America’s First Lady of the Air lost her life just 11 months after she learned to fly. But her brief spell had a major influence on the role of women in aviation. She once said, “Flying is a fine, dignified sport for women; it is healthy and stimulates the mind.”
April 16, 1912, dawned cold and grey over Dover, England. Harriet Quimby stood shivering slightly in a windswept field, her gaze shifting uncertainly from her gleaming aircraft to the bleak sky. On a clear day, she could have spotted Calais, France, just 22 miles away. Not today, though. A small crowd had gathered, wondering if Harriet would really become the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Harriet had never flown long-distance over the sea. Louis Blériot, the first pilot to cross the Channel, in July 1909, had loaned her a Blériot XI—one of the trickiest planes he ever designed. A friend taught her to use a small compass and reminded her sternly that if she strayed even five miles off course she could probably disappear in the icy waters forever. Anyone less determined might have called off the attempt. But Harriet later wrote, “I was annoyed from the start by the attitude of doubt on the part of the spectators that I would never really make the flight. They knew I had never used the machine before and probably thought I would find some excuse at the last moment to back out of the flight. This attitude made me more determined than ever to succeed.”
Harriet Quimby was born in Michigan, USA, in 1875, of farming stock. In 1903, she joined Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly in New York and quickly became famous as one among the country’s first women reporters. Over the next nine years, more than 250 of her articles were published. Her interest in machines and speed perhaps made it inevitable that she would be enticed by flying. Although not a vocal feminist, she had a strong conviction that women, given half a chance, could fly just as well as men. In October 1910, she met John Moisant, who had been Blériot’s student and ran a flying school. Unlike the Wright brothers, who declined to teach women to fly, Moisant agreed to take Harriet on. She had a natural talent for flying and excelled under his training. Within four months, she appeared for the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale licence and on August 1, 1911, became the first licensed female aviator in the United States. She was the second woman in the world to be so qualified.
Harriet soon joined the exhibition circuit and seemed in a hurry to set more flying records. Tall, slim and strikingly attractive, she immediately captured the public’s fancy. Instead of using men’s flying clothing, she designed a costume of purple, woolbacked satin, with a cowl hood of the same fabric. In September 1911, during a moonlit night, she flew over a crowd of 15,000 spectators in New York, becoming the first woman ever to pilot a plane at night. Later, during a flight in Mexico, when her engine suddenly quit, she calmly glided back to a safe landing.
On that dreary April morning at Dover, as Harriet fired up the engine of the Blériot—a 50-horsepower singleseat monoplane—she recalled the last few months. She had kept the planned exploit secret because she feared another woman might try to get in before her. She also felt that people might try to stop her because of the dangers involved. Finally, she took off. Flying at altitudes between 1,000 feet and 2,000 feet in freezing cold and thick fog, she had to rely solely on her compass for navigation. Just 59 minutes later, she put the aircraft down safely at a beach some miles from Calais, becoming the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Sadly, her feat was swamped by the tidal wave of media attention devoted to the sinking of the “Titanic” the previous day. Many years later, Amelia Earhart would write: “To cross the Channel in 1912 required more bravery and skill than to cross the Atlantic today.”