Cold Open - Charles Broadwick parachutes in N.C.
It’s October 1907 at the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh; almost four years after the Wright Brothers’ historic first airplane flight.
Charles Broadwick, a pioneering parachutist, stands alone in a tent as a crowd gathers outside, waiting for him to appear and perform a daring aerial stunt.
Charles peers through the flaps of the tent to see his crew holding ropes fastened to a 92-foot-high hot air balloon. Charles eyes the trapeze bar which dangles from the mouth of the balloon. He checks his parachute pack to make sure everything is in order… and then… …a bell rings, and the crowd goes wild. The show is about to begin.
Charles dashes out of the tent tethers himself to the balloon with a line and grabs the trapeze. Then, his crew lets go of the ropes, and the balloon lifts Charles into the sky.
Now that Charles is airborne, he must prepare for the most dangerous part of the stunt: the free fall. In order to drop to the earth, Charles must first untether himself from the balloon by cutting the line. After that, there is no turning back.
So Charles checks the parachute one last time, takes a breath… and cuts himself loose.
The crowd screams and gasps as Charles enters into his fall. But almost instantly… Charles’ cotton parachute releases, and he gracefully floats toward the ground. But Charles has one more trick up his sleeve.
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a cigarette and a wind-proof lighter.
Then he lights his smoke with a flourish and takes a leisurely puff.
The crowd roars with delight and rushes to meet Charles as he makes a perfect landing.
In 1907, America is obsessed with the idea of flight. Since the Wright Brothers’ airplane first lifted off, flying machines of all kinds have become major attractions at fairs across the country. Daredevils like Charles are always a huge hit. But with his actions today, Charles has inspired one audience member to change her life forever.
13-year-old Georgia “Tiny” Thompson stands just four feet tall and weighs only 85 pounds. Still, she pushes her way through the crowd and runs up to Charles after his stunt. Tiny tells Charles that she wants to join his group and jump out of hot air balloons.
And remarkably, very soon, Charles will take Tiny on the road, and over time, she’ll grow into his show’s star performer. Tiny will constantly look for ways to improve and perfect her act. Eventually, her drive to be the best will lead her to become the first woman to parachute from an airplane on June 21st, 1913.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is June 21st, 1913: “The First Lady of Parachuting”.
Act One: Tiny’s first jump and her adoption
It’s October 1908 at the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh.
14-year-old Tiny Thompson hangs from a trapeze connected to a hot air balloon floating 1,000 feet in the air. Only a year ago, Tiny was standing in the crowd at this fair, amazed, while Charles Broadwick attempted a similar feat. Today, it's her turn, and she’s about to make her first public parachute jump. Many people have tried to talk Tiny out of it. They say she’s too small. Too young. Too immature. But Tiny isn’t worried. She stopped thinking of herself as a kid years ago.
Tiny’s short life has been difficult. She was married at the age of 12. And at 13, she gave birth to a daughter. Soon after, Tiny’s husband abandoned her and the baby. Tiny had to start working at a mill to make money while her mother looked after the child. Then, Tiny met Charles Broadwick. She convinced him to let her try parachuting, and her life changed forever. For Tiny, jumping from the sky doesn’t feel dangerous; it feels like freedom.
So today, Tiny nods confidently to the ground crew, cuts the line, disconnects from the balloon, and parachutes toward the field below. But the wind picks up, and the parachute drifts. Tiny remains calm and focuses on the ground. She fights through the wind drifting further and further off course until she guides her parachute into the middle of a blackberry bush. And for a moment, Tiny disappears. The crowd holds their breath in anticipation. Then, Tiny pops up, grins, and wipes the berry stains from her face. The crowd erupts in applause and swarms around her.
Charles Broadwick has been wowing audiences with his stunts for years, but he’s never seen a group of people this excited. He recognizes the added thrill that comes from watching someone as young and small as Tiny performing daring, parachute stunts. And Charles is never one to miss an opportunity to make money. Right then and there, he decides to make Tiny the new star of his show. But to make that happen, he’ll have to convince Tiny’s parents to let her tour the country.
In the fall of 1908, Charles Broadwick sits down with Tiny’s parents in their North Carolina home. With an eager Tiny by his side, Charles explains his intention to make Tiny the main attraction of his traveling stunt show. Charles goes on to explain that the public will not look favorably on a grown man touring the country with a young girl; unless that young girl is his daughter. As a result, Charles says, he will have to legally adopt her.
Tiny’s parents are reluctant. But before Charles can press his case, Tiny asks him to let her speak for herself. She tells her parents that she’s never felt anything as wonderful as being up in the air. She says touring with Charles is all she wants to do, and she promises to use the money she makes to help support her daughter.
Tiny’s parents agree to let her go, and they grant Charles permission to adopt her. Not long after, Tiny Thompson becomes Georgia Broadwick, and in 1909, she sets out on her first cross-country tour.
Tiny is a hit at every fair and carnival they go to. But Charles is a tireless promoter, always looking for new ways to capitalize even further on his main attraction. Playing on Tiny’s youth and size, Charles decides to costume her in ruffled bloomers, a dress with pink bows, and a bonnet. Charles bills Tiny as “the Doll Girl.”
Tiny despises dressing up like a doll, but she can’t deny that the gimmick is working. She loves seeing the large crowds lining up to see her everywhere she goes, so she agrees to keep wearing the ridiculous costume.
But Tiny isn’t focused on receiving public adoration alone; she also wants to get better at her job. She works hard in her spare time to improve her parachuting skills. Throughout 1909 and 1910, Tiny studies with Charles to better understand the mechanics of parachutes. She practices her landings over and over to make them as perfect as possible. And soon, Tiny feels like she’s becoming an expert in her field.
The more confident Tiny becomes, the more she pushes herself to try new things. She wants to give the audience an experience they’ve never had before, so she constantly tries to find more daring tricks to perform. And soon, Tiny will meet an airplane pilot as fearless as she is, and together, they’ll come up with a stunt that will make history.
Act Two: Tiny’s first ride in an airplane
It’s January 1911 at the International Aviation Meet in Los Angeles, California.
Tiny Broadwick ascends into the sky hanging from a hot air balloon on a trapeze like she’s done countless times before. But this time, Tiny is nervous.
This aviation show has attracted airplane pilots, balloonists, and daredevils from all over the world. Tiny knows this opportunity could open doors for her around the globe. But unfortunately, the wind isn’t cooperating.
Before Tiny can jump from her balloon, a big gust blows her off course. Eventually, the wind dies down, but Tiny is forced to land in an open field far away from the airshow.
Packing up her parachute for the long trudge back, Tiny hears something overhead. She looks up as an airplane descends from the sky, and lands in the field. The pilot approaches her and says he’s part of the air show. As soon as he saw Tiny drifting, he says, he followed her. And then, he offers Tiny a ride back.
Tiny jumps at the opportunity to take her first flight in an airplane. And after she lands, she finds Charles and tells him how incredible the experience was. She goes on, telling Charles that she wants airplanes to be a part of their show. But Charles is resistant. He doesn’t want to make any major changes. In his mind, the tour is already hit, and there’s no sense of fixing something that's not broken.
So in the spring of 1911, Tiny and Charles get back on the road with the same old show, but this time, the crowds are smaller. Tiny’s hot air balloon stunts are no longer the biggest draw. Instead, Tiny watches with frustration as the audiences flock to see stunt pilots flying in airplanes.
Tiny isn’t ready to give up her life of traveling and performing. But she knows if her act is going to survive, it has to evolve. So Tiny confronts Charles pushing for a change. She tells him she is certain airplanes are the answer to their problems. And she already knows the best place to make connections with stunt pilots: the International Aviation Meet. But still, Charles is hesitant.
In January of 1912, Tiny and Charles return to Los Angeles with their balloon act on its last legs. Tiny knows this is her moment.
Since her first jump, she’s been fueled by a desire to show audiences something they’ve never seen before. And she knows full well no audience has ever seen a woman parachute from an airplane. But in order to be the first woman to perform that stunt, and potentially save her career, Tiny has to convince a pilot to team up with her. She thinks the best way to do that is to grab their attention by nailing her balloon stunt here, in Los Angeles.
This time, the wind cooperates. Tiny performs her balloon routine to perfection and sticks an impeccable landing. And just as she hoped, her performance catches the eye of an airplane pilot watching in the audience: Glenn Martin.
Glenn has loved planes since the moment he learned about the Wright Brothers’ first flight. In his early 20s, he wrote to the brothers asking permission to build a plane of his own using their patented design. Orville Wright himself wrote back and gave Glenn the go-ahead. Soon, Glenn built and flew his first plane. Before long, he had made a career out of flying.
Glenn now supports himself by traveling the country and performing in air shows. Like Tiny, he’s always looking for new stunts to wow audiences and push boundaries. And after seeing Tiny leap from the balloon, Glenn decides she’ll make the perfect addition to his airplane act.
At the Air Meet, Glenn approaches Tiny and Charles about teaming up. He tells them he wants Tiny to jump from his plane. She's vibrating with eagerness, and this time, Charles doesn't hesitate, and says “yes”.
But as brave as Tiny is, she knows parachuting from a plane will be very different than cutting loose from a balloon, and she wants to make sure they have a safe plan in place. After considering a range of options, Glenn decides to place Tiny outside of the cockpit, just behind the wing in a custom-designed trap seat with a lever attached. When Tiny is ready to jump, she will pull the lever. The seat will drop out and Tiny will enter a free fall.
In the coming months, Tiny gets acclimated to the trap seat they’ve designed for her. And the more she flies, the more she falls in love with a sense of peace and of freedom. She’s overcome and accomplished so much to get to this moment. Now, Tiny is ready to go one step further and make her mark on history.
Act Three: Tiny’s first jump from an airplane
It’s June 21st, 1913 over Griffith Park in Los Angeles.
20-year-old Tiny Broadwick sits in the trap seat of Glenn Martin’s bi-plane as it circles the park 1,200 feet in the air.
Tiny wears her parachute pack over an elegant, dark red dress. She picked it, hoping that on this historic day, no one would call her “the Doll Girl”.
Tiny looks towards the cockpit. Glenn gives her the sign that they’re almost in position. Tiny breathes deep, and smiles.
Over the past year, Tiny’s spent almost every waking moment preparing for this stunt. She and Charles Broadwick have been busy. He created a silk parachute for Tiny that’s stronger, lighter, and easier to handle than the cotton chutes she used for her balloon jumps. And now, Tiny can’t wait to show the world what she, and her new parachute, can do.
Glenn signals to Tiny that she can jump whenever she’s ready. Tiny gives Glenn a firm nod. Then, she pulls the lever of the trap seat. The seat drops out, and Tiny falls into the sky. Soon, Tiny pulls the cord, and her silk parachute unfurls from her pack.
Her descent is perfect. Tiny beams at the massive crowd of fans, aviation experts, and reporters who cheer her on as she lands safely in Griffith Park.
And after her successful feat, Tiny quickly becomes a press darling. They call her the “First Lady of Parachuting.” One reporter writes of Tiny, “For actual courage, I do not believe anything could be found to equal that displayed by the girl who yesterday wrote a new chapter in aviation.”
For the remainder of 1913, Tiny and Glenn become the hit of the airshow circuit. Then, when World War I breaks out in 1914, the US government calls on Tiny to help teach the art of parachuting to military pilots. And even after the war, Tiny continues to perform parachute stunts until 1922. But after nearly fifteen years and over 1,000 jumps, Tiny’s career starts to take a physical toll on her body. Each landing sends a shock through her legs. And eventually, the pain is simply too great; she decides to retire.
But the decision wasn’t easy. She once said, “I breathe so much better up there when I jump, and I’m getting so I don’t like to breathe on Earth.”
But when she stepped away from parachuting for the last time, Georgia “Tiny” Broadwick walked away confident that she’d secured her place in aviation history as the first woman ever to parachute from an airplane on June 21st, 1913.
Next on History Daily. June 22nd, 1633. The Inquisition forces Galileo to recant his support of the Copernican system, which argues that the Earth is not the center of the solar system but the Sun.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.