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America's First Lady of the Air

  • By Peter Tyson
  • Posted 02.22.05
  • NOVA

On August 1, 1911, at age 36, Harriet Quimby became America's first licensed woman pilot. Less than a year later she would be dead, victim of the kind of freakish accident that was all too common in flying's age of innocence.

In her 11 months as "America's First Lady of the Air," as the press came to dub her, she made some dramatic firsts, including her English Channel flight, which she accomplished three years after Louis Blériot became the first to do so. No doubt she would have gone on to other firsts. Indeed, if death hadn't intervened on July 1, 1912, she was scheduled within days to fly the U.S. mail from Boston to New York, a first for a woman.

Ready to fly: Harriet Quimby in her Blériot XI monoplane, 1912 Enlarge Photo credit: Library of Congress

Rise to fame

Harriet Quimby was probably born in Michigan in 1875. Her father was a farmer but not very good at it, so he moved his wife and two daughters to California and tried his luck in other ventures, never flourishingly. His daughter Harriet would not follow in his faltering footsteps, becoming, long before she became a pilot, a successful magazine writer first in San Francisco then in New York. In 1904, at age 29, she became drama critic and editor of the women's page for Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, a New York magazine for which she would write for the rest of her brief career, penning more than 300 articles for Leslie's and other publications.

Quimby threw herself into the life of an up-and-coming reporter in the Big Apple. She was slim, tall, vivacious, and beautiful—one friend called her "the prettiest girl I have ever seen. She had the most beautiful blue eyes—oh, what eyes she had." Quimby bought herself an automobile, a sure sign of prosperity and of her growing passion for technology and speed. She did not join the suffragist movement then stirring up New York society, but she was a kind of nonactivist feminist. Many of her articles were about and for women—"Hints to Stage-Struck Girls" and "Can Women Run Automobiles?" were but two—and throughout her career Quimby encouraged women to follow all the pursuits men followed, including dangerous activities like flying. In her rise to fame, she did not forget her family; she even brought her parents east to live in New York City.

Dressed to the nines in high heels and satin suit, Quimby climbs into her Moisant monoplane, the model she learned to fly on. Enlarge Photo credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS

Smitten with the sky

In 1910, Leslie's devoted an entire issue to aviation. Quimby was so inspired that she attended an international air meet at New York's Belmont Park and, by the spring of 1911, was enrolled in a nascent flight school on Long Island. Her teacher had been a student of Louis Blériot's, and under his tutelage Quimby excelled. She had both a natural talent for flying and the drive to prove that women could advance in the field as well as men. "I'm going in for everything in aviation that men have done: altitude, speed, endurance, and the rest," she declared. At the same time she remained distinctly feminine, going aloft in a one-piece, plum-colored satin flying suit and describing details and sensations that no male flyer would have been caught dead describing. "You don't know what a fine thing for the complexion a dew bath is," she once wrote, telling of the pure, moist air at altitude.

Quimby quickly became a celebrity aviatrix, or woman aviator. It was a lucrative sideline. In September 1911, she earned $1,500 at an air meet, during which she became the first woman to fly at night. Two months later she flew at the inauguration festivities for Mexico's president-elect, also earning a tidy sum. During one flight there, her engine quit in midair, but she kept her cool and glided to a safe landing. Her calmness drew in part from careful preparation. "Only a cautious person, man or woman, should fly," she wrote. "I never mount my machine until every wire and screw has been tested." But it also came from a desire to push the envelope, which many early aviation pioneers possessed.

A picture of femininity and fearlessness: Quimby cranking the propeller Enlarge Photo credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS

A plan is hatched

It was while in Mexico that Quimby came up with the idea of attempting the Channel crossing. She told only a few people of her plans, believing that if word leaked out, another woman might beat her to it. In March 1912, she sailed for Europe with a letter of introduction to Louis Blériot. She hoped to purchase a new 70-horsepower Blériot XI for the crossing and then bring it back to America with her. When they met, Blériot told her that that model was not yet ready, so Quimby convinced him to loan her a 50-hp Blériot XI for the attempt while her 70-hp plane was being built.

Quimby began to think the worst—she might have to ditch the plane in the Channel.

She then traveled with Blériot to the village of Hardelot on the French coast, where he had a hangar. She wished to make some test flights, but the weather remained ugly for days. Fearing she would miss her Channel opportunity, Quimby secretly shipped the plane to Dover, England—she wanted to fly from England to France, rather than the other way around as Blériot had done, because she felt the cliffs at Dover were dauntingly higher.

Will of steel

The morning of her flight, April 16, 1912, dawned foggy, with wind sure to come up. The dicey weather was just one of many reasons a less determined person might have reconsidered the flight. The Blériot XI was by all accounts the trickiest plane Blériot had yet designed, and Quimby had never piloted the model, much less the particular plane Blériot had loaned her. She had never flown long-distance over water and had never used a compass, which Gustav Hamel, a British pilot who was at her side that morning, had just taught her to use and insisted she bring with her. Several flyers had lost their lives trying to make the crossing, and Hamel reminded her that if she flew just five miles off course, she could disappear in the frigid Channel, never to return (he himself later did just that).

Hamel even offered to don Quimby's satin suit and fly in her stead, secretly switching places with her after landing in France. But such an offer touched a nerve in Quimby, as did the suspicion about her resolution that she sensed in the crowd gathered on the white cliffs that morning. "I was annoyed from the start by the attitude of doubt on the part of the spectators that I would never really make the flight," she later wrote. "They knew I had never used the machine before and probably thought I would find some excuse at the last moment to back out of the flight. This attitude made me more determined than ever to succeed." She did permit Hamel to take the plane on a test flight, and she accepted a hot water bottle that someone thrust into her hands.

Quimby, in this autographed photo, sits in the plane she flew across the English Channel. Enlarge Photo credit: © Bettmann/CORBIS

History in the air

At 5:30 a.m., she took off. The sky overhead was clear, but the French coast, which two days before had been clearly visible 22 miles away across the Channel, was now completely obscured by a fog bank. Quimby circled up to 1,500 feet, flew straight over Dover Castle, and made a beeline towards France. "The fog quickly surrounded me, like a cold, wet, gray blanket," she later wrote. To try to clear it, she ascended to 6,000 feet, where the mist, she remembered, "felt like tiny needles on my skin." The hot water bottle did little to warm her up, and her head began to ache from the strain of concentrating on the compass to keep her course.

After flying for the better part of an hour in deep fog, she decided she had better descend and look for an opening in the mist. As she lowered the nose in descent, gasoline flooded the engine, which began backfiring. It was a design flaw that had already cost several flyers their lives. Quimby began to think the worst—she might have to ditch the plane in the Channel. "To my great relief," she wrote later, "the gasoline quickly burned away and my engine began an even purr."

She looked at her watch—her only other instrument besides the compass—and determined she must be close to her destination. Sure enough, the Blériot XI soon broke free of the cloud bank and there below lay a white-sand beach and, beyond it, green farmland—France. Not wishing to tear up the neatly tilled fields, she landed on the beach. Her flight had lasted one hour and nine minutes.

For a minute she found herself utterly alone amidst the enormous silence that followed the shutting down of her engine. But then she was surrounded by excited fishermen and their wives and children, all carrying pails of sandworms. It turns out she was only two miles from Hardelot, where Blériot housed the plane she had just flown, and these people had immediately realized what she'd achieved.

By a strange twist of fate, no banner headlines followed Quimby's historic feat, because just two days before the "unsinkable" Titanic had gone down in the North Atlantic, with more than 1,500 lives lost. Quimby's achievement was all but overshadowed. Nor did she receive much fanfare in New York upon her return to America in May. Just two weeks before, over 20,000 suffragists had marched up Fifth Avenue, and New York's mostly male leadership was still reeling from the event.

In this shot photographed from a newspaper, Quimby is lifted aloft just after landing in France on April 16, 1912. Enlarge Photo credit: Library of Congress

Tragedy in the sky

But fame came to her nonetheless, and Quimby hardly had time to worry anyway. Her new 70-hp Blériot XI had arrived from Europe, and she saw the white monoplane, along with her new-found stardom, as her ticket to financial independence. Indeed, her manager had lined up a seven-day event for which the "Queen of the Channel Crossing," as she was now billed, would be paid the astronomical amount of $100,000. It was the Boston Air Meet, held on a peninsula southeast of the city, and it was on the last day of the meet—her first public appearance since the crossing—that she was to fly the mail to New York.

That flight never occurred. Late one afternoon, Quimby took the manager of the meet, one William Willard, up in her two-seat plane for a run out over Dorchester Bay. Moments before the flight, she had laughingly assured reporters clustered around her that a forced landing in the bay was not part of her plans. "I have no intention of coming down in the water," she said. "I'm a cat, and I don't like the water." Quimby was never above tempting fate, and this time it arguably worked against her.

“Flying is a fine, dignified sport for women, it is healthy and stimulates the mind.”

As the pair returned from circling the Boston Light far out in the bay, the sky had turned a dazzling orange. Five thousand spectators watched as the monoplane approached over the tidal flats, strikingly silhouetted against the blazing sky. Without any warning, the plane's tail suddenly rose sharply, and Willard was pitched from the plane. The two-passenger Blériot was known for having balance problems, and without Willard in the rear seat, the plane became gravely destabilized.

For a moment it seemed that Quimby was regaining control of the plane. But then it canted forward sharply again, and this time Quimby herself was thrown out. The crowd watched in horror as the two plunged a thousand feet to their deaths in the harbor. Ironically, the plane righted itself and landed in the shallow water with minimal damage.

Quimby was 37 years old.

A group of men, including Quimby's flight instructor (right), examine her downed monoplane following her tragic accident. The plane had flipped over onto its back after landing in Dorchester Bay. Enlarge Photo credit: Library of Congress

Postscript

An explanation of what likely happened appeared the following August in Aircraft magazine. The Blériot XI featured a horizontal tail wing that was meant to help offer longitudinal stability to the two-passenger plane. But when the aircraft nosed down beyond a certain angle, the tail surface could provide unwanted lift that increased with plane speed until a critical moment was reached. At that point, wrote the article's author, "it is impossible to get the tail down though the elevator stick is pulled back. The faster the machine dives, the more lift the tail provides until it has the plane in a vertical position, hurling the pilot and passenger out (unless they are strapped in)."

Quimby and Willard, alas, were not strapped in. Seat-belt use was a thing of the future—only a few European pilots had begun to wear them.

Before she had traveled to Boston, Quimby had left a sealed note for her parents in New York. If bad luck should befall her, she wrote, she wanted them to know that she would meet her fate "rejoicing." Quimby died doing what she loved, and in her demonstrative but ever feminine way, she was one of aviation's true pioneers.

Perhaps her greatest contribution was to give courage to women who wished to take to the air. "Men flyers have given the impression that aeroplaning is very perilous work, something an ordinary mortal should not dream of attempting," she once wrote, "but when I saw how easy men flyers handle their machines, I said I could fly. Flying is a fine, dignified sport for women, it is healthy and stimulates the mind."

This feature originally appeared, with a different title, on the site for the NOVA program A Daring Flight.

Peter Tyson is editor in chief of NOVA Online.

Further Reading

Holden, Henry M. 1993. Her Mentor Was an Albatross: The Autobiography of Pioneer Pilot Harriet Quimby. Mt. Freedom, NJ: Black Hawk Publishing Co.

Koontz, Giacinta Bradley. 2004. The Harriet Quimby Scrapbook: The Life of America's First Birdwoman. Encino, CA: Little Looper Press.

Lebow, Eileen F. 2002. Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation. Washington, D.C.: Brasseys, Inc.

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