Harriet Quimby

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Harriet Quimby

1875-1912

American Pilot and Journalist

The first female pilot to be licensed in the United States, Harriet Quimby broke aviation gender barriers. She was also the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel. Quimby's flair for publicity resulted in more people becoming aware of aviation and its potential to improve transportation. Her beauty and sense of mystery added to the allure of her pioneering aviation efforts. Quimby's accomplishments enhanced the accessibility of technology to more people and established a foundation for future aviatrixes.

Born on May 11, 1875, near Coldwater, Michigan, Quimby was the daughter of William and Ursula Quimby. The absence of legal records, however, has resulted in a dispute over the facts concerning the date and place of her birth. The 1880 Michigan census included five-year-old Harriet in the Quimby household, living on a farm near Arcadia. The family moved to San Francisco, California, in 1887. Quimby described herself as an actress in the 1900 census, but she mostly wrote articles for San Francisco periodicals. She moved to New York City in 1903 and worked as a photojournalist and the drama critic for Leslie's Illustrated Weekly.

In October 1910 Quimby covered the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament and was impressed by aviator John Moisant's flying talent. She enrolled at the Moisant School of Aviation on Long Island. Despite Moisant's death while flying, Quimby continued taking lessons in monoplanes constructed at the school. The press covered her progress. Aero Club of America officials observed Quimby perform basic aviation maneuvers and she received her pilot's license on August 1, 1911. Although other American women, including Moisant's sister Matilde, were flying at this time, Quimby was the first to earn a license.

One month later, she flew at the Richmond County Fair in the first night flight by an aviatrix. Stylish and attractive, Quimby fascinated journalists and aviation enthusiasts. Her flamboyant flying apparel, made from purple satin, contrasted with the more practical clothing most aviators wore. The dramatic Quimby created her own costume, including a cloth extension that served as a hood. Quimby penned accounts of her flying experiences for Leslie's and other magazines, emphasizing the commercial possibilities aviation offered for regularly scheduled passenger services, mail routes, and aerial photography and cartography. She stressed that aviators should embrace safety practices, carefully examining equipment and observing weather. Quimby also was superstitious, refusing to fly on Sundays and wearing good-luck tokens.

While flying with the Moisant International Aviators Exhibition Team at the November 1911 inauguration of Mexican President Francisco Madero, Quimby decided to become the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Worried that a European aviatrix might cross the channel first, Quimby secretly prepared to sail to England in March 1912. Louis Blériot (1872-1936), who flew across the channel in 1909, loaned her an airplane. Delayed by inclement weather, Quimby was disheartened by news that a Miss Trehawke-Davis had recently flown across the channel as a passenger in Gustave Hamel's airplane. At dawn on April 16, Quimby took off from Dover, England. Fog prevented Quimby from seeing the water, but, guided by a compass, she landed an hour later near Equihen, France. Although local residents celebrated her flight, international newspapers devoted space to coverage of the Titanic's sinking, barely mentioning Quimby's achievement.

Quimby agreed to fly at the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet on July 1, 1912. Accompanied by the meet's organizer, William Willard, Quimby circled the Boston lighthouse. The plane unexpectedly lurched and Willard fell out. Quimby struggled with the controls but also was ejected. She and Willard died on impact and the plane crashed soon after. Speculation over the cause of the accident ranged from the cables becoming tangled to the airplane becoming unbalanced when Willard shifted his weight to talk to Quimby. Despite some public criticism that Quimby's accident proved women should not fly, many women considered Quimby to be a heroine and were inspired to become pilots also. Memorials to Quimby have included an American air-mail stamp featuring her image.

ELIZABETH D. SCHAFER