Friday, March 18, 2016

Falling Women: Elmira’s Lady Parachutists

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

 On August 19, 1920, 18-year-old Ruth Blackman of Elmira jumped from the wings of an airplane at an altitude of 3,500 feet.  Performing before a crowd of 43,000 nervous spectators at the Wyoming County Fair, she climbed out along the wing of the biplane piloted by her friend Leon ‘Windy’ Smith.  “It was so cold up there that my hands and legs seemed numb when I stepped out,” she later told a newspaper reporter.  “Added to this was the terrific force of the plane.”   Despite the cold and the wind, Blackman made it out and, after receiving the signal from the pilot, stepped off the wing and into thin air.

“I dropped like a rock for about 30 feet until I felt the parachute open and hold me securely.  Then it was just an easy drop downward….When I got nearer the earth, I saw that I was likely to fall on top of a barn.  I paddled with my feet to get away from that and then I had to do some maneuvering to avoid landing on a fence or in a tree.  Finally I plumped right down in a bean field.”

The jump was Blackman’s first from an airplane, but not her first time parachuting.  She had jumped from a hot air once balloon before, but found jumping from a plane much more thrilling.  Over the course of the summer, Blackman and Smith made 13 additional appearances and jumps at fairs throughout the Twin Tiers.  They tried spicing up the routine with tricks like jumping with an open bag of flour and jumping from one plane onto another.    In mid-October she and Smith traveled to Atlanta, Georgia where they performed aerial stunts for a movie which was being filmed there. 

Ruth Blackman and Leon 'Windy' Smith, 1920

 It was Blackman’s ambition to purchase her own plane and travel the country on the barnstormer circuit.  Maybe she did; she disappeared from the local papers after 1920.  By the summer of 1921, pilot Leon ‘Windy’ Smith had a new partner, the 17-year-old Elmira girl Irene DeVere.  She made her first jump over Mansfield, PA, and continued to work with him for the next few years.  When she wasn’t jumping out of airplanes, the petite, 92 pound daredevil worked as a stenographer. 

Irene DeVere, badass daredevil/stenographer


  1. very interesting.....I love the picture of Windy and Ruth their smiles tell the whole story!

  2. women daredevil's who knew! guess the saying is true that women can do anything !!
    it is amazing to hear stories of what her and other ladies have done in the past !