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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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.

In 1942, he was admitted to the hospital, and the following year he died of heart disease. He did not die a rich man, or a celebrated one, and he seems to have died alone—family ties long broken, no pretty young companion by his side.

Forgotten for decades, Tiny found renewed fame in old age. In 1964, she donated an original Broadwick coatpack to the Smithsonian Institution. Due to its fragile condition, it is now kept in a climate-controlled storage unit in Suitland, Maryland. The other two existing coatpacks reside in North Carolina: one at the state’s Museum of History in Raleigh, the other with Tiny’s family. Credited with more than 1,100 jumps, Tiny died in 1978.

How are Broadwick’s contributions remembered today? Peter Hearn, author of five books on parachuting history, describes Broadwick as “one of those leading pioneers who used practical experience and technical expertise, rather than scientific qualification, to advance the development of a life-saving parachute.” Hearn also believes Broadwick deserves some credit for pioneering static-line chute deployment.

The U.S. Parachute Association’s executive director, Ed Scott, says that “just about all modern parachute systems” retain Broadwick’s chief innovation: “an integrated, form-fitting harness and container system nestled on the back.” Static-line deployment is still used by some novices making their first jumps, to ensure that the chute will open, but experienced parachutists today deploy a folded pilot chute that inflates and then extracts the main canopy.

As for the written record, Tiny has been memorialized in numerous books and magazines, but Charles’ name is fading. You’ll see a few parachute patents citing a Broadwick design, and aviation histories will briefly mention his invention of the backpack parachute. But what you won’t find in any of those documents is the complex tale of the man who spent a lifetime perfecting a life preserver of the air.

Lisa Ritter became interested in Charles Broadwick when she discovered that he boarded with her great, great aunt in San Francisco in the 1920s. She is currently writing a book about him.


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