Harriet Quimby to Fly English Channel
by: Michael Hull
Early on the still, foggy morning of Tuesday, April 16, 1912, an American woman walked across the damp grass of the Dover Heights airfield in southeastern England to a waiting airplane. Weather conditions looked promising, and the young woman was eager to realize her dream – to become the first woman to fly alone across the English Channel. Less than a year after becoming the first American woman to gain a pilot’s license, Harriet Quimby was ready to make aviation history.
Her flying feats had already made Harriet Quimby a celebrity in the United States, where newspaper writers called her “the Dresden-China Aviatrix.” Tall, willowy, brown-haired, with a cameo-like face and dazzling green eyes, Harriet was a glamorous figure. She had designed her own distinctive flying costume of plum-colored, wool-backed satin, with a monkish hood. She also wore high-laced leather boots, uniquely styled goggles, and earrings.
In addition to being a pilot, Harriet Quimby was a drama critic and feature writer for Leslie’s Weeklymagazine in New York City. She understood the news- paper business, and she had persuaded the publishers of the London Daily Mirror to pay the expenses of her attempt to fly the English Channel.
Before boarding her airplane, Harriet paused for a publicity photograph, powdering her nose while a woman friend held a hand mirror. Harriet Quimby’s aircraft for her cross-Channel flight was a monoplane she had borrowed from French pioneer Louis Bleriot, who had made the first flight across the English Channel on July 25, 1909. The open-cockpit airplane offered no protection aloft, so Harriet was wearing two sets of long underwear under her plum-colored silk flying suit. After the publicity photographs had been taken, she added more layers of clothing – a long woolen coat, an American raincoat, we must hasten, for it was almost certain that the wind would rise again with hour.”
Harriet was ready to take off when British aviator Gustav Hamel jumped onto the fuselage to give her some minute advice. Hamel had made headlines two weeks earlier by carrying the first woman across the English Channel by air as a passenger in his own airplane. He had secretly offered to make Harriet Quimby’s flight for her, disguised in her flying suit, he would land at on the French coast, they would meet, and would sneak off and leave Harriet in the cockpit, waiting to be discovered by curious French passersby. Harriet laughed at this offer, but she had allowed Hamel to test her plane and to act as a technical adviser.
Now, sprawling on the fuse behind her cockpit, Gustav Hamel warned Harriet Quimby to pay special attention to her compass if she ran into fog during her 21-mile flight across Channel. He reminded her that she should not stray north of her planned course else she would never reach France, she would run out of fuel over the sea coast of Belgium. “Be sure to keep, course, whatever you do,” Hamel said, “for if you get five miles out of the course you will be over the North Sea, and you know what that means.” Hamel also commanded her to warm. “At the last minute,” Harriet reported, “they handed me a large water bag, which Mr. Hamel insisted tying to my waist like an enormous locket.”
At 5:30 a.m., with its engine growl the Bleriot airplane lurched awkwardly along the grass, gained speed, and lifted into the air. Harriet climbed steadily in speed and within 30 seconds had reached altitude of 1,500 feet. Dover Castle was half obscured from her view, but aviatrix caught a brief glimpse of a tugboat in the Channel on which Daily Mirror had stationed several reporters and photographers. Harriet climbed to 2,000 feet and headed out across the Channel. She passed over the tug then flew into a fog bank.
“I could not see ahead of me at all, all I could I see was the water below,” she reported later. “There was only one thing for me to do, and that was to keep my eyes fixed on my compass.” Harriet had never use compass before.
She climbed through the fog bank to seek clear sky, but at 6,000 feet all she found was more fog and “bone-chilling cold.” Flying at the rate of a mile a minute, she peered anxiously through her misted goggles, eventually pushing them up on her forehead. She shivered despite her heavy clothing, and prayed that she was heading for France and not for the North Sea.
She knew that, if she was on course, the French coast would be in sight – if she could only get below the fog to see it. So she dropped from 6,000 to 2,000 feet, and then to 1,000 feet, searching for a break in the cold, gray fog. Then she dropped still further to an altitude of 500 feet.
Suddenly the fog began to disperse. “The sunlight struck upon my face, and my eyes lit upon the white and sandy shores of France,” Harriet reported. She was overjoyed, but could not see her objective, the port of Calais. She turned south and flew along the unfamiliar shore, looking for a place to land. The wind was rising and she was running low on fuel.
“It was all tilled land below me,” she wrote, “and, rather than tear up the farmers’ fields, I decided to drop down on the hard and sandy beach.” She did so without delay, making an easy touchdown on a firm beach near Hardelot. She was 25 miles south of Calais.
Harriet had achieved her goal, although she had strayed far off-course, and her flight had lasted much longer than she had planned. Triumphantly, Harriet jumped out of her cockpit, and found herself alone on the beach – for a few minutes. Then digging sand worms on the beach, rushed toward the American woman from all directions. Two sturdy women hoisted the slender, smiling aviatrix on their shoulders, and the crowd paraded along the beach, cheering loudly and waving caps in the air.
Harriet did not speak French well, but she wrote, “I comprehended sufficiently to discover that they knew I had crossed the Channel.” The brave, beautiful aviatrix had made aviation history – but her feat was crowded off the front pages by news of the sinking of R.M.S. Titanic off Newfoundland on the night of April 14- 15, with the loss of an estimated 1,503 lives.
Harriet’s return to America on May 12 happened to coincide with a large women’s suffrage rally in New York – and no reporters were at the docks to greet her and to publicize her flight across the English Channel.
The Dresden-China Aviatrix died in a crash at the Harvard-Boston Aviation Meet on July 1, 1912.