Monday, May 11, 2009

May 11: “In a moment I was in the air…”

Do you know who this is?
-She designed her own aviator clothing.
-She was the first woman to fly across the English Channel
-She was the screenwriter on five romantic movies, all directed by the legendary D.W. Griffith.

She was the first women to receive a pilot license in the United States, became the first woman to fly across the English Channel, and was a world-traveling journalist.

Harriet Quimby was born on May 11, 1875, in a farmhouse three miles outside of the northern Michigan town of Arcadia. Her parents were William Quimby, an American Civil War veteran, and Ursula Quimby. They homesteaded 160 acres during the 1860s and developed a small, self sufficient farm.

Not a lot is known about Harriet during her childhood. She lived and worked on her parents farm, where neighbors were scarce, winters were harsh, and farm life was hard. The nearest school in this rural community was just over two miles away, and Harriet proved herself to be a bright and capable student in the one-room school that served her farm community.

In 1887, when she was twelve years old, her father mortgaged their home and farm, and went to San Francisco, California, with his family. It was in California that Harriet discovered a passion for acting that would influence her life. She wanted to become an actress – and is listed as one in the 1900 census. However, while her passion was acting, her skill was in journalism, and it was through journalism that she would start her public career.

Harriet would move to New York City in 1902 at the age of 27. Upon arrival, she would change her birth date to 1885, subtracting ten years from her age – a fact that was not realized until after her untimely death in 1912. In New York she worked for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly as an editor, writer, and photographer, traveling extensively traveling and writing from spots around the world. She also used her knowledge and love of acting to report on the theater in New York City.

Her writing focused on activities that were exciting to herself, and to her readers. She wrote about travel, the theater, racecars, and airplanes. In 1906, after riding in a car that sped along at 100 m.p.h., she not only told her readers of the experience, she would buy her own car – a rarity for women in the era. In 1910 she covered the International Aviation Tournament, and was attracted to the adventure, the attention, and the danger of flight.

By 1911, heavier than air powered flight was not even a decade old, and the aircraft were truly of basic design. Learning to fly became a goal in her life – appealing both to her journalistic sense and her theatric passions. She met and became friends with John Moisant and his sister Matilde, and in 1911 enrolled in his flying school. She attended the Moisant Flight School, on Long Island, New York, where she and Matilde Moisant would become the first American female aviators. While a few other women had flown, none had received a license.

With a flair for the dramatic, Harriet finally had her world stage: flight. While other women wore men’s flight gear, she designed her own – a satin jacket with a hood, high laced boots, and satin riding pants – all in purple material. She became famous as a female pilot, and capitalized on the fact by writing articles for Leslie’s and providing flying demonstrations. In September 1911, she became the first woman to make a nighttime flight – to the awe of 15,000 spectators on Staten Island, New York who watched during the moonlight night. In November 1911, she and Matilde toured Mexico, becoming the first women to fly over Mexico.

She gained international renown by becoming the first woman to fly across the English Channel. While the flight was only 22 miles, it was a dangerous flight because of the unpredictable Channel weather. She flew in a 50-horsepower Bleriot monoplane, landing on a beach in France. Unfortunately for Harriet, she would not get the headlines she deserved for her accomplishment. Headlines were dedicated to the sinking of the Titanic.

She would write in an article titled: An American Girl's Daring Exploit, May 16, 1912:
“…the [borrowed Bleriot monoplane] machine was shipped very secretly to the aerodrome on Dover Heights, …a fine smooth ground from which to make a good start. The famous Dover Castle stands on the cliffs, overlooking the channel. It points the way to Calais. I saw at once I only had to rise in my machine, fix my eyes upon the castle, fly over it and speed directly across to the French coast. It seemed so easy that it looked like a cross-country flight. I am glad I thought so and felt so, otherwise I might have had more hesitation about flying in the fog with an untried compass, in a new and untried machine, knowing that the treacherous North Sea stood ready to receive me if I drifted only five miles too far out of my course…

…It was a cold five-thirty a.m. when my machine got off the ground…the motor began to make its twelve hundred revolutions a minute, and I put up my hand to give the signal of release. Then I was off. The noise of the motor drowned the shouts and cheers of friends below. In a moment I was in the air, climbing steadily in a long circle. I was up fifteen hundred feet within thirty seconds. From this high point of vantage my eyes lit at once on Dover Castle…In an instant I was beyond the cliffs and over the channel…the thickening fog obscured my view. Calais was out of sight…There was only one thing for me to do and that was to keep my eyes fixed on the compass…

…The distance straight across from Dover to Calais is only twenty-two miles, and I knew that land must be in sight if I could only get below the fog and see it. So, I dropped from an altitude of about two thousand feet until I was half that height. The sunlight struck upon my face and my eyes lit upon the white and sandy shores of France. I felt happy…rather than tear up the farmers' fields [below] I decided to drop down on the hard and sandy beach…A crowd of fishermen…came rushing from all directions toward me. They were congratulating themselves that the first woman to cross in an aeroplane had landed on their fishing beach…It was now nearly seven o'clock and I felt like eating breakfast…”
She returned to America, and on July 1, 1912 – when future aviators Amelia Earhart was 9 and Charles Lindbergh was in his teens – Harriet flew her last flight. At an air show near Boston her plane suddenly lurched, throwing her passenger – William Willard, the event’s organizer – and herself from the plane. They fell to their deaths while the empty plane glided in, landed, and flipped over in the mud.

Harriet Quimby had only flown for a year, but had made a mark on aviation. Her actions would inspire other women to conquer the world of flight.

Marissa Moss, Brave Harriet : the First Woman to Fly the English Channel, Juvenile collection.
Jacqueline Kolosov, Women with Wings, Juvenile collection.


01. 1902 Portrait: Converse College
02. Harriet readying for her first flying lesson: Converse College
03. Harriet’s First Solo, 1911: Converse College
04. Harriet in her flying suit: Converse College
05. Harriet in her Bleriot Monoplane, 1911: Library of Congress, Digital ID: cph 3a35973

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