First Lady of Aviation
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First Lady of Aviation

Harriet Quimby-First Lady of Aviation

by: Robert F. Pauley

The first woman to qualify and become a licensed pilot in the United States, Harriet Quimby, was born in Michigan on May 1, 1875. The daughter of William Quimby and Ursula M. (Cook) Quimby, she reportedly was born on a farm in Branch County, a few miles south of Coldwater, Michigan in Ovid Township. At least that is what appears on a Michigan State Historical Marker located on the north side of the Branch County Memorial airport in Coldwater, leading one to believe that she was born in that area.

Recent research into the early life of Harriet Quimby, however, has raised some doubts about those facts, and it is now believed that she was born near Arcadia in Manistee County, a small community on the shores of Lake Michigan about 3.5 miles south- west of Traverse City. Records show that Harriet’s father had been a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War.  Even Harriet’s date of birth shown on the Coldwater marker is in question. It gives the date as May 11, whereas records show that she was born on the 1st of May. Whatever the truth may be, the details of Miss Quimby’s early years have long been an enigma that has generated much speculation, but in any event she remains a native of the state of Michigan.

Part of the mystery can be traced directly to Harriet Quimby herself, who apparently supplied publications with misleading information about her early life. As an example, the well respected reference book “Who’s Who in America’ (the 1912-1913 edition) gives Harriet’s birthplace as Arroyo Grande, California and her date of birth as May 1, 1884. Her mother, Ursula Quimby, began selling herbal medicine from a horse-drawn wagon. This new venture proved to be moderately successful was information that she apparently submitted to and the Quimbys were finally able to settle down in the publisher in an attempt to conceal her humble, San Francisco to a more normal life style.

A number of books and magazine articles have been published that  as a youngster Harriet had attended a one-room school in Arcadia. Later she had been tutored by her mother, but after the move to San Francisco she attended and graduated from a local high confusion to the mystery.   By that time she had developed into a refined and beautiful young woman, fired with the ambition.

In 1884 the Quimby family, which included Harriet and her older sister Kittie, left Michigan and headed for a new life out west, making the long trip in several stages by railroad.  The family eventually settled in the small community of Arroyo Grande in California, about 160 miles northwest of Los Angeles.   Harriet’s father opened a country store serving the local farming area. When that venture failed the Quimbys moved again, and in 1900 headed north to seek better opportunities in San Francisco.  While still in high school Harriet  had developed a talent for writing and that skill, combined with a naturally inquisitive nature, made her  decide to pursue a career in journalism. By the turn  of the century, Harriet had obtained a job with the San Francisco Chronicle and later the Call-Bulletin,  where she established a reputation as a skilled reporter. Her keen eye for the news, her wide-ranging  interests, and her journalistic abilities made her byline well known in the Bay area. Harriet had more ambitious goals however, and in 1903 she and her parents moved to New York City where she hoped to make a name for herself in the “big league” of journalism.

Harriet’s talents and reputation soon led to writing assignments for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, a popular turn-of-the-century magazine similar to the present day ‘Life” magazine. She eventually became that magazine’s Women’s Editor and some time later the Drama Critic, and those positions offered her many opportunities to expand her contacts and interests. Although her venue was the Broadway theater district and the New York world of “High Society” she was equally attracted to things of a more practical and mechanical nature. She was often seen driving around New York City in a red Ford Runabout at a time when few women would ride in the noisy, smelly and oily automobiles of that era. On one occasion her adventurous spirit led to an exciting ride as a passenger in a Pope-Toledo Vanderbilt Cup race car, reaching speeds of over 100 miles per hour, an experience she vividly described in an article in Leslie’s Weekly.

In October 1910, while on a reporting assignment in Long Island, Harriet attended the International Aviation Tournament at Belmont Park, and quickly fell in love with the exciting world of aviation. She watched in awe as twenty four of the world’s foremost aviators participated in a number of competitive events. As she watched the well-known pi- lots, including Glenn Curtiss, John Moisant and others, she was convinced that she could master the art of flying as well as any man there.

Some time later Harriet met John Moisant at a party in the Plaza Hotel and they discussed the possibility of him teaching her to fly. Moisant, a flamboyant and daring pilot from Chicago, had recently won the Statue of Liberty Race. Moisant told Harriet that he was planning to open a flying school in Mineola, Long Island, the following spring, and when he saw how determined she was to learn to fly signed her up as one of his first students. The Moisant Airfield, located about 18 miles from New York City and easily accessible by railroad, was later known as Roosevelt Field. It was from that same airfield sixteen years later that Charles Lindbergh took off on his epic flight to Paris in 1927.

Unfortunately, a few months after his meeting with Harriet Moisant was killed in an airplane accident in New Orleans. In any event, Moisant’s older brother, Alfred, decided to open the school the following spring as planned. Alfred hired a well known French aviator, Andre Houpert, to be the chief instructor, and it was he who introduced Harriet to the art of flying.

Harriet started her flight training on May 10, 1911 at the Mineola flying field, located in an area known as the Hempstead Plains. She would usually show up at the airfield in the early hours of the morning, primarily because the wind was calm but also to avoid the eyes of prying spectators or reporters. Her early lessons were very brief, and the first stages usually consisted of one or two short ‘hops” skimming across the field in a low-powered, clipped-wing ma- chine built by Moisant. These trainers were not able to become airborne and were known as “Grass Cutters.” In the early days of flying this was the accepted method of learning to fly, and the technique was known as ‘trimming the daisies.” Later on the ‘hops” progressed to low altitude flights in a single-place Moisant trainer, an American-built version of the popular French Bleriot XI monoplane powered by a 35 hp Anzani three-cylinder engine.

Harriet’s final flight training was conducted in a more powerful machine powered by a 50 hp Gnome rotary engine, enabling her to fly the airplane a few feet above the ground to gain confidence and get the “feel’ of the flight controls. Harriet applied herself diligently to the training course and by the end of July had taken 33 lessons with a total flying time of close to four hours. By that date she had reached the level of proficiency necessary to take the tests to obtain her pilot’s license. The tests required that she fly before a representative of the Aero Club of America and make five laps in a figure eight pattern around two pylons placed approximately one third of a mile apart. She then had to land as close as possible to a designated marker. Following that part of the test she had to make a second flight reaching an altitude of 164 feet.

Harriet passed her tests with ease and on August 1, 1911, having met the Federation Aeronautique International requirements, she was awarded license number 37 by the Aero Club of America. She now had her license, which had been her goal since attending the Belmont Park meet, and became the first woman in the United States to have a pilot’s license.

Harriet Quimby, America’s first aviatrix, suddenly found the public clamoring to see her fly. She made her professional flying debut at a County Fair on Staten Island with the Moisant International Aviators, an exhibition group managed by Alfred Moisant. Harriet was teamed with Matilde Moisant, Alfred’s sister, who had received her license a few weeks after Harriet. On September 4, 1911 the two lady pilots, plus other Moisant aviators, thrilled a crowd of over 20,000 spectators at the Staten Island fair.

Harriet later traveled with the Moisant Aerial Circus to Mexico in November of that same year. The group had been guaranteed a purse of $100,000 to put on a flying demonstration at the inauguration of President-elect Francisco Madero. Following that exhibition they performed at other locations in Mexico until the end of December, at which time the group returned to their home base in New York.

Harriet Quimby was a glamorous figure in the New York society world of 1911-1912 and well-known as a theater critic and a society reporter, as well as a daring aviatrix. Talented, beautiful, a tall slim woman with dark hair, flashing green eyes and a winning smile, she easily won the hearts of all who met her. When she flew an airplane Harriet wore an eye- catching plum-colored flying suit, designed especially for her by a New York tailor. The suit offered protection from the cold propeller blast as well as from the lubricating oil thrown back by the early rotary-type engines. This one-piece flying suit, made from a very thick wool-backed satin material included a monk’s hood to keep her hair in place and her ears warm. Furthermore, the suit was designed so that it could be quickly and easily converted into a conventional skirt when she was not piloting an airplane.

Harriet was anxious to promote flying and wrote numerous articles for Leslie’s Weekly as- their ‘Aviation Editor,” always emphasizing safety and practical uses for the airplane. It was while she was in Mexico that Harriet formulated plans for her next daring adventure, one that she felt would make her name well known around the world. She had read about the flight of Louis Bleriot, the French pilot who had been the first to fly across the English Channel, and was aware that his flight had captured the imagination of the world. Harriet was convinced that if she could duplicate that flight, and if she were successful, she too would become as well known as Louis Bleriot.

On March 7, 1911 Harriet sailed for England to make the necessary arrangements for her planned adventure. She was careful, however, not to make her plans known to the public to avoid the possibility of another woman pilot preempting her idea. Her first stop was in London where she made an agreement with the publisher of the London Daily Mirror to finance her trip in exchange for exclusive rights to her story. She then crossed the English Channel by boat and went to Paris to meet Louis Bleriot, where she discussed her plans with him. B16riot was enthusiastic about the idea and agreed to let Harriet borrow a single-place 50 horsepower Bleriot M-2 for the cross-Channel flight. At the same time Harriet ordered one of the new  Bleriot M-2 monoplanes that was powered by a 70 horsepower Gnome Lambda rotary engine. This airplane was to be shipped to her in New York following completion of the Channel flight.

Harriet had planned to test fly the Bleriot that she was going to use before she left Paris, but due to bad weather that flight never took place and the airplane was shipped directly to Dover, England. In Dover Harriet made preparations for her trip and received much good advice and encouragement from Gustav Hamel, an English pilot who had flown across the Channel only a few weeks earlier. Hamel gave Harriet some brief lessons on how to read and follow a compass course and offered her other valuable advice that she would need for the hazardous trip.

On Tuesday, April 16, 1911 Harriet was up at dawn making preparations for her flight. Hamel made one test hop in the Bleriot and declared it in good condition and ready to go. Wrapped in several layers of clothing, and with a hot water bottle strapped around her waist to keep her warm, Harriet took off from the Dover Heights Aerodrome and headed south towards the English Channel. The time was 5:30 a.m. This was Harriet’s first flight in a rotary-powered Bleriot but she was quick to master the airplane, climbing to 1,500 feet as she passed over Dover Castle aiming for the French coast.

Harriet flew on, heading southeast and climbing to 2,000 feet to stay clear of the surface fog. Huddled against the bitter cold she kept her eyes on her compass and on her watch, constantly searching for sight of the French coast.  Dover to Calais is only 22 miles, but as Harriet neared land she was unable to see the city of Calais and so followed a route along the French coastline south to Hardelot, where she landed safely on the beach. She had been in the air for about one hour due to the longer route she had traveled after failing to spot Calais. Hardelot was the site of Louis Bleriot’s summer home and one of his training aerodromes, so Harriet had landed the Bleriot close to its home base. She was soon surrounded by a large crowd of local fishermen, women and children from the nearby village, all chatting in French and congratulating her for her accomplishment, Harriet was tired from the ordeal, but thrilled that she had completed her goal – she was the first woman to make a solo flight across the English Channel.

They say that timing is everything in life, and it is unfortunate that Harriet picked that particular day for her flight. The next day, April 17th, newspapers around the world screamed in big, bold headlines “TITANIC SINKS, 1,500 LOST AT SEA” – Harriet’s flight had taken place on the same day as that tragic sea disaster! Any news story about her flight that did appear in newspapers was relegated to the back pages, and probably was not seen by most readers.

Harriet returned to America on May 12, 1911, but received neither a hero’s welcome nor a ticker-tape parade. The timing of her flight had indeed been unfortunate, but more important to Harriet was the recognition she did receive from the flying fraternity. They were quick to praise her for her skill and courage and held her in high esteem for her daring flight. And despite the lack of publicity Harriet was pleased that she had been able to prove that a woman could fly as well as a man.

Shortly after her return to New York Harriet was approached by numerous air show promoters anxious to feature the world’s best known aviatrix in their shows. Within a month Harriet signed an agreement with promoter William A.P. Willard to appear at the third annual Harvard-Boston Aviation Meet scheduled for the week of June 29 through July 7 at Dorchester, Massachusetts. It would also be Harriet’s first public appearance since the Channel flight, and her first chance to fly and demonstrate her new two-place Bleriot XI-2 monoplane. Many of the better known pilots of the day were to fly at the Harvard-Boston meet.

Much deduction and many theories have been proffered about the cause of the tragic accident, but none can be called conclusive. Some say that Willard, who was a rather heavy man, had leaned forward to talk to Harriet, thus shifting the center of gravity of the airplane out of its normal range. Others have pointed out that this tragedy would not have happened if either Harriet or Willard had been wearing seat belts. However, it is not clear if Harriet’s Bleriot was equipped with any restraining device since many pilots in the early days of aviation refused to wear seat belts. Others criticized the ‘lifting tail’ design used in the Bleriot monoplanes and the inherent instability and tail-heaviness of the airplane due to that design feature. The true cause will probably never be known although even today the accident is still being discussed by aviation historians.