In celebration of women’s history month we decided to take a look at the role of women in the history of skydiving. Although only about 20 percent of all skydivers are female, women have been there right from the start, conquering the skies alongside their male counterparts.
As soon as man figured out how to fly, he also had to find a way to save himself if something goes wrong with his flying device; which is why the first parachute jumps were all done from balloons. Some women made a living from parachuting in the early days, doing it not only for the thrill, but also to entertain the crowds.
First Female Parachutists
Jeanne-Genevieve Garnerin, wife of Andre Garnarin, inventor of the frameless parachute and avid balloonist, was the first woman to descend under a parachute. She did this on 12 October 1799, from a 900 meter altitude. Jeanne continued to tour with her husband in France and all over Europe, completing many balloon ascents and parachute descents.
The bug also bit her niece, Elisa Garnerin, who started flying balloons at only 15 years of age and completed 39 professional parachute descents between 1815 and 1836.
Kathe Paulus was another woman who had a great impact on skydiving as we know it today. In collaboration with her husband, Lattermann, she developed a parachute prototype to make their balloon flights safer. This was one of the first inventions of a collapsible parachute – the parachute was folded and packed into a bag. Unfortunately Latterman died trying out their invention when his parachute failed after jumping from a balloon, but Paulus made it to the ground safely. She improved the invention and made good money from sales during WW1, although she lost her fortune later because of inflation. By August 1914, Kathe Paulus had made about 70 exhibition descents in her safety device.
Kathe Paulus on a balloon flight
Jumping from a Plane
Georgina Ann Thompson, known as Tiny Thompson, became the first woman to parachute from a plane on 21 June, 1913 over Los Angeles. Georgina was destined for a life of poverty, working 14 hour days in a cotton mill before skydiving changed everything for her. She got married at age 12, became a mother at 13 and lost her husband soon thereafter. Georgina was 15 when she first saw Charles Broadwick’s famous parachute show and felt so inspired she insisted on joining his troupe. She soon earned the nickname “Tiny Broadwick” or “Doll Girl” because of her small size and was a great hit at the carnivals. Dressing up in ruffled bloomers, pink bows and ribbons in her hair, Tiny drew large crowds everywhere she went with her daredevil manoeuvres. She was soon approached by famed pilot, Glen Martin, who wanted her for his airplane shows.
Charles Broadwick developed a silk parachute for Tiny, which was packed into a knapsack attached to a jacket using harness straps. A string was woven through the canvas covering of the parachute and attached to the plane’s fuselage. As soon as she jumped, the cover would tear away and the parachute would fill with air. For her first airplane jump, Tiny sat on a trap seat, outside the cockpit and behind the wing. The parachute was on a shelf above her. Glen Martin ascended to an altitude of 2000 feet, where Tiny pulled a lever, allowing the seat to drop out from underneath her. The parachute opened up and she floated down gently, landing in Griffith Park. Tiny later also became the first female parachutist to land in water.
In 1914, during a demonstration jump from a military plane that went horribly wrong, Tiny became the first person to do a planned free-fall. During this jump, the line of her parachute became tangled in the plane’s tail assembly. The wind was whipping her around and it was impossible to get back into the plane. Tiny however kept her cool and decided to cut all, but a short piece of the line and plummet toward the earth. Pulling this line by hand, she freed the parachute to open up, demonstrating the principle of the rip cord. By surviving this accident, Tiny showed that it wasn’t necessary for a parachute to be attached to a plane in order to open it. It was possible for a pilot to safely jump from a damaged plane.
Georgia Thompson (Tiny Broadwick)
Through WW1, Tiny worked as an advisor for the U.S. Army Air Corps. During her life, she made over a 1000 jumps from planes and survived several mishaps. She once ended up on top of a train; got tangled up in a windmill as well as high-tension wires. Despite suffering numerous injuries during her career, she lived a long and full life, dying at age 85.
Women in Skydiving Today
Ever since the first female pioneers made their first jumps, women have been setting new records in skydiving. We decided to compile a list of some of the most impressive female skydiving achievements to date:
A new world record for the largest female head-down freefly formation was set in 2013 in Arizona, where 63 women linked arms for a minute and a half to hold the formation. The women ranged in age between 20 and 52 years old and reached speeds of over 165 mph as they were falling upside down, head first toward the Arizona desert. Participants came from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, England, France and Russia.
The world record for the largest all-female skydiving formation is held by 181 women from 31 countries and was set in Perris, California. With this feat, the women managed to raise over $900,000 for the fight against breast cancer. This record will be challenged in October 2014 when an attempt is made to exceed 200 jumpers.
U.S. skydiver, Cheryl Stearns, holds the record for the most parachute descents by a woman, with a total of 15,560 in August 2003. To date, her total amount of skydives has exceeded 18,000. She is also the Guinness World Record holder for the most jumps in 24 hours by a female skydiver, with 352 jumps in 1995.
The oldest person to have done a skydive jump is Hildegarde Ferrea, who was 99 years old when she did a tandem jump in 1996, at Dillingham Field in Oahu, Hawaii.
Skydiving is a sport where female skydivers may be in the minority, but looking back in history we see that women have played a very important role through the years, directly and indirectly to help develop the sport to what it is today. We expect that this is also how it will be in the future and look forward to seeing more achievements and inventions from the fairer sex.