by Paul R. Spitzzeri
When it comes to most male-dominated daredevil endeavors, the presence of women is usually noted in the obvious gendered ways and tonight’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection is no exception. It is a press photograph, date stamped 3 December 1929, from the Newspaper Enterprise Association, and shows “pretty and diminutive” (one of the many expressions using similar descriptors) Billie Brown with her deployed parachute, likely at Callies Airport, near Monterey Park and El Monte.
Brown didn’t have a lengthy career as a daring parachutist, making record-setting jumps for a few years in the late 1920s and early 1930s, but she definitely made a name for herself in the San Gabriel Valley, Pomona and other areas of greater Los Angeles, while the feat achieved at the time the photo was taken expanded her name recognition across the country. This was her jump from an airplane that involved a descent of over 1,800 feet by altimeter and about 1,650 feet from a barograph that allowed for her achievement to be considered official.
Unfortunately, a fair amount of searching proved almost fruitless in finding much information about Brown, who was in her late teens when she began jumping, but news reports and other sources state that she lived in El Monte when she began, along with sister Jackie, while others suggest she was residing in Alhambra. By the early Thirties, she’d relocated to Glendale, but, by 1932, no record could be found of her continuing her daredevil parachute work and later that year, her record was, unofficially, shattered at the National Air Races in Cleveland when a female jumper bested Brown’s mark by some 2,800 feet.
The first record of Brown’s jumping career came with the 30 October 1928 edition of the Los Angeles Times, which observed,
Parachute jumping is the latest fad among thrill-seeking El Monte girls . . . the latest convert is Billie Brown, book-keeper in a local grocery. Miss Brown made her first leap at the San Gabriel Valley airport last week. She weighs less than 100 pounds. Her weight was insufficient to hold down the first chute and she gave the spectators a scare when she blew above the opened chute. She had fallen nearly 1500 feet before she thought about opening the second chute, which straightened her out. The chutes caught in a tree, but Miss Brown landed safely and is ready for a second attempt.
This field is not the San Gabriel Valley Airport that was formerly El Monte Airport, because it opened in 1936, but, rather, was Callies Field, a couple miles southwest of town in what also called Monterey Park but appears to have been near the north end of Whittier Narrows Park in Rosemead.
Within a short time, Brown began to be something of a fixture in Pomona and the air field established by that city’s aviation pioneer John M. Burnley outside what were then the city’s southern limits on South Garey Avenue at Olive Street near today’s intersection of the 71 and 60 freeways.
The 9 February 1929 edition of the Pomona Progress Bulletin reported that unseasonably cold weather might alter the plans for an “aviation carnival,” but “it is expected that in spite of the climatic conditions, the double parachute jump will be staged, since arrangements have been made for Miss Billie Browning [sic] and “Whit[e]y” Noelte, Los Angeles , to make the unique dual jump here.”
In early April, another aviation event was held at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in the northwest part of Pomona and the paper’s issue of the 4th noted “the greatest climax of all will come as the crowning feature of the afternoon when the most thrilling double parachute jump ever attempted, will be staged by a man and woman from Los Angeles—Miss Billie Brown and Whitey Nolte.”
It was added that a Burnley craft would climb to 5,000 feet and the two would leap out in each other’s arms and they would remain embraced after the first chute was deployed for a drop of several hundred feet. Once it was cut away, the duo was to go into a freefall for about that distance before each opened an individual parachute for a landing in the center of the race track in front of a packed grandstand.
There was, of course, a calculated risk with stunt work on airplanes and with parachutists and, the following month, at Burnley’s airport, the Progress Bulletin reported that, “a parachute jump by Miss Billie Brown of Alhambra, and a minor mishap in which an airplane flown by Miss Beryl Dunning of Chino overturned after making a forced landing in a grain field, [were] featured in an aviation program enjoyed by a throng of spectators.”
Fortunately, neither Dunning or the unidentified pasenger were hurt, though the craft did have damage to the propeller after engine failure caused the hard landing. For an Independence Day horse racing event, sponsored by the Elks Club at the fairgrounds, there was “a thrilling parachute jump by Miss Billie Brown of El Monte who leaped almost directly above the grandstand . . . and came to earth without injury near the Carnation Farm Stables barn.” Occasionally, she appeared outside the area, such as a jump at an Armistice (now Veterans) Day event at Tulare in the Central Valley.
On 1 December, however, Brown literally reached the pinnacle of her career as covered in the Los Angeles Times of the following day:
A ninety-eight pound woman, Billie Brown of El Monte, yesterday afternoon set what will probably a new world’s record for parachute jumping by women when she dropped from the cabin of a speeding Ryan airplane 18,000 feet above Callies Airport in El Monte.
Miss Brown landed safely on the steep side of a draw running into Turnbull Canyon near Whittier, ten miles from the airport. She received a minor cut on her head, however, when she came down hard on the rough mountainside.
It was nearly two hours after she landed at 5 p.m. that the diminutive miss reached a telephone at the Pelissier Ranch No. 1 on Third avenue, Whittier, and reported to the airport. She was forced to tramp three miles across the hills from the spot where she came down. She left her parachute on the hillside and searchers will return for it today.
Noelte tried to jump in tandem, as they’d done before, but they separated because of windy conditions. and Noelte hiked out of the Puente Hills late at night. The National Aeronautic Association’s contest official, Joe Nikrent, however, went up with Brown and held the barograph, which was to be sent to Washington, D.C. for calibration and a later confirmation of altitude. Meantime, the plane’s altimeter recorded more than 18,000 feet elevation when she jumped, plunging faster than the stock market did when it crashed just weeks earlier, ushering in the Great Depresion.
The official record was set in Germany at just 8,200 feet, though it was stated that a female parachutist in Minneapolis named Jean Du Rand leapt from 18,700 feet, except that there was no official to verify the level. As for Brown, she was said to be 24 years old, an office worker in El Monte, and that the jump was her 54th since he first leap over a year prior.
The Los Angeles Express, however, recorded that Brown’s jump was from 16,400 feet and that the previous high mark was 15,000. It added that, aside from Nikrent, there were several reporters onboard and that, at 16,000 feet Brown was asked by pilot Bill Munday if she wanted to jump, but she waited until the plane got 400 feet higher before taking the leap. The paper also stated that there were several thousand people on hand to witness the takeoff and jump.
On 27 December, the news reached the region from the nation’s capital and the federal Bureau of Standards that the barograph recorded that the altitude was 16,430 feet when Brown jumped from the aircraft. The Progres-Bulletin added that “the National Aeronautic association keeps no official records of women’s parachute jumps [though did for men] but aviation experts could recall none exceeding that of Miss Brown’s.”
Times columnist Harry Carr, widely known for his column, “The Lancer,” commemorated Brown’s achievement, writing:
A little girl named Billie Brown took the afternoon off from her office job in El Monte to make a three-mile jump out of an airplane.
This mechanical age has had the result of revealing the physical courage of women. In other ages courage didn’t get you much without physical strength.
A girl’s courage is somewhat crazy. I have seen movie girls who had never been on horseback volunteer to ride bucking broncos; and girls make high dives into swimming tanks—to confes after being brought back to life that they did not know how to swim.
Going into cages with lions and other wild animals is just a little incident in their lives.
Carr’s commentary seems to speak far more about a male’s particularized view of what was considerd “crazy courage” rather than the attempt of women like Brown to break down barriers that established that daredevil stunts was the exclusive province of men, not to be shared with females.
In the afterglow of her famous jump, Brown occasionally gave speeches and continued jumps locally and elsewhere in the state, including the Kern County Fair in fall 1930. When an airplane endurance record was being south late that year, the effort was temporarily halted when it was reported that Brown was a stowaway and had to be removed for slightly exceeding the weight limit (at under 100 pounds, you see) and it was soon revealed that this was a publicity stunt.
In spring 1931, an ad in the Progress-Bulletin promoted an appearance by Brown at Burnley Airport for an exhibition of her parachuting prowess and it was proclaimed that she was “Holder of the World’s Record Parachute Jump for Women.” As noted above, however, that record fell, if unofficially, in Cleveland in September 1932 and it appears Brown was no longer pursuing glory in the skies.
Still it was remarkable run for a few years and the photo is an artifact of Brown’s daredevil achievement as a pioneering woman parachutist in greater Los Angeles during the late Twenties and early Thirties. Amazingly, there is a surviving Fox Movietone film of over 9 minutes duration from 30 December 1929 from the University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collections showing Brown with Nikrent and Munday helping her prepare for and execute a jump, so be sure to check this out!