Australia’s First Queens of the Air

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 beneath 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.

The only known photograph of the Van Tassel sisters together.
The racy front page illustration from the
Melbourne Herald newspaper on 9 March 1890.
Adelaide advertising flyer
Park Van Tassel — who wasn’t a Professor nor a Captain
and who didn’tseem to have done any balloon jumps himself.
A photo of “Miss Van Tassel”, reported dead in India,
from Australian Town & Country Journal, 14 May 1892
The mysterious Leila Adair, who appeared out of nowhere in 1893 as a parachuting balloonist, and who claimed many of the Van Tassel sisters’ experiences as her own. Was she actually Gladys or Valerie working under a new “balloon name”?

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