On April 16, 1912, American aviator Harriet Quimby became the first woman to fly across the English Channel….traveling from Dover to France in only 59 minutes. She was also the first woman ever licensed as a pilot in the United States.
Sadly, her great accomplishment was swallowed by the horrifying news flashing around the world: Titanic Sinks.
Known as America’s First Lady of the Air, Harriet was a Michigan farm girl born May 11, 1875. With her family, she moved to California when she was twelve. In later years, she gave May 1, 1884, as her birthdate, her birthplace as Arroyo Grande, California, and claimed her parents were wealthy.
Becoming a New York journalist and a screenwriter for pioneer filmmaker D.Q. Griffith, for whom she wrote seven screenplays, Harriet was also a drama critic and photojournalist. She traveled on assignment to Europe, Mexico, Cuba, and Egypt for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, a popular women’s journal. Among her other writing duties were advice columns and car repair tips.
She was truly the independent career woman who drove her own car, even smoked the very unladylike cigarette.
In October 1910, she went to France to cover a story on an aviation tournament and caught the flying bug. She took lessons with a friend and continued instruction even after he died in a flying accident. By then, the press had caught interest in her and considered her foray into aviation newsworthy enough to cover it.
The second woman in the world to be licensed as a pilot (the first was Frenchwoman Baroness de Roche), Harriet was the first American to do so, having passed her pilot’s test on August 1, 1911. She was awarded license #37 from the Aero Club of America, an adjunct of the International Aeronautic Federation which granted international pilots’ licenses. Immediately after receiving her license, Harriet began exhibition flying and toured throughout the country and Mexico.
Although a woman prior to Harriet had crossed the English Channel in a plane, she was just a passenger, and Harriet ached to be the first female to pilot the route. In March 1912, she secretly sailed to England and borrowed a 50 HP monoplane from Louis Bleriot, who in 1909, had been the first person ever to fly across the English Channel.
On April 16, Harriet flew his identical route but in reverse. When she left Dover at dawn, overcast skies forced her to rely solely on her compass for position.
About an hour later, she landed near Calais, France, thirty miles from her planned landing spot. Of course, news of her achievement was sparsely covered with good reason, the Titanic tragedy.
But Harriet’s spirit sailed on but only for three short months. On July 1, 1912, she participated in the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet over Boston Harbor. With event organizer William Willard as her passenger, Harriett circled Boston Lighthouse.
To the horrified spectators below, the two-seater plane, flying at 1,500 hundred feet, suddenly lurched. Willard fell out and plunged to his death. Moments later, Harriet fell out of the plane and was killed as well. The plane glided to a landing in the mud flats below.
Theories on the accident abounded. Some claimed cables tangled in the plane. Some posited that Willard shifted his weight, causing imbalance. Nonetheless, neither appeared to be wearing their seat belts.
Harriet was buried first at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York, finally resting at Kenisco Cemetery, Valhalla New York. Her career was short –only 11 months, but she was a role model for generations and inspired Amelia Earhart.
In 1991, she was featured on a fifty-cent air mail stamp.
Although my next release, Soul Food, has nothing to do with an aviation pioneer, I am giving away (pdf) copies of the first two books in the series today. Hearts Crossing Ranch and Redeeming Daisy. Hopefully to inspire you to want to read book five. If you already own or have read either story, I will send you Books Three and Four, Sanctuary and Right to Bragg. Any kind of mix and match. So please leave a comment.
Now, for today’s big question:
Have you ever flown a plane? Hang-glided? Hot air ballooned? BASE-jumped? Zip-lined? Ridden in a helicopter or private jet? Anything other than commercial air-travel that takes you off terra firma? As for me, you may recall I’m terrified of down escalators…