by Gerald Boerner
When we think about famous women aviatrix, the name that usually comes to mind is Amelia Earhart. However, a fisty young lady in 1903 became a journalist in New York City and created the photographs that went with her articles. A little later, Harriet Quimby became the first woman to earn her pilot’s wings. In 1912, on the day after the Titanic sinking in the North Atlantic, she became the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel. After her one hour flight in a new plane and using a compass in the fog, her landing was met with great acclaim.
But her feat was overshadowed in the news reports by the sinking and loss of life in the Titanic disaster. Still, Ms. Quimby was a pioneer in many ways and deserves the recognition for her great accomplishments. GLB
“Adventure is worthwhile in itself.”
— Amelia Earhart
“Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.”
— Amelia Earhart
“Better do a good deed near at home than go far away to burn incense.”
— Amelia Earhart
“Flying might not be all plain sailing, but the fun of it is worth the price.”
— Amelia Earhart
“In soloing – as in other activities – it is far easier to start something than it is to finish it.”
— Amelia Earhart
“Never do things others can do and will do if there are things others cannot do or will not do.”
— Amelia Earhart
“Obviously I faced the possibility of not returning when first I considered going. Once faced and settled there really wasn’t any good reason to refer to it.”
— Amelia Earhart
“Please know that I am aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be a challenge to others.”
— Amelia Earhart
America’s First Lady of the Air: Harriet Quimby
Harriet Quimby (1875 – 1912) was an early American aviator and a movie screenwriter. In 1911 she was awarded a U.S. pilot’s certificate by the Aero Club of America, becoming the first woman to gain a pilot’s license in the United States. Less than a year later she became the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Although Quimby lived only to the age of thirty-seven, she had a major influence upon the role of women in aviation.
A historical marker has been erected near the remains of the farmhouse in Arcadia, Michigan where Quimby was born. After her family moved to San Francisco, California in the early 1900s, she became a journalist. She moved to New York City in 1903 to work as a theatre critic for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly and more than 250 of her articles were published over a nine-year period.
She became interested in aviation in 1910, when she attended the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament on Long Island, New York and met Matilde Moisant and her brother John, a well-known American aviator and operator of a flight school.
On August 1, 1911, Quimby took her pilot’s test and became the first U.S. woman to earn a pilot’s certificate. Matilde Moisant soon followed and became the nation’s second certified female pilot.
The Aeoronautics AllStar Network at FIU provided the following insights into Quimby’s experiences as a New York journalist. [Check out the full article via the link in the Reference section below.]
A single woman in New York embarking on a career in 1903 needed courage, determination, and talent. Harriet captured the attention of Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly and began appearing regularly in their newspaper as a contributing journalist, ultimately becoming a member of the staff. Her articles ranged in scope from household tips (“Home and the Household”) to advise for women on how to find a job, budget their income, live prudently on a modest income in a safe apartment and how to repair their own automobiles. She wrote articles for other magazines while contributing to Leslie’s, using both male and female pen names. She became well known in New York for her features as a photo-journalist traveling in Cuba, Europe, Egypt, Iceland and Mexico. She was perhaps best known as a drama critic writing Reviews of the stage for Leslie’s. Her stories of acrobats, divas and comedians were down-to-earth interviews. During her career with Leslie’s she wrote over 250 articles using her own name. In 1906, while on assignment at the Vanderbilt race track, Harriet was taken for a high-speed automobile ride which became the subject an article revealing her zest for speedy machines. Harriet purchased her own car, and advised others to maintain them properly. By the time she was 36, Harriet had conquered New York by living independently, traveling, helping to support her parents, and continually stretching her interests.
In 1911 Quimby authored five screenplays that were made into silent film shorts by Biograph Studios. All five of the romance films were directed by director D. W. Griffith. Stars in her films included Florence La Badie, Wilfred Lucas, and Blanche Sweet. Quimby had a small acting role in one movie.
The Vin Fiz Company, a division of Armour Meat Packing Plant of Chicago, recruited Harriet as the spokesperson for the new grape soda, Vin Fiz, after the death of Calbraith Perry Rodgers in April 1912. Her distinctive purple aviatrix uniform and image graced many of the advertising pieces of the day.
On April 16, 1912, Quimby took off from Dover, England, en route to Calais, France and made the flight in 59 minutes, landing about 25 miles (40 km) from Calais on a beach in Hardelot-Plage, Pas-de-Calais. She had become the first woman to fly the English Channel.
Her accomplishment received little media attention, however, as the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15 (the day before) consumed the interest of the public and filled newspapers.
On the PBS “Chasing the Sun” web site, Harriet Quimby’s solo crossing of the English channel is described in more detail in the following statement. [Check out the link in the Reference section for the full article.]
Although her career as a pilot lasted a mere 11 months, Harriet Quimby left an indelible mark on aviation history as both the first American woman to become a licensed pilot and the first woman to cross the English Channel.
A gifted journalist with a deep love of the theatre, Harriet Quimby first made a name for herself as a writer at Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. Primarily a writer of feature articles and stage reviews, Quimby also took photos for the publication of her many journeys around the world. Quimby even found success in the world of cinema. Quimby’s old theater friend, D. W. Griffith, made several of her scripts into films, making Quimby one of the first female screenwriters.
In October of 1910, Quimby met Matilde and John Moisant at an aviation exhibition at the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament. John and his brother, Alfred, ran an aviation school. Since the Wright Brothers did not teach women, Quimby convinced Alfred to teach her and his sister, Matilde, how to fly. Harriet quickly excelled in her new ambition, becoming the first licensed female pilot in the U. S. With her friend, Matilde Moisant, Quimby began touring with the Moisant International Aviators and performing at flying exhibitions. Understanding the power of drama, Quimby created a look for herself which became her trademark – a purple satin flying suit with a hood. With her tall, elegant looks, she instantly caught the public’s imagination. Harriet chronicled her adventures in articles for Leslie’s Weekly, sharing with the public the exhilaration of flying.
Ever seeking new adventures, Quimby set out to become the first woman to cross the English Channel. In March of 1912, Quimby set sail for England with a letter of introduction to Louis Blériot. Quimby managed to convince Blériot to lend her a 50-horsepower monoplane for her attempt. While Blériot agreed to the arrangement, most everyone around her was convinced she would fail. Even her friend and instructor, Gustav Hamel, offered to disguise himself in her purple suit, fly the plane in her place, and then secretly switch places with her on the French shores. But Quimby refused.
On April 16 she departed for France in a plane she had never flown before and a compass she had just learned how to use. Despite poor visibility and fog, Quimby landed 59 minutes later near Hardelot, France. Upon landing, Quimby was greeted with shouts of adulation by a cheering crowd and was hoisted upon the shoulders of local residents. Quimby, however, would not receive the same worldwide acclaim as her male counterpart, Louis Blériot. The Titanic had sunk just days earlier, casting a large shadow over Quimby’s achievement.
Quimby’s notoriety did draw large crowds at public flying exhibitions. On July 16th, 1912 she flew at the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet near Quincy, Massachusetts for the hefty sum of $100,000. In her gleaming new Blériot monoplane, Quimby flew out over Dorchester Bay with the event’s organizer, William A. P. Willard. As they were returning, the plane violently pitched forward, Harriet lost control, and Willard was ejected from his seat. Seconds later, Harriet was also thrown out. Both fell to their deaths in front of the entire crowd. Quimby, who had written about safety precautions in flying, was not wearing a safety belt at the time of the accident.
Harriet left behind a legacy, not just as a pilot, but as a woman ahead of her time. Even though she was not a self-proclaimed suffragette, her independence and sense of adventure inspired many women, and helped to pave the way for other female pilots.
On July 1, 1912 Quimby flew in the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet at Squantum, Massachusetts. William Willard, the organizer of the event, was a passenger in her brand-new two-seat Bleriot monoplane. At an altitude of 1500 feet the aircraft unexpectedly pitched forward for reasons still unknown. Both Willard and Quimby were ejected from their seats and fell to their deaths, while the plane “glided down and lodged itself in the mud.”
The Aeronautics AllStar Network described her final Air Meet in Massachusetts as follows:
Once back in New York, Harriet and her manager, A. Leo Stevens charted her next aviation exhibition for July. Negotiating a fee reported to have been at $100,000, Harriet signed on to appear at the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet at Squantum, near Quincy, Massachusetts. During the week-long event, she was to fly her new two-seater Bleriot monoplane recently shipped from France.
When Harriet arrived on July 1, 1912, William Willard, the event organizer, and his son, Charles, tossed a coin to see who would win the privilege of a flight with Harriet. Willard Senior won the toss and climbed into the passenger seat, casually appointing Earle Ovington as Manger of the meet in case he met with an accident. After a routine flight out to the Boston Light, Harriet circled over the Neponset River and Dorchester Bay as thousands of spectators watched.
While at an altitude of approximately 1500 feet, the plane suddenly pitched forward and Willard was thrown from his seat. Harriet appeared to temporarily gain control of the monoplane, but was thrown out seconds later. Both Harriet and Willard fell to their deaths in the tidal mud flats of the Bay. Just why the plane pitched forward continues to be analyzed and debated to this day. The 1912 Boston Globe suggested lack of seat belts, while Earle Ovington claimed cables from the aircraft tangled the steering mechanisms. Others speculated that Willard, a heavy and excitable man, suddenly leaned forward to speak with Harriet, and was tossed out. Once he was ejected, the empty passenger seat made it impossible for Harriet to regain balance of her machine. When flying her two-seater aircraft alone, Harriet “balanced” the weight with sand bags in the passenger’s seat. Although her Bleriot was now empty, it glided downward, until it was overturned in the shallow muddy water. Reports that her plane landed unbroken have been exaggerated through the years, and in fact it was badly damaged.
Harriet Quimby was a superstitious woman who wore lucky jewelry and made it a point never to fly on Sundays. She was independent and visionary, but apparently not actively involved in the movement for women’s rights championed by the Suffragettes. In her articles she chose instead to write strongly against child neglect, over-hunting of endangered species such as the egret, and corrupt politics. Her beauty and sense of style made her an attractive public figure, yet she was a private person who left no record of a marriage or children.
Upon Harriet’s death, America lost a strong advocate of aviation, believing that the United States was falling behind other nations such as England and France in the development of aircraft, pilot safety, and commercial as well as humanitarian applications. Her pioneering achievements pointed the way for future female pilots many years later such as Amelia Earhart.
Harriet Quimby was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York on July 4, 1912. A year later her remains were moved to her permanent burial site at Kenisco Cemetery at Valhalla, New York. Ironically, Matilde Moisant, her flying exhibition companion, and class-mate at the Moisant school, is buried at Valhalla Cemetery in North Hollywood, California close to a fountain named for Harriet Quimby, America’s first licensed female pilot.
The Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome’s restored and flyable Anzani-powered Blériot XI, which bears the Blériot factory’s serial number 56, and the still-current registration number N60094, could be the aircraft that Quimby was flying in 1912 during the Boston Aviation Meet.
The previously wrecked aircraft that now is flown at Old Rhinebeck was found stored in a barn in Laconia, New Hampshire in the 1960s and fully restored to flying condition, most likely by Cole Palen, ORA’s founder.
A 1991 United States airmail postage stamp featured Quimby. She is memorialized in two official Michigan historical markers, one in Coldwater, and one at her birthplace in Manistee County, Michigan.
Other Events on this Day:
- In 1789…
President-elect George Washington leaves Mount Vernon for his inauguration in New York City.
- In 1862…
Abraham Lincoln signs a bill ending slavery in the District of Columbia.
- In 1912…
Harriet Quimby becomes the first woman to fly across the English Channel.
- In 1947…
Much of Texas City, Texas, is destroyed when a ship carrying fertilizer blows up in its harbor, killing nearly 600 people.
- In 1963…
Martin Luther King, Jr., writes his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” while incarcerated for protesting against segregation.
- In 2007…
The deadliest school shooting in U.S. history leaves 33 dead at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Dates and events based on:
William J. Bennett and John Cribb, (2008) The American Patriot’s Almanac Daily Readings on America. (Kindle Edition)
Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Wikipedia: Harriet Quimby…
PBS “Chasing the Sun”: Pilots — Harriet Quimby…
Aeronautics AllStar Network: Harriet Quimby…
Brainy Quotes: Amelia Earhart Quotes…