Pioneer Pilot
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Pioneer Pilot

by: Lisa M. Hansen

Kalamazoo Newspaper

Pioneer Pilot

It’s not easy being in love.  But what makes it even harder for Gia Koontz is that she’s in love with a dead woman.

Some may wonder who Harriet Quimby is. But others on the Central coast share Koontz intrigue with the mysterious one-time Arroyo Grande resident. Some 40 people will attend the first annual Harriet Quimby research conference, to be held in Quimby’s old stomping grounds on Oct. 14.

Quimby is well know in aviation circles. In 1991 the United States Postal Service honored her by putting her face on a 50- cent airmail stamp.

Details of her life are mysterious. To those trying to piece together her flamboyant past, Quimby can be as baffling as flying aeroplanes was for Americans in the early 1900s. Those early planes had no brakes, seat belts, or enclosed cabins. The Wright brothers were still experimenting on the shores of North Carolina.

The conference will bring together Harriet Quimby researchers from around the country. Koontz, who is coordinating the conference with Jean Hubbard of the South County Historical Society, hopes missing pieces of the young woman’s life will come together by way of brainstorming and information swapping.
“The more I read about Harriet, the more she took over.” Koontz said. She started re-searching the pilot’s life in preparation for a screen play she finished in June.

Koontz credits novelist Henry M. Holden for introducing her to Quimby. Holden authored “Her Mentor Was an Albatross,” an autobiography of Quimby, America’s first licensed pilot. The purple cover of Holden’s book is graced with the airmail stamp commemorating Quimby, who is clad in her trademark purple satin flying suit and goggles.

“When I saw her looking at me, it didn’t take but a minute for me to call Henry and tell him I was in love with a dead woman,” she said dramatically as the wind restyled wisps of her short blond hair. “She was a strong woman when women weren’t supposed to be. But she was gentle. She was the darling of aviation.”  Despite this attention, the stark-blue-eyed brunette aviatrix is nearly unknown in her hometown.

It seems Quimby’s claim to fame was her solo flight across the English Channel in 1912 the first ever completed by an American woman. But just two days after her historic flight, the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic met its end.”  She was wiped right off the front page,” Koontz said. In fact the New York Times relegated her accomplishment to page 15, although it had covered her flying career for over a year, often placing her on the front page.

Part of the goal of the research conference is to celebrate Quimby’s achievements and educate people about her pioneering ways in early American aviation, Hubbard said  “Women don’t get enough publicity for such accomplishments.” said Hubbard, a 20-year member and past president of the South County Historical Society. She has been researching Quimby’s roots for about five years.  “It’s important to emphasize women’s role in history. It’s a silent subject. Often it behooves women to sound their horn, even today. Her period of flight was so short that she’s often overlooked. Maybe we can rectify that.”

Hubbard has pored over records including school rolls and the minutes of the Oddfellows and Rebekah organizations, of which Quimby’s parents were members. Those documents showed the Quimby family moved to the Central Coast from Michigan in 1884, when Quimby was 9. At that time, Hubbard said about 2,000 people lived in SLO county and between 300 and 400 people lived in the small community of Arroyo Grande.

“Harriet always considered herself a California woman,” Hubbard said. After financial hard times hit the Quimby’s, who had one other daughter, Kittie, the family moved to San Francisco. It was here that Harriet embarked on her journalism career, taking up work with the San Francisco Chronicle. Holden reports in his book that an editor at that time said Harriet had the “best nose for news” he had ever seen.
Her byline was well-known throughout Northern California by the time she packed her bags in 1903 and headed to New York, where she wrote for Leslie’s Weekly. She worked first as a freelance writer then as a travel editor, a job that took her to places like Egypt and South America.

That same year, the Wright brothers changed her destiny.  After taking flying lessons in 1911 dressed as a man, Harriet obtained her pilot’s license. She competed in various air meets from Mexico City to Boston. It was at the 1912 Harvard Aviation Meet in Massachusetts that Harriet’s short flying career ended abruptly.

A debate is ongoing about the exact reason Harriet and her passengers, the meet manager’s son, Harry Willard, were thrown from the plane at an elevation of 1,000 feet. the two landed near each other in four feet of water and died instantly. Some say the delicate balance of the plane was upset by her passenger’s movement. Other’s blame the death on a design flaw in the Bleriot plane.