Harriet Quimby

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Famous Aviators

Harriet Quimby was a female pioneer in aviation. She was the first woman to receive a pilot’s license, the first woman to fly solo over the English channel and the seventh woman to be enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

She was flamboyant, ambitious, beautiful, daring and tragically the first woman to die at an aviation meet.

Harriet loved anything associated with speed. In October 1910 she heard about an international air show to be held at Belmont Park. She decided to attend and while there she met daredevil pilot John Moisant. She was excited when he won a race around the Statue of Liberty and asked him to teach her to fly.

“Flying looks easy,” she said to Moisant. “I believe I could do it myself and I will.”

Her self-confidence came from a mother who didn’t want her daughter to grow up depending on a man. Harriet’s father had gone into bankruptcy as a poor farmer while she was growing up in Coldwater, Michigan.

The family subsequently moved to Oakland, California, searching for a better life. Harriet thrived in the freer lifestyle of California. She tried acting for a while, but found her niche in journalism, writing articles for the San Francisco Bulletin in 1890.

Her boundless energy caused her to travel to New York City, the journalism capital of the world, in 1903. When she arrived she had no job or place to live. It wasn’t long before she found a journalism job as a drama critic for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, a top magazine of the day.

Soon after, she engaged in activities usually reserved for men; such as driving and fixing her own automobile, using a typewriter and photographing her own pictures to accompany her articles.

Her writing expanded to subjects as controversial as exposing child neglect. She even wrote seven movie scripts that were made into movies, another first for a woman.

She convinced Leslie’s to finance her flying lessons in return for writing articles about her flying experiences. She wanted to obtain her lessons at the Wright brother’s flying school in Dayton, but the school didn’t accept woman students.

In a seeming contradiction, Katharine Wright, the Wright brothers’ sister was active in the suffrage movement and Milton, her father, and Orville contributed money to the movement. They even marched through downtown Dayton in behalf of the movement.

The Wright flying school did later admit women for pilot training and graduated three of them before the school closed.

Harriet turned to Moisant’s Aviation School on Long Island, who accepted her in 1911. John Moisant was no longer at the school because he was killed in an air meet in New Orleans.

Her instruction consisted of 33 lessons with a little over 4 1/2 hours flying time. On July 31st she flew her first flight test, performing everything right except that she over shot the landing, coming down 40 feet outside the required 160 foot circle. Her flight instructors thought that would discourage her and she would give up.

They didn’t really know Harriet. The next day she tried again and set an accuracy record for her landing. She triumphantly walked over to one of the officials, looked him in the eye and said, “Well, I guess I get my license!”

She did, thus becoming the first American woman to receive a pilot’s license. Earlier that year, a French woman was the first women in the world to receive a license.

She was not a feminist by any means; she opposed confrontation. She viewed her ability to fly as demonstrating through example that woman can do almost anything men can do.

Leslie’s appointed her Aviation Editor and instituted a new department devoted to the subject of aviation. Her articles on her flying experiences in Leslie’s sold out. Some of her articles had titles such as “How a Woman Learns to Fly” and “How I Won My Aviator’s License.”

She created a new fashion style for woman in aviation. The normal flying suits were not flattering to woman. Her outfit consisted of a one-piece suit made of purple satin with knee-length pants and a satin hood. Her accessories were flying goggles, elbow-length gloves and high-laced black boots. She became known as the “Dresden China Aviatrix.”

She joined an exhibition group and won her first cross-country race, winning $600. She followed that up by winning $1,500 for a night flight under a full moon.

Similar to the Wright brothers, she would not fly on Sunday. In her case it was at the request of her mother.

Only three months after earning her flying license, she decided she wanted a new challenge. She decided that she wanted to be the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel. She ordered a new airplane for the event, a 50-hp French Beloit monoplane.

Three years earlier, Louis Bleriot had won the London Daily Mail’s 1,000-pound prize for the first successful crossing and became an instant French hero.

By the time Harriet arrived in Britain, the weather had turned bad and her plane had arrived late. The two unexpected events deprived her from having an opportunity to practice flying her new plane. But, she was impatient and concerned that some other woman might make the attempt before she did.

Finally there was a break in the weather on April 16, 1912 so she decided to go even though there were reports of fog near the French coast. The only instrumentation she had was a compass that a friend gave her.

She put on an extra raincoat and took off from Dover at 5:30 a.m. It wasn’t long before she hit the fog bank and couldn’t see where she was going. To make matters worse, her plane had an open cockpit that allowed oil from the engine to blow back in her face.

She flew up to 6,000 feet but that didn’t help. She was forced to rely on her compass that she held cradled between her knees. When she finally broke through the fog, she was 25 miles south of her destination at Calais. She decided to land safely on the sandy beach at Hardelot. The flight had taken one hour and 9 minutes.

It was a remarkable achievement, but she received little recognition for the event. It was her fate that the Titanic disaster, that took 1,573 lives, occurred two days before her flight. The news on the Titanic pushed her achievement off the front page.

That didn’t discourage Harriet, she was off to another air meet two months later. She was offered $100,000 to participate in a Boston air meet, which would take place over Boston Harbor.

At the meet, promoter William Willard asked her for an airplane ride in her 70-hp Bleriot, one of the latest models of military monoplanes. She agreed, but then his son wanted to go also. They decided to settle the matter by a flip of the coin. Willard senior won. As fate would have it, that gamble was one too many.

William Willard weighed some 200 pounds, which stretched the weight limit for the fragile Beloit plane. There was no problem with the take-off on July 1, 1912, but then at about 2,000 feet Willard did something surprisingly stupid – he stood up. No one knows for sure why; maybe it wanted to say something to Harriet. The Beloit plane is configured so the passenger sat in a separate cockpit behind the pilot, so Harriet couldn’t see what was happening.

Then he tumbled out of the plane. There were no seat belts in the plane, which was common for airplanes at that time. It permitted easier access to the engine that often caught on fire or needed some adjustment.

Harriet was confronted with a tail that rose suddenly with the shift in the center of gravity without knowing the cause. She fought to control the plane that was now pitching violently. Then she too was catapulted out of the plane.

To the horror of some thousands of spectators, the two tumbling bodies hit the shallow muddy waters of the bay some 300 feet from the shore. They were both killed instantly. She was 37 years old.

Ironically Harriet had earlier written an article on the dangers of flight in which she advocated the use of seat belts. In another article, Good Housekeeping Magazine, she wrote, “Only a cautious person – man or woman – should fly. I never mount my machine until every wire and screw has been tested. I have never had an accident in the air. It may be luck, but I attribute it to the care of a good mechanic.”

In another twist of fate, If she had been flying a Wright airplane, Willard would have been sitting next to her instead of behind and the accident would probably not have happened. The fact that she was not using a Wright plane most likely goes back to her not being able to attend the Wright flying school.

There were other explanations given in addition to the one I have provided for the cause of the crash such as adverse weather and mechanical problems. I believe the one I provided is the cause that is most believable.

The Boston Post, still not accepting that a woman could fly, gave her faint praise by giving her honorary male status by writing, “She took her chances like a man and died like one.”

She lived life to the fullest and in the process she helped open the door to women to fulfill their life’s potential.

Now, some 100 years later she is remembered on a 50 cent U.S. Postal Stamp and only recently by induction into the U. S. Aviation Hall of Fame. There is a brief description of her achievements on a historic sign near her grave in Kensico Cemetery, Westchester, N.Y.

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