Pack Man

Charles Broadwick invented a new way of falling.

Glenn Martin (standing). By 1913 Martin was taking credit for Broadwick’s invention, and the following year he patented it. Here, he and Tiny watch Broadwick stitch up the canopy of a parachute. (Library Of Congress)
Air & Space Magazine

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As the Great War loomed in Europe, Broadwick offered a nobler use for his coatpack.

At about nine pounds, the pack was now lighter, smaller, and better suited to snug cockpits. In a series of demonstrations between early 1914 and early 1915 at North Island in San Diego, Charles and Tiny wowed pilots, generals, Congressmen, and reporters with this “life preserver of the air,” as it came to be called.

At first, the idea of using the device to save airmen’s lives received consistent, albeit faint, praise. The Army even purchased two Broadwick packs for further testing—but they ended up on a shelf until after the war.

Pilots weren’t eager to adopt a parachute either. They argued that carrying one showed a lack of trust in one’s machine and in one’s flying ability. Army brass arguments wavered between two conflicting fears: that the presence of parachutes would make pilots abandon their machines needlessly, and that current parachutes weren’t reliable enough in all situations.

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.

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