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Harriet Quimby

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Photograph of Harriet Quimby in her Bleriot monoplane, 1911.

Photograph of Harriet Quimby in her Bleriot monoplane, 1911.

Courtesy Library of Congress

Harriet Quimby Facts:

Known for: first woman licensed as a pilot in the United States; first woman to fly solo across the English channel
Occupation: pilot, journalist, actress, screenwriter
Dates: May 11, 1875 - July 1, 1912
Also known as: America's First Lady of the Air

Harriet Quimby Biography:

Harriet Quimby was born in Michigan in 1875 and was raised on a farm. She moved with her family to California in 1887. She claimed a birth date of May 1, 1884, a birth place of Arroyo Grande, California, and wealthy parents.

Harriet Quimby appears in the 1900 census in San Francisco, listing herself as an actress, but no record of any acting appearances has turned up. She did write for several San Francisco publications.

Harriet Quimby's New York Journalism Career:

In 1903, Harriet Quimby moved to New York to work for Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, a popular women's journal. There, she was the drama critic, writing reviews of plays, the circus, comedians, and even that new novelty, moving pictures.

She also served as a photojournalist, traveling to Europe, Mexico, Cuba, and Egypt for Leslie's. She also wrote advice articles, including articles advising women on their careers, on auto repairs, and on household tips.

During these years, she also made the acquaintance of pioneer filmmaker D. W. Griffith and wrote seven screenplays for him.

Harriet Quimby epitomized the independent woman of her day, living on her own, working at a career, driving her own car, and even smoking -- even before her fateful journalistic assignment in 1910.

Harriet Quimby Discovers Flying:

In October, 1910, Harriet Quimby went to the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament, to write a story. She was bitten by the flying bug. She befriended Matilde Moisant and her brother, John Moisant. John and his brother Alfred ran a flying school, and Harriet Quimby and Matilde Moisant began taking flying lessons there, though Matilde had already been flying by that time.

They continued with their lessons even after John was killed in a flying accident. The press discovered Harriet Quimby's lessons -- she may have tipped them off -- and began covering her progress as a news story. Harriet herself began writing about flying for Leslie's.

Harriet Quimby: First American Woman to Earn a Pilot's License:

On August 1, 1911, Harriet Quimby passed her pilot's test and was awarded license #37 from Aero Club of America, part of the International Aeuronautic Federation which granted international pilot's licenses. Quimby was the second woman in the world to be licensed; the Baroness de la Roche had been awarded a license in France. Matilde Moisant became the second woman to be licensed as a pilot in the United States.

Harriet Quimby's Flying Career:

Immediately after winning her pilot's license, Harriet Quimby began touring as an exhibition flyer in the United States and Mexico.

Harriet Quimby designed her own flying costume of plum-colored wool-backed satin, with a cowl hood made of the same fabric. At that time, most women pilots used adapted versions of men's clothing.

Harriet Quimby and the English Channel:

In late 1911, Harriet Quimby decided to become the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Another woman beat her to it: Miss Trehawke-Davis flew across as a passenger.

The record for the first woman pilot remained for Quimby to achieve, but she was afraid that someone would beat her to it. So she sailed secretly in March 1912 for England, and borrowed a 50 HP monoplane from Louis Bleriot, who was the first person to fly across the Channel in 1909.

On April 16, 1912, Harriet Quimby few approximately the same route that Bleriot has flown -- but in reverse. She took off from Dover at dawn. The overcast skies forced her to rely solely on her compass for position.

In about an hour, she landed in France near Calais, thirty miles from the planned landing spot, becoming the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel.

Because the Titanic sank a few days before, the newspaper coverage of Harriet Quimby's record in the United States and Britain was sparse, and buried deep within the papers.

Harriet Quimby at Boston Harbor

Harriet Quimby returned to exhibition flying. On July 1, 1912, she had agreed to fly at the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet. She took off, with William Willard, organizer of the event, as a passenger, and circled the Boston Lighthouse.

Suddenly, in view of hundreds of spectators, the two-seater plane, flying at 1500 feet, lurched. Willard fell out and plunged to his death in the mud flats below. Moments later, Harriet Quimby also fell from the plane and was killed. The plane glided to a landing in the mud, flipping over, and was damaged badly.

Blanche Stuart Scott, another female pilot (but who never got a pilot's license), saw the accident happen from her own plane in the air.

Theories on the cause of the accident vary:

  1. cables became tangled in the plane, causing it to lurch
  2. Willard suddenly shifted his weight, unbalancing the plane
  3. Willard and Quimby failed to wear their seat belts

Harriet Quimby was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York, then was moved to Kenisco Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

Though Harriet Quimby's career as a pilot lasted only 11 months, she was nevertheless a heroine and role model for generations to follow -- even inspiring Amelia Earhart.

Harriet Quimby was featured on a 1991 50-cent airmail stamp.

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