Cause of Death
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Cause of Death

What killed Harriet Quimby

by: Henry M. Holden

There has always been a mystery about how and why Harriet Quimby died in such a tragic way at the 1912 Boston Air Meet. Most aviation people of the day cited everything from her sex to her lack of strength in controlling the aircraft as causing the accident. Ruth Law, who had witnessed the accident, began her flying career with a Wright biplane. She said they had the greatest success at the time, and she blamed the monoplane for Harriet’s death. It has taken 80 years to uncover the truth.

Before the Boston Air Meet, Harriet had tested the new Bleriot she had imported from England after her successful English Channel flight. She flew it three times (once with a passenger) and on her third flight, this time with sandbags for ballast, she was climbing to altitude when the machine shot up in the air, then dipped its nose. The craft stalled and began to fall uncontrollably at a steep angle, but Harriet had the presence of mind to neutralize the controls, and recovered the Bleriot from the spin. She mentioned the unusual behavior of the machine to her mechanic, but his inspection did not reveal anything out of the ordinary. The mechanic could not explain the incident and said that sometimes airplanes lose their balance in the air, especially when hit with a gust of wind.

On the day of the Boston Air Meet, Harriet flew the Meet’s organizer, William Willard, as a passenger. While attempting to break the over-water speed record of 58 miles per hour, the plane’s tag rose sharply and Willard was thrown out of the craft.

Harriet was probably not immediately aware that Willard had fallen from the plane. She was, however, instantly aware that the balance of the plane had shifted. Quimby fought for control, pulling back on the stick to pull the nose up. The craft began to respond to her command. The nose was coming up and for a moment the monoplane seemed to slide back toward a normal attitude.

From the ground it appeared that Quimby had regained control of the craft. A spilt second later, the monoplane’s tail pitched up again. As the plane went perpendicular, Quimby’s body catapulted from the machine. The plane continued rolling over on its back and falling toward the bay. Willard and Quimby tumbled through the air and plunged into the harbor waters 200 feet from shore.

At the time, the tide was low and the water was only four feet deep where they landed. Later, autopsies revealed that Quimby died on impact, and Willard drowned. Ironically, the Bleriot monoplane flew itself out of the dive, and glided into the water nosed over but sustained little damage.

In August 1912, Aircraft magazine devoted four pages to the accident. One article by Waiter H. Phipps, “The Danger of the Lifting Tail and its Poobable Bearing on the Death of Miss Quimby”, convincingly argued the dangerous instability of that monoplane design. Phipps pointed out that the fixed horizontal tail surface of the small two-seat plane was a small cambered wing set at a higher lifting angle (to help carry the weight of a passenger who sat well behind the plane’s center of gravity). “A machine of this type,” he wrote, “has not the slightest degree of automatic longitudinal stability and… is an extremely tricky and dangerous type to handle. The horizontal tag should act as a stabilizing damper, preventing the machine from either diving too steeply or stalling and not under any circumstances as a lifting plane … it must be either a flat or slightly negatively inclined surface.” He explained that in a certain nose- down angle, the tail gains in lift as the speed increases, until reaching the critical angle and speed. “Then,” he wrote, “it is impossible to get the tail down though the elevator stick is pulled back. The faster the machine dives, the more lift the tail provides until it has the plane in a vertical position hurling the pilot and passenger out (unless they are strapped in).” Phipps listed in his article almost a dozen pilots in Europe who died in Bleriot monoplanes under similar circumstances where the plane dove straight into the ground. He does not say if any of the victims fell from the craft as did Quimby and Willard.

Today with the science of aerodynamics clearly defined we know that what Walter H. Phipps speculated on, was in fact what happened.