Tiny Broadwick was the first person to intentionally jump out of a flying airplane without being tethered to something.
People were parachuting well before the invention of the airplane. Early parachutists jumped off tall buildings. Later parachutists jumped out of hot air balloons. By the early 20th century, diving out of a balloon was a popular stunt at exhibitions and state fairs. Charles Broadwick toured the United States with this act. He (or one of his performers) would drop from a hot air balloon. As they fell, a tether attached to the balloon would release the parachute, and the performer would float down to safety and applause.
Enter Georgia Ann Thompson. Tiny was her nickname; she was a 15-year-old single mother from North Carolina, she was less than five feet tall, and she wanted to parachute. Tiny joined Broadwick’s troupe in 1908; Broadwick legally adopted her and she took the name “Tiny Broadwick.” She spent the next fourteen years jumping out of things.
At first it was just balloons, but by 1912 or 1913 (depending on the source) she had begun parachuting out of airplanes – the first woman to do so. And, in 1914, she went further than anyone had before.
Early parachute jumps from airplanes still used the tether method. Parachutists hung from the side of the plane in a kind of sling. They dropped, but were still attached to the plane by a cord. When they got far enough away from the plane, the cord pulled tight and released the parachute. (This method is still used today by paratroopers, by the way: it’s called a static line.)
Tiny was using this method in 1914 when she was demonstrating parachutes to the nascent air force of the U. S. Army. But she ran into trouble on one of her jumps: the static line became entangled in the plane. Tiny cut the cord and fell. For the first time in history, someone left an airplane in flight without being attached to anything. She was in free fall.
Tiny held onto her end of the cord and manually released the parachute, landing safely. She is therefore sometimes credited as the inventor of the ripcord, although the modern ripcord design came from a guy named James Floyd Smith.
(Side note: the details vary about Tiny’s historic drop. In some accounts, she cut the line on the same jump where she was entangled. In other accounts, that crisis merely inspired her to cut the line for her next jump.)
Tiny would continue to parachute, on and off, until 1922. She retired because her ankles couldn’t take it any more, but she and her ankles survived until 1978.