America’s First Lady of the Air
Harriet Quimby became the first American woman to become a licensed pilot, and the second in the world. Baroness de la Roche had been awarded a license in France prior to Harriet’s license in the states.
Harriet was born on a farm in Arcadia, Michigan in 1875. Her family moved to California in 1887. She later decided to change her birth date to May 1, 1884 and claim to have been born in Arroyo Grande, California. She also claimed to be an actress, although there is no record of her acting at that time.
IN 1903, Harriet moved to New York and wrote for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, a popular women’s magazine. She wrote reviews of plays, comedians, and motion pictures. She also wrote ‘advice’ columns, advising women on careers, household tips, and even on auto repairs! She served as a photojournalist, and traveled to Europe, Mexico, Cuba, and Egypt in that capacity. She was the epitome of the ‘modern’ woman of her day, living alone, having a career, driving a car, and even smoking.
While writing for Leslie’s, she met the pioneer filmmaker, D. W. Griffith, and wrote several screenplays for him. Her screenplays were made into silent film shorts by Biograph Studios. She did have a small acting role in one of the films. While writing as a theater critic for ‘Leslie’s,’ she published over 250 articles.
In October 1910, Harriet was assigned to cover the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament. There she discovered and fell in love with aviation! She befriended John and Matilde Moisant, who ran a flying school. Harriet began taking flying lessons at their school, and earned her pilot’s license, # 37, from the Aero Club of America, on August 1, 1911. Matilde was licensed shortly after Harriet.
Always with a flare for the dramatic, Harriet designed her own flying costume. It was a satin, plum colored, flight suit, with a cowl hood. Her striking flight costume became her trade mark! Somehow, many think it was her own doing, the press quickly discovered her flying adventures, and began covering her progress. She also wrote articles about flying for ‘Leslie’s.’
The Vin Fiz Company, a division of Armour Meat Packing of Chicago, recruited Harriet and her plum colored flight suit, to be the spokesperson for their new grape soda drink. Her distinctive purple suit soon graced many of their advertisements.
Not satisfied with writing headlines, Harriet decided to make headlines. She knew that Miss Trehawke-Davis had flown across the English Channel as a passenger. In March 1912, she secretly sailed for England where she borrowed a 50 horsepower HP Monoplane from Louis Bleirot. He had been the first person to fly across the Channel from, France, in 1909. On april 16, 1912, she reversed his route and took off from Dover at dawn. The sky was overcast, forcing her to stay low and rely solely on her compass for navigation. 59 minutes later, she landed on a beach in France, 25 miles from Calais, her intended landing spot. She had become the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel. However, her headlines were sparse. The Titanic had sunk the day before and burying her story in the middle of the papers.
Harriet describes her flight in ‘An American Girl’s Daring Exploit,’ May 16, 1912:
“…the [borrowed Bleriot monoplane] machine was shipped very secretly to the aerodrome on Dover Heights, …a fine smooth ground from which to make a good start. The famous Dover Castle stands on the cliffs, overlooking the channel. It points the way to Calais. I saw at once I only had to rise in my machine, fix my eyes upon the castle, fly over it and speed directly across to the French coast. It seemed so easy that it looked like a cross-country flight. I am glad I thought so and felt so, otherwise I might have had more hesitation about flying in the fog with an untried compass, in a new and untried machine, knowing that the treacherous North Sea stood ready to receive me if I drifted only five miles too far out of my course…
…It was a cold five-thirty a.m. when my machine got off the ground…the motor began to make its twelve hundred revolutions a minute, and I put up my hand to give the signal of release. Then I was off. The noise of the motor drowned the shouts and cheers of friends below. In a moment I was in the air, climbing steadily in a long circle. I was up fifteen hundred feet within thirty seconds. From this high point of vantage my eyes lit at once on Dover Castle…In an instant I was beyond the cliffs and over the channel…the thickening fog obscured my view. Calais was out of sight…There was only one thing for me to do and that was to keep my eyes fixed on the compass…
…The distance straight across from Dover to Calais is only twenty-two miles, and I knew that land must be in sight if I could only get below the fog and see it. So, I dropped from an altitude of about two thousand feet until I was half that height. The sunlight struck upon my face and my eyes lit upon the white and sandy shores of France. I felt happy…rather than tear up the farmers’ fields [below] I decided to drop down on the hard and sandy beach…A crowd of fishermen…came rushing from all directions toward me. They were congratulating themselves that the first woman to cross in an aeroplane had landed on their fishing beach…It was now nearly seven o’clock and I felt like eating breakfast…”
Harriet returned to the states and took up exhibition flying. She agreed to fly at the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet. On July 1, 1912 she took off as a passenger, with William Willard, the organizer of the event as her passenger. They circled the Boston Lighthouse. Then, suddenly, and in view of hundreds of spectators, the plane lurched. Willard fell out and plunged to his death. Blance Stuart Scott, another woman pilot watched the accident happen while flying her own airplane. Moments later, Harriet also fell out of the plane and was killed. The plane glided to a landing in the mud, flipped over, and was badly damaged.
There were several theories of what caused the accident. Some thought the cables might have become tangled, causing the plane to become uncontrollable. Some thought that Willard may have shifted in his seat, causing the plane to become out of balance. However, Willard and Harriet were not wearing seat belts, which may have saved their lives. At that time, not all airplanes had seat belts. In any case, both were killed in the fall.
Harriet Quimby’s aviation career was short lived, lasting only 11 months. In those short months she made history and became a role model for many other young women. One of those young women who chose to follow in her footsteps was Amelia Earhart.
In 1991, the United States Post Office honored Harriet Quimby with a 50 cent airmail stamp.
She was initially buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York, then later moved to Kenisco Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.
In 2012 Quimby was inducted into the Long Island Air and Space Hall of Fame.