regular part of the act, was when at 300 feet up she hung by her toes then blew a kiss to the delighted crowd.
Later she would say: "It's a fine sensation to go up, but a better one to come down."
Both had been recruited by 'Professor' Park Van Tassel whose acrobatic group had arrived in Sydney on the ship Mariposa in late 1889.
He was later described as originally being a barman and showman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was always thinking of new inventive ways to make a dollar. The Van Tassel sisters then became an integral part of the showbiz troupe who for six months in 1890 then travelled around entertaining patrons in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and elsewhere.
One good way to acquaint yourself more with the antics of the Van Tassel sisters and the professor would be to Google and listen to a Forgotten Australia podcast by Michael Adams titled Australia's First Queens of the Air.
Onlookers strained their eyes against the distant object in the darkening sky. A shot was fired as a signal for lady daredevil Val Van Tassel to descend. Very soon something left the balloon - a line with a dot beneath.
Colleague Scott Bevan suggested I listen to it because it opened up a world of dangerous entertainment now long gone and because of its particular relevance to Newcastle.
In the words of podcaster Adams, referencing 1890 copies of the (then) Newcastle Morning Herald, it's an extraordinary story.
As he states: "In 1937, Jean Burns was widely reported as Australia's first woman parachutist - but the newspapers were out by nearly half a century!
"For six months in 1890, Valerie and Gladys Van Tassel - under the management of 'Professor' Park Van Tassel, their supposed brother - caused a sensation with their dazzling parachute jumps from trapezes suspended under crude hot-air balloons thousands of feet in the air.
But along with the spectacle came scandal and tragedy whose mysteries endure to this day," Adams reveals.
Adams states when Jean Burns successfully leapt from an aircraft in Melbourne in 1937 to land by parachute, it was claimed she was the first woman in Australia to do so.
Soon after, irate old timers bombarded Victorian papers saying the claim was way off the mark, remembering daredevil antics of aeronaut Miss Val Van Tassel who had descended from about one mile (1.7km) high in Newcastle back in 1890.
The Van Tassel sisters had dangled beneath the balloon on a trapeze with their parachute made of primitive calico, not silk, and looking like a "oversized umbrella".
According to Adams, when Val Van Tassel made her first descent in Newcastle by parachute there had been no real practice beforehand as the 'professor' couldn't make any potential profit that way! And what a risky business it was just to get the balloon aloft at Newcastle back in February 1890. It didn't look promising as the wind was causing a problem. That was at 4pm, then disaster nearly occurred when the balloon fabric was scorched by fire.
Fire? Well, if gas wasn't available a trench was dug and filled with tree branches and timber soaked it in kerosene, before it was set on fire.
The trench was covered by iron plates and amid pungent black smoke, the hot air created from the fiery wind tunnel started to slowly inflate the balloon, tied down by ropes and suspended between two poles.
By 7pm, with daylight fading the balloon resembled a giant cone straining against its mooring ropes.
Only held down by dozens of volunteers, the ascent began.
The balloon shot up and the "plucky occupant" suspended by a trapeze beneath it drifted off in the direction of present Glebe Road.
Onlookers strained their eyes against the distant object in the darkening sky. A shot was fired as a signal for lady daredevil Val Van Tassel to descend. Very soon something left the balloon - a line with a dot beneath. Suddenly the parachute, with its living load, opened and to hearty cheering Val Van Tassel fell gently and safely to earth. A miracle almost!
And that should be the end of the story. Or is it? Enter the mysterious Leila Adair, also a parachuting balloonist, who appeared from nowhere in November 1893.
She claimed many of the Van Tassel experiences. Was she actually Valerie or Gladys Van Tassel using a new ballooning name?
No one knows, but it all remains a fascinating, if relatively still unknown tale.
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