“I was never afraid. I’d go up any time, any place. The only thing I hated was getting back to the earth so quickly.”
Georgia Ann Thompson was born in North Carolina on April 8, 1893. She weighed three pounds, and she deserves credit.
In late nineteenth century Granville County, North Carolina, most families were poor farmers. Georgia’s life was no different, except that she was always remarkably small, earning her the lifelong nickname of “Tiny.” She married at twelve, and became a mother to daughter Verla only a year later. When her husband died in an accident, Georgia worked fourteen hours in a cotton mill to support Verla, making only forty cents a day. (When I was around twelve and thirteen, I came up with the AIM screen name “LegallyBrunette” and agonized over party invites—well, lack thereof.)
Not much else is known about Georgia’s life before the year 1907, when she attended the State Fair in nearby Raleigh and saw “The Broadwicks and Their Famous French Aeronauts” for the first time. In the act, performers ascended in a hot air balloon basket, then climbed over the side and parachuted back down to the ground. Tiny was so enamored that, immediately following the show, she approached the group’s owner, Charles Broadwick, and asked if she could travel with his performers. Because of her beauty and small stature, just hitting above four feet at fifteen years old, Charles Broadwick agreed.
Leaving Verla with her grandmother and promising to send a portion of her salary home, Georgia joined the carnival and became Tiny Broadwick.
Tiny parachuted off a hot air balloon for the first time one year later, at the next North Carolina State Fair. Broadwick emphasized her unusual features and age in his act, marketing Tiny as “The Doll Girl.” He dressed her in ruffled bloomers, pink bows, a bonnet, and ribbons. She detested this completely, which totally just makes her cooler. At her core, she wasn’t a doll, or a princess; rather, she was a courageous daredevil, who left her male contemporaries in the history of aviation in the atmosphere.
Because it was scandalous in this time for single men and women to travel together, Broadwick got permission from Tiny’s father to legally adopt her. From this point, their relationship truly resembled that of a close father and daughter. Broadwick taught her the craft of parachuting, and Tiny kept his carnival business afloat, attracting huge crowds and countless newspaper articles declaring her the “most daring female aeronaut ever seen.”
And she was. Tiny executed stunts with little to no fear, though she had several near-fatal incidents throughout her career. Some harrowing examples include when she landed on the caboose of a moving train and another instance when she got tangled in the vanes of a windmill. She even escaped a burning hot air balloon. She broke bones and dislocated her shoulder more than she could count, but she never stopped jumping or pioneering the craft of parachuting.
By 1912, balloon stunts became an entertainment form of the past. Audiences demanded new tricks and more exciting shows. It was around this time that Tiny met Glenn L. Martin, a famous pilot who had seen her performing and wanted her to parachute from an airplane instead. Like Broadwick, Martin saw Tiny as a potentially highly lucrative component of his act, which focused on airplane stunts instead of hot air balloon stunts.
Broadwick had developed the parachute Tiny used on her first jump from an airplane. It was made entirely of silk. Martin flew the plane two thousand feet over Los Angeles, and then Tiny released a lever on a trap seat, sort of like a trapeze swing, behind the wing, and the seat dropped out from under her. On June 21, 1913, she became the first woman to parachute from an airplane. Later that year, she parachuted into Lake Michigan and became the first woman to parachute into a body of water.
She got enormous success from this stunt, so much so that in 1914 she was asked to demonstrate to government officials the effectiveness of parachutes. Before Tiny taught the U.S. Army her methods, many, many pilots had died because they had no way to safely get out of planes, especially in the midst of the still-brewing World War. However, in one of her demonstrations, something went terribly wrong: her parachute’s line became entangled in the tail assembly of the plane. It was impossible to get back into the plane because of the force of the wind against her small weight. Instead of becoming flustered, she cut off all but a short length of her parachute’s line, opening the parachute. Totally by accident, Tiny had invented a method called the “rip cord,” and became the first person ever to make a planned free-fall descent. Tiny accomplished that day what trained pilots had been unable to do before, that is, safely bail out of an airplane, entirely by mistake. Because of her extreme skill, Tiny served as an advisor to the Army Air Corps for the rest of World War I.
Tiny’s last jump was in 1922. She had made more than a thousand jumps by her twenty-ninth birthday, but her ankles were starting to weaken. The idea of stopping parachuting distressed her, but her health problems became too uncomfortable. Despite this, Tiny remained a fixture in aviation, visiting military bases during World War II and talking to aircrews. Verla also succeeded, but as a mother, providing Tiny with six grandchildren. She died in 1978 from natural causes and was buried in North Carolina, the state that declares itself “First in Flight,” the state where she first began.
In 1964, Tiny donated her parachute at a dinner held in her honor by the Adventurers Club of Los Angeles. National Air Museum Director Philip S. Hopkins said of Tiny’s life and accomplishments, “Measured in feet and inches, her nickname ‘Tiny’ is obviously appropriate. Measured by her courage and her accomplishments, she stands tall among her many colleagues—the pioneers of flight. And her contributions to flight history have helped to make America stand tall as the nation which gave wings to the world.”