by Dave Votta, CADL Local History Librarian
When he plummeted to his death during an air show in Vincennes, France, the Lansing Batman was known world-wide as an aeronautical daredevil. Clement A. “Clem” Sohn was born December 7, 1910, in Fowler, Michigan. In 1929 he became of protoge of Art Davis and his flying circus, performing in air shows around the country.
Davis was a World War 1 pilot who became one of the most highly decorated stunt aviators and barnstormers of his time. His plane was christened the Spirit of East Lansing. The East Lansing Davis Airport is named in his honor.
Clem’s signature act developed in 1933-1934 when he and Davis created a bat like suit made of steel tubing and zephyr cloth. He would free fall, sometimes gliding over 30 miles, deploy the parachute approximately 1,000 feet up and drift to the ground. He held the world’s record for free fall, over 18,500 feet.
Accompanied by Davis, Sohn was invited to the 1937 Paris Air Show. They crossed the Atlantic by ship. Severe weather impeded swift passage to Paris. Because of the delay, it is reported he was unable to satisfactorily check his equipment. Clem jumped at 6,000 feet. It is unclear exactly went wrong. Some accounts cite his parachute may have been moistened from rain. Neither the primary or auxiliary chutes opened. He died instantly.
Sohn is buried in Fowler. At his funeral, planes circled overhead dropping flowers.
Upon his death, another took up the mantle. Charles F. “Charlie” Zmuda was the second Lansing or Michigan Batman. He too worked with Art Davis touring the world leaping from planes and glissading from several thousand feet. The above photograph is of Zmuda, probably in one of Sohn’s outfits.
Zmuda survived the perilous vocation. He succumbed to a heart attack at 44 in 1959, survived by his wife and three daughters. At the time of his death, he worked as a pilot for American Airlines.
Michigan History Magazine (September/October 1983)
Lansing, city on the Grand, 1836-1939 by James MacLean and Craig A. Whitford
Lansing State Journal (April 26, 1937)
Lansing State Journal (April 9, 1959)
Time Magazine (May 3, 1937)
History of Fowler MI
Photograph Courtesy of the Capital Area District Library Special Collections