The Tragic Tale of Gladys Roy: A Fearless Wing Walker and Aviation Trailblazer

In the exhilarating world of aviation and daredevilry, few names captivate the imagination quite like Gladys Roy. Born in 1896, this American wing walker, barnstormer, and film actress pushed the boundaries of aerial performance in the 1920s. However, her remarkable journey was cut short by a tragic accident that shook the aviation community.

Gladys Smith, as she was originally known, likely entered the world in Minneapolis to parents Myra and Charles Byron Smith. Although sources differ on her exact birthdate, her gravestone confirms 1896 as the year. Gladys grew up in a family deeply involved in aviation, with three brothers—Robert “Lee,” Charles “Les,” and Chadwick “Chad” Smith—who also gained fame as pilots and were later inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame. Eventually, Gladys tied the knot with Arthur J. Roy and performed under the name Gladys Roy.

In the early 1920s, Gladys Roy emerged as a prominent barnstormer and aviation performer in Minnesota and California. Her career took flight in 1921 as a parachute jumper before transitioning to the thrilling role of a wing walker. She became renowned for her daring stunts on the upper wings of airplanes, captivating audiences with her audacious performances. From playing tennis mid-air with Ivan Unger in 1925 to blindfolded walks across the wings and even dancing the Charleston, Gladys constantly pushed the boundaries of what was deemed possible.

Gladys Roy claimed to hold the world record for the lowest parachute jump and successfully completed a remarkable jump from a staggering 17,000 feet. Her daring feats earned her considerable fame and financial success, with earnings ranging from $200 to $500 per performance in 1924. However, by 1926, her earnings had decreased to $100 per show, leading her to remark in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in May of that year, “Of late the crowds are beginning to tire of even my most difficult stunts and so I must necessarily invent new ones, that is, I want to hold my reputation as a dare-devil. Eventually an accident will occur…”

Gladys Roy and Ivan Unger play tennis on the wing of a biplane in flight, 1925

Gladys Roy’s bookings were managed by the Western Vaudeville Managers’ Association, securing her performances at fairs throughout the western United States. Additionally, she engaged in stunt work for the Lord Motor Car Company and participated in various real estate exhibitions and auctions, including those organized by John P. Mills Real Estate. In 1925, Gladys also made an appearance in the film “The Fighting Ranger,” although her involvement was marred by a severe injury sustained while filming a horse-riding scene.

Tragically, on August 15, 1927, Gladys Roy met her untimely demise in Ohio. While posing for pictures in an airplane with a local “bathing beauty” contestant, she inadvertently walked into the spinning propeller of a parked aircraft. The accident claimed her life, leaving the aviation world and her fans in shock and mourning. At the time of her passing, Gladys had been planning a daring flight from New York to Rome alongside Lt. Delmar Snyder, showcasing her unwavering determination and commitment to pushing the boundaries of aviation.

Gladys Roy’s legacy endures as a testament to her fearlessness, audacity, and groundbreaking contributions to the world of aviation. Her tragic death serves as a reminder of the risks these pioneering aviators faced while captivating the hearts and imaginations of audiences worldwide. While her life was cut short, Gladys Roy will forever be remembered as a trailblazer who fearlessly soared through the skies and left an indelible mark on the history of aviation.

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