Gladys Roy was an aviation daredevil. She made a name for herself doing incredible stunts that would terrify the average person.
She was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1896. She had five siblings, including three brothers who all grew up to become airline pilots for Northwest Airlines (which merged with Delta in 2010).
This seemingly predicted her fate of completing daredevil stunts with planes and her lifelong involvement with aviation. Some accounts claim she was born in 1903. But this could be a myth associated with her seemingly destined fate in aviation since the Wright brothers completed their first flight in 1903.
Roy’s fame would be directly tied to aviation and her daring stunts when she was “wing walking.”
After the Wright brothers completed their first flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, the aviation field began to grow rapidly.
The military developed biplanes to take warfare to the sky. This resulted in dogfights over the trenches in World War I and esteemed pilots such as the Red Baron.
In the wake of World War I, newly developed biplanes that had been mass-produced for the war were suddenly looking for a new home. And military pilots were returning to civilian life with a specific skill set that did not have many career options.
Commercial airlines would start appearing in 1914 but would not become widely popular for another 30 years. Instead, pilots began purchasing the overproduced biplanes from the military and made a career out of aviation performance.
These pilots became known as barnstormers because they would fly their new planes across the country. They would land in farm fields to attract the local population and provide flying demonstrations.
While people were intrigued just by flights alone, these pilots began taking their performances to the next level and performing tricks for the crowds. Pilots would fly low over the crowd, do barrel rolls, and even climb out of the cockpit during the flight.
Soon troupes of fliers came together for performances. People would dangle from ropes, climb rope ladders between planes, and walk out on the wings. These “wing walkers” became very popular, and that is how Gladys Roy became famous.
Gladys Roy: Daredevil Extraordinaire
Roy began her career as a parachuter, doing stunts while falling through the air. She set a record with her third parachute jump ever when she leaped from over 16,000 feet in the air.
Her most infamous stunt was when she released her chute at just 100 feet in the air. She was able to survive the fall and become the first woman to break the world record. But she sustained serious injuries as a result.
She later graduated to wing-walking and other performances on planes. She became famous for walking across the wing of a biplane blindfolded and performing the Charleston on the wing mid-flight.
Tennis on a Plane
But one of the most famous stunts that Roy did, which made her a global superstar, occurred in 1925 in Los Angeles.
Along with fellow wing-walker Ivan Unger, Roy strapped herself to the wings of a biplane. The plane took off with the women on the wings. It leveled out at an altitude of 1,000 above the Los Angeles streets.
The women stood up holding racquets, with a net in the center of the wing between them. To avoid any damage, they did not hit any balls. Anything thrown would have flown off into the distance instantly.
Another plane flying nearby caught a shot of the two women in mid-air, with Roy facing the camera ready for a serve. Although no balls were volleyed that day, the tennis “match” became world-renowned because the photograph spread like wildfire around the world overnight.
While Roy had gained significant fame from other stunts, this was Unger’s most famous feat. She has largely been forgotten by history otherwise.
Death-Defying No More
Ironically, it would not be her death-defying stunts that ended her life, but rather her career after the stunts. Eventually, the crowds grew tired of the barnstormers and wing-walkers. Their performances were garnering less attention which led the performers to up the ante.
As the inherent risks began to mount too high, these daredevils moved on to other means of making money. Roy continued to do stunts in other venues. She even became an actress until she was injured on set in 1925.
She was capable of leaping from thousands of feet in the air and dancing on airplanes, but the simple buck of a horse is what finally landed Roy in the hospital. Sadly, this was not the last tragic accident Roy would face.
On August 15, 1927, Roy was posing for a beauty shoot with a plane in Ohio when tragedy struck. Without paying attention, she exited the plane and accidentally walked into its propellor on the runway.
Although barely remembered today, Roy was incredibly popular in her time and remembered for being a daring wing-walker. Even now, the photograph of her and Unger strapped to the plane wings in tennis outfits holding racquets is a popular image that is widely recognized.
Perhaps it was the nature of aviation becoming more standard fare. Or the fact that daredevil antics lose their novelty over time (the same reason Roy became an actress instead). But Roy’s other impressive feats have hardly withstood the test of time and she has been largely forgotten.
But the seemingly magical image of women playing tennis in the sky continues to inspire joy.
Godlewski, Meg. “Aviation Stunts: A History Lesson.” Flying, April 26, 2022. https://www.flyingmag.com/aviation-stunts-a-history-lesson/.
Maksel, Rebecca. “Tennis, Anyone?” Smithsonian Magazine, January 29, 2013. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/air-space-magazine/tennis-anyone-7859617/.
Reilly, Jill. “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines: Black and white photos show plane acrobats in the 1920s risking their lives in a quest for thrills.” Daily Mail, January 3, 2018. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2256528/Black-white-photos-plane-acrobats-1920s-risking-lives-quest-thrills.html.