Charles Broadwick invented a new way of falling.
- By Lisa Ritter
- Air & Space magazine, May 2010
Library Of Congress
(Page 4 of 5)
True, the static-line parachute was not ideal for all cases of airplane failure. If the craft were plummeting, the parachutist tethered to it could never break free. But that was no reason for wholesale rejection of the device. In 1916, another parachute showman-turned-inventor, Leo Stevens, had offered the Army his pack, which featured a ripcord that the jumper could pull to deploy the chute, ensuring the pilot could free himself from a falling airplane. But the Army, deeming it “dangerous” for inexperienced jumpers, turned it down as well.
In those days, fires in airplanes were common—so common that, in fear of a fiery end, some pilots carried pistols to commit suicide; others chose to jump to a quick death. If a pilot had Broadwick’s static-line parachute, however, he might have a chance at escaping a burning airplane.
What finally convinced the Allies of the utility of carrying parachutes in airplanes? The enemy. German aircraft had primitive static-line-operated packs, and when the airplanes caught fire, the pilots jumped out and parachuted safely to the ground. Seeing the benefits first-hand, Allied pilots came around, but the brass continued to hesitate. By the time they came around as well, the war was over.
Broadwick’s coatpack did figure prominently in the development of the parachute immediately after World War I. A group of civilians under the direction of Major E.L. Hoffman gathered all the parachute models they could get their hands on and set out to find the perfect compromise. Former Broadwick protégé Leslie Irvin was a key player, as was another former California acquaintance, Floyd Smith. In the end, the group took three elements—Broadwick’s coatpack, Stevens’ ripcord, and a pilot chute (a small canopy that opens to draw out the main canopy)—and created Airplane Parachute Type-A. Successfully tested by Irvin, the parachute was put into production. Irvin chutes saved countless lives, including that of young airmail pilot Charles Lindbergh.
By this time, Broadwick, who had parted ways with Tiny and remained in California throughout the war, had found love again. A young would-be actress who enjoyed the thrill of the air, Ethel Knutsen married the much older Broadwick and began jumping from airplanes.
On February 12, 1920, Ethel was testing one of her husband’s new parachutes over San Francisco. As a movie camera in another airplane recorded the scene, the suspension lines of Ethel’s parachute tangled, and she plummeted 2,000 feet to Marina Aviation Field. She died hours later.
Following Ethel’s death, Broadwick seemed to age dramatically. Years of broken bones, the deaths of his beloved Maude and Ethel—the misfortunes had taken a toll. Photographs show a changed man.
In the late 1920s, Broadwick made national headlines when pilot “Mickey” McKeon tested two of the inventor’s patented “planechutes,” designed to bring down a disabled or fog-enveloped aircraft. The tests were only partly successful. Broadwick continued to tinker in his San Francisco workshop, but by 1940 he was officially retired.