Meet Gladys Roy, The Early Daredevil Actress Who Performed On The Top Of Airplanes

From Amelia Earhart to Harriet Quimby, from Willa Brown to Raymonde de Laroche, women in airplanes have served as sources of inspiration throughout history, with aspiring female pilots carrying on that legacy to this very day. History buffs take heed of the various triumphs and trials these early female pilots faced. Their off-ground battles and record-breaking stats are well-known. However, there is another, lesser-known aspect of female aviation worth celebrating: women on top of airplanes in flight. If you searched high enough in the skies of 1920s stunt shows, you would quickly learn these women did exist.

Wingwalkers, as they were called, pulled off death-defying stunts on the wings of planes, their lives literally hanging there in the balance (via National Geographic). The pilots took the art of barnstorming to new heights (per Centennial of Flight). Among the most legendary of these wingwalkers was a woman named Gladys Roy. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the celebrated actress died at the tender age of 25, having walked blindfolded, danced the Charleston, and even engaged in a tennis match, all atop the wing of a plane cruising through the air.

Little is known of Gladys Roy outside of her wingwalking career

Smithsonian Magazine reports that Gladys Roy was an accomplished actress, as well as an established pilot and stuntwoman. She appeared in the 1925 silent Western film "The Fighting Ranger" (via IMDb). She can be seen front and center on the poster of the film, her signature cropped pin curls coiled around her youthful face. Yet, even with a track record for success and the backing of an influential aviation family — three of her brothers were inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame — she still didn't garner the respect she deserved.

Much of her background is unknown. Whether that mystery is a testament to the harsh treatment of female pilots in the past or merely the result of her dying young may never be clear. Historians suspect she was born and raised in Minnesota and that she found her fame in the glittery skies above Los Angeles. Air and Space reports she graduated to wingwalking from parachute jumping after taking a daring 17,000 foot plunge and breaking a world record back in 1921. As a stuntwoman, her feet were constantly shuttling toward the ground or hovering above it, an act that secured a high-paying space for her in Hollywood.

In her heyday, she was a well-paid and popular wingwalker

Air and Space reports that at the height of her career, Mrs. Gladys Roy was represented by The Western Vaudeville Managers' Association, where she earned a whopping performance fee between $200 and $500 for her stunts (via Smithsonian Magazine). By today's standards, this amounts to somewhere between $2,600 and $6,700 per exhibition.

She was known to perform at fairs, auctions, and real estate exhibitions, her aerial antics filling the crowd with delight. According to Simple Flying, she was not only a master pilot, but also the mastermind behind her own routines. In one instance, she tiptoed blindfolded over the top of a military-inspired Curtiss JN-4, a type of plane lovingly referred to by barnstormers as a Jenny. Her most legendary performance to date was actually a duo, where she played a game of stunt-inspired tennis against fellow wingwalker Ivan Unger.

Pushing the limits of the sky wasn't always easy for the ambitious young actress, who once left the following haunting quote: "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, and then..."

A propeller accident ended her life, but she wasn't doing a stunt

In a rather unexpected twist, Gladys Roy (above, third from left) died by the wing of a plane, but the accident didn't happen during a stunt routine (via Simple Flying). While it's clear that she feared an accident would occur as her stunts became increasingly more dangerous to keep pace with audience demand, the accident that ended her life took place during a routine photo shoot.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, Roy's barnstorming days were already falling short by 1926. Her pay rate dramatically dipped to just $100 per show. Exhausted and on the brink of poverty, in 1927, the aerial stunt woman agreed to be photographed with an Ohio beauty contestant. The shoot was wrapping up when Gladys Roy started the engine of the plane, jumped down from the wing, and "unconsciously walked into the propeller" (per the Associated Press, posted at Early Aviators). She was scheduled to partake in a flight from New York-to-Rome before she died.