AIDA de ACOSTA
By; Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer
I have to admit that I had never heard of this interesting lady, and am not too sure where I ran across her name. She is, however, well worth a couple of minutes of your time.
Aida was born on July 28, 1884, in New Jersey, to steamship Captain Ricardo de Acosta and Micaela Hernandez de Alba, descendant of the Spanish Dukes of Alba. Little is known about her early life.
She and her mother travelled to Paris, where, in the summer of 1903, she saw a dirigible in flight. She was immediately fascinated by this flying machine.
This amazing flying machine belonged to Alberto Santos-Dumont, who was the “toast of Paris” at the time. He enjoyed flying his personal dirigible into downtown Paris and tying it down on the street while he went into his favorite restaurant for dinner. Somehow, Aida was able to meet Alberto. She talked him into teaching her to fly this marvelous machine. It only had one seat, so all her instruction was on the ground.
After taking only three lessons from Santos-Dumont, she took to the sky alone. This made her the first female to fly a powered aircraft solo! What a fantastic achievement for a 19 year old young lady!
For her flight Aida flew from Neuilly St. James to the polo field at Bagatella, at the northern end of the Bois de Boulogne. During this flight, Santos-Dumont rode a bicycle below her, waving his arms and shouting advice to her. The dirigible flew at about 15 miles per hour, so it was easy for him to keep up with her. Upon landing at the polo field, he asked how she had fared. Her reply was, “It is very nice, Mr. Santos-Dumont.” He seemed much more impressed and excited than she was and responded, “ Miss, you are the first woman aero-driver in the world!” She made her flight six months before the Wright Brothers made their famous flight that changed the world.
After spending a few minutes at the polo match, Aida got back in the dirigible and flew it back to Neuilly St. James, her entire historic outing lasting about one and one half hours.
While Alberto Santos-Dumont was thrilled to be part of something this exciting, her parents were not! They were appalled! They were absolutely certain that she had ruined her life because no self respecting man would have anything to do with a young woman who had done such a thing. They had Santos-Dumont promise that he would never reveal her identity, which is why she is not mentioned in his book, “My Airships.” They believed that a woman’s name should only appear in newspapers on her birth, her marriage, and her death. They managed to keep the whole event hushed up.
However in the 1930s, while hosting a dinner party, a young naval officer, was explaining why he wanted to fly dirigibles. She said that having flown one herself, she understood his interest. That broke the silence and let it be known that she was the first woman to fly a powered aircraft. I doubt that I could have kept that secret for 27 years. Speculation at the time was that Santos-Dumont and Acosta had a romantic relationship. However, there is no real evidence to support that. Aida married but Santos-Dumont remained single. He did keep a photograph of her on his desk throughout the rest of his life, so if there was any romance, it was probably one sided. When he died, her comment was that she hardly knew the man.
There is no record that I could find of her ever flying again. As she matured, she became interested in social causes. She sold two million dollars worth of Liberty Bonds during World War I. After the war, she travelled to Europe with the American Committee for Devastated France. She was also involved in the arts. In 1935, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia named her chairwoman of a committee to “stimulate the artistic life and expression of” New York City. Later in life she lost the sight in one eye due to glaucoma, and became an advocate for people with sight problems. She helped establish the Wilmer Ophthalmological Institute at John Hopkins University. She served as the first director of the Eye Bank for Sight Restoration, and held that position from 1945 to 1955. The world lost another fascinating woman when she passed away in Bedford, New York on May 26, 1962.