In 1911, less than eight years after the Wright Brothers invented the first successful airplane, Harriet Quimby (1875-1912) became the first U.S. woman to earn her pilot's license. Eight months later, she flew solo across the English Channel, becoming the first woman to accomplish this feat.
Harriet Quimby took to the skies during the early days of flight. Planes of her era were fragile, unreliable machines. Most pilots avoided sustained flights and open water—but not Quimby. Determined to become the first woman to fly across the English Channel, she braved the cold and fog, using nothing but a compass tucked between her knees to guide her way.
The future aviatress was born May 11, 1875, near Coldwater, Michigan, to farmers Ursula and William Quimby. Around 1884, the family relocated to Arroyo Grande, California, to farm and later opened a general store. In time, they moved to San Francisco, where Quimby, her mother and her sister mixed and packaged herbal remedies, which William Quimby peddled by wagon. The family also earned money sewing sacks for local fruit packers. Ursula Quimby longed for her girls to move beyond their poor beginnings, so as the family became more successful, she made up stories about her daughters' beginnings, telling everyone they came from a wealthy San Francisco farm family and had been schooled abroad.
Initially, Quimby decided to become a journalist, and at the time, women were just breaking into the field. She secured work in San Francisco, first at the Dramatic Review and later at the Call–Bulletin & Chronicle. Quimby became a celebrity of sorts in San Francisco, drawing admirers through her cunning beauty and ability to turn mundane events into attention–grabbing news stories.
In 1903, Quimby moved to New York City to write for Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, a prominent news magazine. She started as a drama critic, writing play reviews, then moved on to features. In 1906, Leslie's dispatched Quimby to cover an auto race. While there, Quimby persuaded one of the drivers to give her a ride. Afterward, she learned to drive, which was unusual for women of her day. She gained further notoriety for driving to writing assignments in her yellow “runabout” car.
Took Flight Lessons
In 1910, Quimby was sent to cover an international air competition, which featured aviators racing from New York's Belmont Park to the Statue of Liberty and back. U.S. pilot John Moisant won the race and Quimby left fascinated with the idea of flight. By April 1911, Quimby had enrolled at Moisant's flying school in Long Island. Many schools, including those run by the Wright brothers, would not enroll women. Moisant's sister, Mathilde, began taking lessons about the same time and the two became instant rivals as they competed to become the first U.S.–licensed female pilot.
To avoid the scrutiny and hostility of the male students, Quimby took her lessons in the early–morning hours, disguised as a man. A standard lesson included two to five minutes of air time and cost $2.50 a minute. Despite her best efforts, Quimby could not keep her training secret and soon people showed up at the airfield to catch a glimpse of the woman who wanted to fly. The New York Times dispatched a reporter to cover the story and a feature on Quimby appeared on May 11, 1911. According to the article, when Quimby was asked if she liked flying, she replied, “Well, I'm out here at 4 o'clock every morning. That ought to be answer enough. I took up the sport just because I thought I should enjoy the sensation, and I haven't regretted it. Motoring is all right, and I have done a lot of that, but after seeing monoplanes in the air, I couldn't resist the desire to try the air lanes, where there are neither speed laws nor traffic policemen, and where one needn't go all the way around Central Park to get across Times Square.”
On August 1, 1911, after 33 lessons and less than five hours in the air, Quimby won her license, No. 37, from the Aero Club of America. To pass the test, Quimby had to make turns around a pylon, do figure–eights and land the plane within 165 feet of her departure point. Quimby brought her plane to a stop within eight feet of her starting point, setting a new school record for accuracy. Quimby was the second woman in the world to hold a pilot's license. France's Raymonde de Laroche had earned a license earlier in 1910. In an article Quimby wrote for Leslie's Illustrated Weekly—and reprinted in The Pioneers of Flight by Phil Scott—Quimby described her test–taking experience. “I felt like a bird cleaving the air with my outstretched wings. There was no thought of obstruction or obstacle. There was no fear of falling because the mastery of a well–balanced machine seems complete.”
Next, Quimby joined the Moisant Exhibition Team. Attending races and exhibitions was a favorite American pastime during these early days of flight and pilots were paid well. On September 4, 1911, Quimby earned $1,500 for a moonlight flight over Staten Island, New York, which drew 20,000 spectators. Later that month, Quimby beat famed French aviatress Hélène Dutrieu at a meet in New York.
Quimby's exotic flying suit added to her mystique. Female pilots of her time wrestled with clothing because the standard long skirts women wore got whipped around by the wind and tangled in the controls of the open cockpits. Some female pilots wore knickers to solve the problem. Quimby, however, hired a tailor to make her an outfit—a high–collared, purple satin jumpsuit with full bloomers that tucked into the tops of tall lace–up boots. It converted into a traditional skirt after flights and also had a special monk– like hood that shrouded her from the wind. Goggles, gauntlets and a leather jacket completed the outfit.
While outwardly flamboyant, Quimby was a cautious flier. She checked her plane personally before each flight and worked closely with her mechanic. She was also superstitious. She had an antique necklace and bracelet, fashioned from the tusk of a wild boar, which she considered good–luck charms. She also flew with a brass god trinket given to her by a French aviator.
Crossed English Channel
Quimby sailed for London in March 1912, determined to pilot a plane across the English Channel. Once there, she talked the Daily Mirror into sponsoring the flight by promising an exclusive story. Quimby decided to fly in a Blériot, a plane named after French pilot Louis Blériot, who completed the first flight over the Channel in 1909. The 50–horsepower Blériot XI was not known for its flying ease. A monoplane, it had one wing that stretched from the fuselage of the plane to each side. These early monoplanes—constructed of wood, canvas and wire—had wings that were prone to twisting in flight, rendering the plane unstable.
By 21st century standards, the Blériot was a bare– bones kind of plane, almost skeletal looking. Only the front half of the fuselage was covered with fabric, while the tail was left exposed. It had a pair of bicycle–like wheels in the front and one controlling lever. The pilot's feet rested on a steering bar, which was connected by wires to the rudder. The pilot sat in a suspended wicker seat with no windshield and was pelted with oil from the revolving engine.
There was no seatbelt, no parachute, no navigation device. Quimby would have to fly with a compass and stay on track because veering more than five miles off course would put her plane over the North Sea. Many pilots had attempted to cross the Channel and died after their planes stalled over the North Sea. Famed English aviator Gustav Hamel caught wind of Quimby's plan and advised against it. He offered to fly for Quimby, to take off from England wearing her trademark suit, then land in an isolated spot in France so they could switch clothes before being discovered. She declined.
Because of high winds, Quimby was unable to test the plane prior to her flight on April 16, 1912. The day dawned cold. Quimby bundled up in layers of silk underwear, a wool flying suit, a raincoat and a sealskin stole. Knowing Quimby would be at the mercy of the wind and weather 6,000 feet above the earth, Hamel advised her to fly with a hot water bottle in her lap. She took off from Dover, England, around 5 a.m. and quickly hit fog. Quimby guided the plane to different altitudes, searching for a break in the fog. At one point, the plane tilted, causing gas to flood the engine and sputter. As Quimby moved down toward the water planning an emergency landing, however, the gas burned off and the engine returned to normal.
The fog was so thick Quimby could not see the water below, or the coastline. She had to use her watch to gauge how far she had flown. After 22 minutes in the air, she began her descent, hoping to find herself over France. She spied a splotch of white sand and brought the plane to rest near the French town of Hardelot. The people greeted Quimby and carried her on their shoulders into town. That same day, another pilot died trying to cross the Channel. Quimby anticipated instant acclaim for her accomplishment but the next day, the papers were filled with headlines concerning the Titanic, which sank during the night of April 14–15.
Died in Airplane Accident
Quimby returned to the United States and continued flying in exhibitions. On July 1, 1912, she participated in the Harvard–Boston Aviation Meet flying a two–seater 70– horsepower Blériot. Quimby carried a number of passengers around the field, then embarked on a flight with event manager William A.P. Willard on board. As Quimby approached her landing, the plane jolted and she and Willard tumbled out, falling 1,000 feet to their deaths into Dorchester Bay.
The New York Times gave this account of the tragedy the following day: “Five thousand spectators witnessed the accident, which occurred as the machine, a Bleriot monoplane, was volplaning down toward the aviation grounds. Miss Quimby and Willard were thrown from their seats as the machine suddenly turned almost perpendicular in the air, and the two bodies turned over and over as they shot downward. Both victims were found terribly crushed when extricated from the mud of the shallow bay, into which they had sunk deeply.”
There were many theories about the accident, from pilot error to machine malfunction. Others thought a gust of wind was to blame. Some thought Willard, sitting directly behind Quimby, shifted his body suddenly, throwing the plane off–balance. The plane had a reputation for instability, particularly when carrying passengers. Ironically, the plane glided to a rest with little damage. Had Quimby and Willard worn seatbelts, they likely would have survived. At the time, however, seatbelts were not a common feature on planes. At the morgue, someone stole Quimby's famous satin costume and her jewelry, which her mother had wanted to donate to the Smithsonian Institution.
After Quimby's death, Mathilde Moisant continued to fly, but noted the risks in an article for the New York Times on August 26, 1928. “Miss Quimby never took chances and frequently chided me for my recklessness. And here I have come out of accident after accident, while Miss Quimby had to lose her life in her very first mishap. It is something like a game of poker, after all, and each one is confident that he will win the next time.”
Aviation deaths were common in those days. The deaths of Quimby and Willard marked the 42nd and 43rd aviation fatalities that year. The year before, 73 people died in planes. Had Quimby lived longer, there is no doubting the number of aviation firsts she might have completed. She was already scheduled to fly a bag of mail nonstop from Boston to New York on July 7. One thing Quimby did leave behind, though, was a vision for the future success of commercial aviation. In her writing, she predicted a day when planes would transport people from city to city, though she did not live long enough to see that vision come true.
Kramer, Barbara, Trailblazing American Women: First in their Fields, Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2000.
Langley, Wanda, Women of the Wind: Early Women Aviators, Morgan Reynolds Publishing, 2006.
Scott, Phil, The Pioneers of Flight, Princeton University Press, 1999.
Iris, Fall 2001.
New York Times, May 11, 1911; August 2, 1911; April 17, 1912; July 2, 1912; August 26, 1928.
Smithsonian, January 1984.