US Airways News celebrates Women in Aviation Month with a look at pioneer Harriet Quimby as portrayed by Philadelphia A330 international pilot Connie Tobias.
By Pat Crigler
Connie Tobias carefully stepped into the purple satin flying suit, pulled it up and slid her arms into its long sleeves. With a little help, she buttoned the dozen satin-covered buttons down her back and laced up the knee boots that met the bottom of the bloomer-style suit. Next, she fastened a silver necklace – a good luck charm – around her neck. Connie placed the satin hood over her head, buttoned it down and turned it back just a bit so that very little of her hair showed. Then, she looped a long champagne- colored scarf around her neck and over her shoulder. Finishing off her costume, she donned French goggles, worn over the top of her hood. Connie came out of the hangar and positioned herself in front of the shiny wooden propeller of the aeroplane. She stood just so, turned her head and smiled a shy smile, as the camera rolled.
It is no longer the year 2001 -the year is now 1911. The woman in the purple satin flying suit is not Connie Tobias, a US Airways A330 international first officer, but Harriet Quimby, celebrated American aviatrix. And she’s ready to show her stuff.
Harriet put her boot into the foothold on the side of the aeroplane. Careful to be very ladylike, she stepped into the back seat of the French-designed Bleriot, then into the cockpit containing only two gauges – one measuring oil pressure, the other RPMS. The 1909 aeroplane is made of long slender pieces of wood and yards of wire with fabric around the cockpit, wings, tail and rudder. The wings have no ailerons for lateral control; they simply warp. Two men hold the tail as Harriet runs the engine up. There are no brakes. She brings the engine back down and gives a sign to the men release the tail.
The Bleriot’s motor raced as it began its take off rolling down the grass strip. Harriet pulled back on the s tick and gracefully lifted the craft into the air – 10, 20, 30 feet. The aeroplane flies straight and smooth and comes down on its bicycle-like tires with a small bump at the end of the strip. The people watching cheered. The videographer shouted, “Do it again.”
How did Harriet Quimby become Connie Tobias’ alter ego? Let Connie explain. “Over the years, people have told me I look a lot like Harriet,” said Connie. They are shockingly similar with dark brown hair, slender figures, expressive eyes and shy smiles. “As I began to research Harriet,’ said Connie, “I found we shared other attributes. We were both born into modest, hardworking families and grew up competitive and goal oriented. We share a passion for aviation. And neither one of us ever thought for a minute we couldn’t do something because we were women.”
In her 20s, Harriet became a well- known writer for Leslie’s (forerunner of Life Magazine). She purchased a car and drove it when women didn’t and even wrote articles for women on how to repair their automobiles. She rode in a race car, wrote plays, and traveled. By age 36, she lived independently in New York where she watched an air race around the Statute of Liberty. That’s where she fell in love with flying.
Harriet attended an aviation school and earned her pilot’s license after five weeks and a test that included figure eights, landing and takeoff skills. She was the first woman in the U.S. to earn a pilot’s license, license no. 37. In September of 1911, Harriet, in her purple satin flying costume, flew the first night flight recorded by a woman. And on April 16, 1912, in the cockpit of a Bleriot, she became the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Harriet’s record flight got little news coverage because the Titanic hit an iceberg and sunk the night before her flight.
More than 60 years later, Connie was halfway across the country on a bike tour she had organized, when she stopped to watch a jet plane take off. “That’s when I decided to go home, sell everything and become a pilot” she said. She had already tried climbing mountains, riding horses and motorcycles and rafting the fastest navigable waters in the world. Connie put herself through college in her mid-20s with scholarships, grants and loans. She graduated summa cum laude with two aviation degrees and an academic Masters in Engineering from Russ College of Engineering and Technology at Ohio University.
Connie bought her flight time by instructing, flying fire patrol, charters and regionals. In 1984, she was hired by Piedmont Airlines, now US Airways.
Both Harriet and Connie possessed the important components of success – dreams, desire, daring, dedication, discipline and determination.