Tiny Broadwick, first lady of parachuting

Jun. 20, 2013 @ 06:43 PM

She was a very small person. But she made some very big jumps.

She was Tiny Broadwick. One hundred years ago today, in Los Angeles, she leaped into the history books when she became the first woman to make a parachute jump from an airplane.

Broadwick was born Georgia Ann Thompson in Granville County in 1893. Weighing only three pounds at birth, she was nicknamed “Tiny,” a name that remained appropriate throughout her life, since she grew to be less than five feet in height.

At the age of 12, she married William Aulsie Jacobs. Her husband abandoned her soon after a daughter was born. Georgia went to work in the Harriet Cotton Mill. But that would soon change.

On a visit to the State Fair in Raleigh, she saw Charles Broadwick make a parachute jump from a hot air balloon. She was fascinated. And from that fascination grew a relationship that launched her on a new trajectory.

After making arrangements for her mother to care for her baby, Georgia joined Broadwick’s traveling hot air balloon act. She made her first parachute jump from a hot air balloon at the North Carolina State Fair in 1908 at age 15.

To make traveling together more acceptable, Broadwick adopted Tiny. She took the name of her adoptive father.

In 1912 she met Glenn L. Martin, a barnstorming aviator. Martin knew a show-stopping performance when he saw one. He asked Tiny Broadwick if she would be willing to parachute from an airplane. She agreed and the result was that historic parachute jump.

By modern standards, the parachute Broadwick used was quite primitive. Rather than being contained in a pack on the jumper’s back, it was folded on a rack that projected from the side of the airplane and was attached to a harness Broadwick wore. When she jumped, the parachute was pulled after her and the flow of air opened it to allow her to glide down to earth.

In another first, Broadwick became the first person to make a free fall from an airplane. It happened when the line attaching the parachute to Broadwick’s harness became entangled. Thinking quickly, she cut the line and pulled the end of the cord herself to open the parachute.

Later, Charles Broadwick invented a parachute that was contained in a pack that Tiny wore on her back. It became the prototype of the modern parachute.

Today, U.S. Army airborne jumpers wear a reserve parachute in case the primary parachute fails to deploy properly. Asked once if she had a reserve parachute, Broadwick said yes; it was back in the hangar in case her regular parachute got wet or muddy in a jump and wasn’t dry enough for her next jump.

Broadwick’s parachuting came to the attention of the U.S. Army in 1914, at a time when military aviation was in its infancy. The Army ordered its first parachute based on Broadwick’s model.

Broadwick continued barnstorming, making parachute jumps from hot air balloons and airplanes until 1922, when she retired after making more than 1,000 jumps.

Having retired at the age of 29, she switched to a vocation securely based on the ground, working as a housekeeper and companion to elderly people.

When World War II broke out, she went to work in an aircraft factory. The importance of parachuting, both for the safety of air crews and as a military tactic, brought Broadwick back into the limelight. She talked to paratroopers about her experiences. Those tough young soldiers were impressed by the diminutive woman who had fearlessly stepped off into space years before.

In 1976, Broadwick was made an honorary member of the 82nd Airborne Division and awarded a set of wings. She died in 1978 at the age of 85. The Golden Knights of the 82nd Airborne served as pallbearers at her funeral.

She is buried at Sunset Gardens in Henderson.

Broadwick’s daughter Verla lived in Middleburg until her death in 1985. Verla was Tiny’s only child but she and her husband, Joseph A. Poythress, had six of their own: Dixie (Mrs. James) Young, Dale Poythress, Jerry Poythress, Joseph Poythress, Edna (Mrs. Mack) Ellington and Tiny (Mrs. Thomas) Culler.

Broadwick inspired at least one Henderson resident to follow her example. Carolyn Moss said, “When I was little, 8 or 9 years old, I met her when she visited her daughter here. She would tell me all about her escapades, especially parachuting.”

Moss dreamed of parachuting but hesitated because of family responsibilities. She finally made her dream come true when she made her first jump at the age of 60.

In 2004, a historical marker was placed on Oxford Road near Sunset Gardens and not far from the Tiny Broadwick section of Henderson’s western loop. At the dedication, Michael Hill of the N.C. Division of Archives and History, said, “It is my hope that this marker will play some part in ensuring that the role Tiny Broadwick played in the history of this city, state and nation is recognized and remembered for many generations to come.”

She is remembered by her grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. But she is also remembered in the annals of aviation history as “The First Lady of Parachuting.”


Contact the writer at dirvine@hendersondispatch.com.