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The Fascinating Life of Georgia 'Tiny' Broadwick, America's First Lady of Parachuting

Georgia Broadwick was the first woman to parachute from an airplane, and the first person ever to bail out in free fall. She helped save many lives in the early, perilous days of American aviation.

 

She was called “Tiny,” weighing only three pounds when she was born in 1893, the seventh and last child of a poor farm family in Granville County, North Carolina.  Georgia Ann Thompson was married at 12, a mother at 13, and a school dropout. After her husband was killed in an accident, she had to work 14-hour days in a cotton mill to support her daughter Verla. She seemed destined for a life of grinding, relentless poverty.

But when she saw “The Broadwicks and their Famous French Aeronauts” at the 1907 North Carolina State Fair, something happened to Georgia Ann Thompson. She just had to become one of those daring people. They ascended to the sky in hot-air balloons, then thrilled spectators by jumping out of the basket and floating to earth with the aid of parachutes.  

Little Georgia asked show owner Charles Broadwick if she could travel with the group and become a part of the act. Broadwick was impressed by her good looks and spirit. He could see that pretty little girl, who stood all of four feet tall, would be a big hit. He agreed to hire her. Georgia’s mother let her go, but only if she’d leave the daughter at home in North Carolina and send back a portion of her salary to help.

Off to a Life of Adventure

So Georgia Ann Thompson escaped the tobacco fields and cotton mills and set off for a new life and an honored place in the history of aviation. Broadwick trained her in the art of parachute jumping, and she became the sweetheart of carnival crowds all across the land. Broadwick also got her father’s consent to legally adopt Georgia, because it was unseemly for a young girl to be traveling the country with an older man.

Her name became Tiny Broadwick. They called her The Doll Girl at the carnivals. She dressed in ruffled bloomers with pink bows on her arms, ribbons in her long curly hair, and a little bonnet on her head. But Tiny was anything but a demure princess. She was an utterly fearless daredevil, drawing large crowds wherever she went. Her first jump was in 1908. Newspaper stories described her as the most daring female aeronaut ever seen, chronicling the dangerous maneuvers she executed with apparently little or no fear.

From Balloons to Airplanes

The Broadwicks traveled all over the country with their balloon act. But by 1912, that kind of performance was losing popularity. Times were changing, and heavier-than-air machines were rapidly getting better and better after the Wright Brothers’ pioneering work in the previous decade. Fortunately, a new opportunity arose for Tiny. Out in Los Angeles for the Dominguez Air Show, she met up with famed pilot Glenn Martin. He had seen her jump from a balloon, and he asked if she’d try parachuting from his airplane instead. Like Charles Broadwick, Glenn Martin saw how Tiny would attract spectators for his airplane shows.

Tiny immediately agreed to work for Martin, whose aircraft company is still with us today as Martin Marietta.  

Charles Broadwick developed a parachute for her. It was made of silk and was packed into a knapsack attached to a canvas jacket with harness straps. A string was fastened to the plane’s fuselage and woven through the parachute’s canvas covering. When the wearer jumped from the plane, the cover tore away and the parachute filled with air.

On her first jump, Tiny was suspended from a trap seat behind the wing and outside the cockpit, with the parachute on a shelf above her. Martin took the plane up to two thousand feet, and then Tiny released a lever alongside the seat, allowing it to drop out from under her. She floated to earth and landed in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, making her the first woman to parachute from an airplane. After that first jump from Martin’s plane, Tiny was in great demand all over the country. She also became the first woman to parachute into a body of water.

The Army Comes Calling

In 1914, representatives of the Army Air Corps visited her in San Diego and asked her to demonstrate a jump from a military plane. War was already raging in Europe. Many pilots of the corps had already perished, and more would surely follow if nothing was done to help them.  

Tiny made four jumps at San Diego’s North Island that day. The first three went smoothly, but on the fourth jump, her parachute’s line became tangled in the tail assembly of the plane. The wind whipped and flipped her small body back and forth, and she could not get back into the plane.

But Tiny Broadwick did not panic. Instead, she cut all but a short length of the line and plummeted away toward the ground. Then she pulled the line by hand, freeing the parachute to open by itself. Thus she demonstrated what would be known as the rip cord. Her quick thinking and cool under pressure made Tiny Broadwick the first person ever to make a planned free-fall descent.

That accident she survived in mid-air demonstrated that someone who had to leave an airplane in flight did not need a line attached to the aircraft to open a parachute. A pilot could safely bail out of a damaged craft. The parachute became known as the life preserver of the air. During World War I, Tiny served as an advisor to the Army Air Corps.

Tiny Broadwick made more than 1,000 jumps from airplanes, enduring and surviving several harrowing mishaps. Once she ended up on top of the caboose of a train that was just leaving a station; she got tangled up in the vanes of a windmill and in high-tension wires. She suffered numerous injuries along the way – broken bones, sprained ankles, wrenched back. But she loved her work.

Her last jump was in 1922. Chronic problems with her ankles forced her into retirement. She eventually went to work on an assembly line in a tire factory. Later on, she worked as a companion-housekeeper for elderly people.

During World War II, Tiny Broadwick visited military bases and talked to pilots and air crews. She’d bring along one or more of her primitive parachutes and convinced the lads that if she could survive a jump, so could they. The parachute she used for her first military demonstration jump is now in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Tiny spent most of her life in California. In 1955, she appeared on an episode of “You Bet Your Life” with Groucho Marx. She never remarried, but daughter Verla gave her six grandchildren. Tiny also lived to see 15 great-grandchildren and several more great-great-grandchildren. She died in 1978, at age 85. She was buried in Henderson, North Carolina, the town where she first lived with Verla and worked those long days in the cotton mill.

North Carolina prides itself as the state that’s “First in Flight.”  Thanks in part to its daughter Georgia “Tiny” Broadwick, the little girl with the big dream and the courage to pursue it, North Carolina might also claim title as the state that was First From Flight – and safely back to earth again. Countless fliers from America who came after Tiny Broadwick would undoubtedly agree, and dip their wings in salute to her.

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