Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Granville County Girl Wasn't Scared!

Parachutist Demonstrated "Life Preserver of the Air"

Georgia Ann Thompson was born near Oxford, Granville County, North Carolina in 1893. She was called "Tiny" because she weighed only 3 pounds at birth and was only about 4 ½' tall as an adult. Life was hard for the poor farm family of George and Emma Ross Thompson and their 7 daughters. So hard, in fact, that they moved to Henderson, Vance Co., NC when Georgia was about 6 years old to take advantage of the work in the cotton mill there. By 1908, Tiny was a single mother, working 12 hour shifts in the cotton mill for 40¢ a day.

It not known how Tiny managed to travel from Henderson to Raleigh—a distance of about 45 miles—in 1908. What is known is that she was captivated by the huge hot-air balloon rising high into the blue sky over the State Fair at Raleigh. However, when she watched Charles Broadwick—suspended from a crude, flimsy parachute—float lightly to earth, she knew immediately that she had found her future. She described that moment in a Durham Morning Herald interview much later, "When I seen this balloon go up, I knew that's all I ever wanted to do! …"

As soon as the show was over, Thompson introduced herself to Broadwick and begged him to let her join his show. Her mother eventually agreed to give her a trial. It was decided that Broadwick would adopt the young girl since it would raise questions of propriety if she traveled with an unrelated older man. From then on she was known as Tiny Broadwick.

Tiny probably made her first parachute jump before the show left Raleigh. She described it this way, "… that first jump was beautiful. I could see barns and trees and roads and people. …" Her landing left something to be desired. Although she was supposed to land in a large open field, she "managed to land right in the middle of a big blackberry bush!"

The young parachutist and Charles Broadwick traveled all over the country with the Johnny J. Jones Carnival Co. Tiny was advertised as Miss Tiny Broadwick, the World's Most Daring Aviatrice-Parachutist. Because of her small size, Broadwick decided to call her the Doll Girl and she performed in ruffled bloomers and a silk dress with pink bows on her arms and in her hair.


There were dangers associated with hot-air balloons. They often blew off course, caught fire, or even cashed. Tiny had many close calls. On one occasion, the fire that heated the balloon scorched it, and when Tiny started up, the balloon ruptured. She was too close to the ground to parachute, but luckily she landed on top of the circus tent and was not seriously hurt. Another time, the wind blew Tiny toward two large buildings. She knew if she went between them, the balloon would be damaged and she would fall to the ground. She barely managed to make a landing on one of the buildings, but only after missing the other. And then there was the time she landed on a train. Fortunately, the engineer had spied her and stopped the train. She hurt her shoulder, but was otherwise OK.

On a lighter note, she once came down in a cemetery as a young girl was walking by. The sight of Tiny floating over the tombstones with her parachute billowing over her scared the girl so much that she ran away screaming. Perhaps she thought Tiny was an angel!

Remarkably, though she broke a few bones during her 14 year career, Tiny avoided serious injury.


In 1911, the Broadwick show was in Los Angles at the same time as the International Aviation Meet. Tiny agreed to jump, but the wind carried her miles away from where she started. One of the pilots landed his plane near where the balloon landed and flew her back to the meet. It was Tiny's first airplane ride, and it proved to be a turning point in her life.

In 1912, Glen L. Martin, an up-and-coming young pilot, barnstormer and airplane designer, saw Tiny's act. He knew that people would come to see Tiny jump from a plane, and if she would jump for him, it would be a boon for his business. He asked her if she would consider it, and, of course, she said yes! She made her first jump from a plane on June 21, 1913, wearing one of Charles Broadwick's parachutes. She was the first woman to parachute from an airplane.

Two reporters were on the plane and wrote stories about the adventure. " … Tiny Broadwick …crossed the great divide between the clouds and the earth," wrote Grace Wilcox. The other reporter, Bonnie Glessner, said, "… as I watched with thickly beating heart, this nervy little girl stepped calmly over the edge of the aeroplane a thousand feet in the air, and with a brave little smile, plunged earthward."

Jumping from balloons quickly became a thing of the past. Having Switched to planes, Tiny soon "became the first person to jump from a hydroplane and the first woman to make a water jump from an airplane."

Charles Broadwick had been working for years on developing safe and dependable parachutes, and in 1914, the team demonstrated his backpack—the life preserver of the air—in San Diego. Tiny made 4 jumps: the first 3 were as usual where a static-line attached to the plane caused the chute to open. On the fourth jump, her line became tangled and she was stuck, hanging from the plane—unable to get back up or release herself to descend. She managed to cut the static line and pulled the remaining end herself, thus creating a "ripcord." With this modification, she was the first person to intentionally free fall from a plane.

The day after the Broadwick demonstration, the San Diego Union carried the following: "…Brigadier General George P. Scriven, chief signal officer, USA, has recommended the purchase of a number of parachutes …."

Charles and Tiny Broadwick separated during World War I. The novelty of parachuting had worn off and it had become more difficult to get bookings for the act. Tiny didn't jump from 1916 o 1920 when she started jumping again. She retired permanently in 1922. She had made over 1,100 jumps.

Tiny married twice after she started jumping: first, to Andrew Olsen in 1912; and then, to Harry Brown in 1916. Neither marriage was successful.

After World War II, Tiny's story was revived and she received several honors: the prestigious United States Government Pioneer Aviation Award; membership in the exclusive aviation organization, OX5 Club, through which she was inducted into the Hall of Fame along with Charles Lindbergh and the Wright brothers; the John Glenn Medal; and membership in the Adventurer's Club of Los Angles, whose membership was limited to 200. The honor that pleased her most, however, was membership in the Early Birds of Aviation. There were stringent requirements to becoming a member of the Early Birds. One was that you had to have flown solo before 1917. Tiny met this requirement because she had ascended alone when she was jumping from balloons. She was the only woman in the 80 member group.

Tiny remained close to her family in NC although she made her home in California. She died in 1978. A historical marker was erected in her honor in 2004.

1. Tiny Broadwick: The First Lady of Parachuting by Elizabeth Whitley Roberson
2. First to Fly by Thomas C. Parramore
3. "First to Jump," by T.H. Pearce, The State Magazine, January 1975
4. http://earlyaviators.com/ebroadwi.htm

This story was first published in The Connector, newsletter of the Tar River Connections Genealogical Society in the Spring 2006 issue.

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