History’s Heroines

Harriet Quimby- First licensed female pilot in the U.S.

Harriet Quimby
1875 (Michigan) – 1912 (Massachusettes)
photo courtesy: pilotspost.com:

     The morning of April 16, 1912, was damp and chilly. The sky overcast and tinged with fog. For days, it had set Harriet Quimby back from attaining the thing she wanted most. Standing aside her Blériot XI monoplane, Quimby assessed the skies undeterred, for not even the thickest of fog could hold her back from the greatest flight of her life; the crossing of the English Channel. Were she successful, Harriet Quimby would become the first female pilot to achieve such a monumental feat. 

     Two years prior, while working as a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Dramatic Review, Quimby was introduced to the world of aviation. While covering the first-ever U.S. air show in Los Angeles in 1910, Ms. Quimby became enamored with the sport. Soon after, fortune crossed her path with the great pilot, Alfred Moisant, whom she asked to give her flying lessons. He agreed, however, died in a plane accident shortly thereafter. Undeterred, Harriet, then employed in New York as a journalist for Leslie’s Weekly as its drama critic, attended the aviation school named in his honor; Moisant Aviation School in New York. Deep discrimination at the time forced the young pilot to hide her femininity during training and nearly cost her the opportunity for licensure from the Aero Club, the principle licensing organization of the time. However, due to her “splendid flying that day” the judges couldn’t not grant her the license. On August 1, 1911, she became the first female licensed pilot in the U.S. and the second internationally behind the French pilot Baroness Raymonde de la Roche. 

     Aviation was a natural extension for the sports and motoring enthusiast. Following her licensure, Harriet was invited to join the Moisant International Aviators Exhibition team. She traveled the world with this group, where her skills earned her enormous prize money for the day as well as the title of “the first woman to fly over Mexico City”; a feat attained when the group performed at a celebration in honor of the city’s new president. 

Demonstrating excellence both in the skies and on the page, Quimby was driven to achieve all that her male peers had attained and encouraged other women to do the same. Having seen Louis Blériot make the crossing prior, she set her mind to it. By March 1912, Quimby had gained a letter of introduction to Louis Blériot and had set sail for France where she was to meet him. Upon her arrival, she as told that the 70 hp plane she had ordered from him wasn’t yet completed and so, she arranged to borrow his personal 50 hp Blériot XI monoplane. Shipping it secretly to Dover, England and with Blériot and Gustav Hamel, another Channel crossing celebrity at her side, she prepared for the flight. According to Hamel, she would need to use a compass to guide her for the entire flight, something she had never done before. Donning her signature plum-colored jumpsuit, she took to the skies. The first hour of her flight was mired in thick fog that obscured her vision and made her heavily reliant on Hamel’s compass. Dipping down to check her path, Quimby found a break in the fog, revealing the shores of France. She was elated at her victory. The rest of the world, however, failed to notice. Just two days prior, the great “unsinkable” Titanic had met its demise losing over 1,500 souls, and back in New York, the male-dominated city governance was still recovering from the recent suffragette march of 20,000 women. It was a terrible blow for the great aviator. Following this upset, she returned to the exhibition circuit. 

July 1st of that year, after having participated in a Boston exhibition, she was enjoying at leisure flight with the event’s main organizer when the plane had a fatal malfunction ejecting both passengers from the aircraft. Harriet Quimby was 37 years old. In the years to come, her legacy lived in the pages of the papers for which she wrote and in aviation periodicals but much of her successes had been forgotten. In 1991, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative 50 cent stamp in her honor. In her plum jumpsuit and aviator’s cap, she is superimposed over her Blériot XI beside the caption “Pioneer Pilot.”

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