She was a modern woman in a not-so modern age. At a time when her contemporaries were swathed in petticoats and corsets, Harriet Quimby was climbing into a cockpit, decked out in a satin flying suit, waving energetically to the crowd. She was as bold and tenacious as she was beautiful, and she displayed an innate understanding of marketing and salesmanship, selling herself and the fledgling field of aviation to an enthusiastic public.
Harriet Quimby was born May 11th, 1875, somewhere in Michigan. The absence of a birth certificate has prompted many communities to claim her over the years. But just outside Arcadia on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, stands an historic site marker commemorating Harriet’s life and contributions. But from where Harriet Quimby came is not nearly as important as what she ultimately accomplished. Born to William and Ursula Quimby, Harriet and her family left Michigan when she was a young teen, heading westward in search of better health and better living in California.
In California, the relaxed atmosphere of California society deeply influenced Quimby. Young women were stepping outside traditional societal roles and attending college, studying medicine, or performing in the theater. It was an environment that fed young Harriet’s desire for romance and adventure.
Although she briefly flirted with an acting career, Quimby’s true talent lay in her gift with the written word. As a child, Quimby had been described as a “tomboy full of verve and spunk who was prepared to try anything.” It is a trait she would carry with her into adulthood, as she accepted a less-than-traditional position as a staff writer for the San Francisco Dramatic Review.
San Francisco in the early 1900s was a rough-and-tumble community populated by a fascinating array of dreamers, performers and bohemians. Quimby thrived on the diverse people and personalities, and made a name for herself as one of California’s premiere newspaperwomen. By 1902, however, Quimby was restless again. She longed for something more: more travel, more adventure, more challenge.
She found all of the above in New York City where she eventually became a regular contributor for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, in addition to many other popular New York publications. She loved travel and wrote about it extensively, becoming not only a star reporter but a talented photographer as well. Leslie’s hired her full-time in 1905 and subsequently she accepted a position as drama critic for the magazine.
Quimby’s journalism career gave her the freedom and the financial backing necessary to explore other cultures and ways of life, and to savor the adventure and exploration for which she had always strove.
Several years before Quimby would become airborne, she would develop a fascination with the automobile. In 1906, Quimby’s 100-mile-an-hour jaunt in a race car generated a breathless article and an abiding love for the speed and freedom that automobiles represented.
But through aviation Harriet Quimby would finally find her niche. And she was not simply content to observe and report. Harriet knew that the world of the aviator – with its new perspectives and compelling characters – was exactly where she belonged.
After writing a piece on a Japanese aeronaut, Quimby became a fixture at airfields around New York. She traveled to Los Angeles to cover the first air meet ever held in the U.S., and in October 1910, she accepted an assignment to cover New York’s Belmont Air Meet.
It was at Belmont that Quimby’s destiny was sealed. Perhaps it was the thrill of watching American John Moisant squeak across the finish line just ahead of favorite Count de Lesseps of France. Or maybe it was the bright sun and endless sky – and the way that flying seemed so effortless and natural.
A variety of influences coalesced on that crisp October day and Harriet enthusiastcially reported to her friends that flight appeared “quite easy. I believe I can do it myself, and I will.”
She struck up a friendship with Moisant, who owned a flying school. She convinced him to teach her the fine points of aviation, and she continued her crusade even after Moisant was killed in a crash in December 1910.
By May 1911, Harriet had also convinced her editor that Leslie’s should pay for her flying lessons and that she, in exchange, would chronicle her experiences for the magazine’s readers.
The media soon latched onto a carefully-placed rumor that a female was pursuing her pilot’s license at Moisant School of Aviation in Long Island, New York. No American woman had ever done such a thing. Aviation was a dangerous, expensive pursuit; one best left to daring young men; not gentle and charming society ladies.
Although Quimby’s first aviation account included detailed instruction on how ladies might wish to dress for an airborne excursion, it also outlined the mechanics of the aircraft and the step-by-step process of becoming acquainted with the equipment and its quirks.
Harriet was a quick and eager study, paying attention to her own aviation activities as well as those of fellow aviators such as Glenn Curtiss and Lincoln Beachey. They were where Quimby longed to be: in the forefront of American aviation, setting records, dazzling crowds and testing the limits of this exciting new technology.
The public couldn’t get enough of these amazing aviators, and before long Quimby was swept up in the national frenzy. She began receiving fan mail from Leslie’s readers who were intrigued by the “bird girl.”
Quimby did indeed become the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license, license #37 on August 1st, 1911 sanctioned by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale and administered by the Aero Club of America. With license in hand, she set out to create a striking persona that was equal parts aviator and cover girl. She knew that her charm and good looks could be used to advance her own career as well as the general public’s acceptance of aviation. She donned a stunning violet satin flying suit and looked every bit the “Dresden China aviatrix” that reporters breathlessly described. After years of writing about and photographing the exploits of others, Quimby had suddenly found her home on the opposite side of the camera. She was comfortable there and her airborne exploits became the stuff of legend.
Quimby joined an exhibition group and began competing in a variety of meets. She became close friends with the second American woman to earn a pilot’s license, Matilde Moisant, John’s sister. Less than a month after earning her pilot’s license, Harriet had already won her first cross-country race with the accompanying $600 purse. On September 04th, 1911 at the Richmond County Fair and before 15,000 people Quimby became the first woman to fly an aeroplane at night. She collected the handsome sum of $1500 for her 7 minute night flight.
Quimby became known as an extremely safe pilot, someone dedicated to pre-flight checks and the use of seat belts. She wrote a detailed article on how to avoid the dangers of flight. That article helped to establish the necessity of checklists, so much a part of every contemporary pilot’s routine.
Many argue, with considerable merit, that Harriet Quimby may have been the most influential pilot of her time. Women dreamed of experiencing the freedom that Harriet enjoyed in the cockpit. Men found themselves testing the limits of the sky, with the conviction “if a woman can do it, certainly I can!”
On April 16th, 1912 – one day after the sinking of the Titantic — Quimby’s fame reached its zenith as she climbed into her Bleriot biplane and headed out over the white cliffs of Dover in search of a safe landing in Calais, France.
Her flight was a resounding success and Quimby’s place in history was destined to be far more than a footnote. She continued to write compelling articles about pilots and aircraft, and she traveled the country, making numerous appearances, and being handsomely paid for her efforts.
In September 1912 an article which Quimby had drafted earlier was published by Good Housekeeping and that article extolled the value of aviation as the ideal sport for women. “There is no sport that affords the same amount of excitement and enjoyment, and exacts in return so little muscular strength. It is easier than walking, driving or automobiling; easier than golf or tennis … Flying is a fine, dignified sport for women…and there is no reason to be afraid so long as one is careful.”
After completing that article, Quimby departed for the Harvard-Boston Aviation Meet, where she would be one of the headlining attractions. After a successful opening day, filled with interviews, photographs and demonstration flights, Quimby decided that she would fly the course that had been laid out for the next day’s record attempt. She offered a ride to event organizer William Willard, who flipped a coin with his son Charles to determine who would get the ride. William won and enthusiastically climbed into Quimby’s Bleriot.
The events that followed have been discussed and debated for decades. All that is known for certain is what observers saw from the ground. Returning from a 20-minute flight, Quimby’s Bleriot circled the aviation field and headed out over the water, silhouetted against a stunning sunset. But suddenly the airplane appeared to almost stand on end before plunging earthward at a high rate of speed. Almost immediately, Mr. Willard was tossed from his seat, and Quimby soon followed. As five thousand spectators gasped in horror, pilot and passenger struck the water some 300 feet from shore.
Endless arguments followed as to the cause of the crash. Lincoln Beachey, who would later die in an aviation accident, speculated that Harriet – being a delicate female – had been overcome by the rush of wind and had fainted. Glenn Curtiss argued that such an accident would never have happened had Harriet and her passenger been properly strapped in.
Those who knew Harriet Quimby knew that she was too sturdy and too safety- conscious for either scenario to be accurate. She was not the kind to swoon, nor the kind to ignore the realities and dangers of flight. Whatever the cause of the tragic accident, Harriet Quimby – America’s beautiful and dynamic female voice of aviation – was forever silenced. Her achievements and adventures, however, would live on. They would live on in the lives of female aviators yet to come: Amelia Earhart, Jackie Cochran, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and so many more.
Harriet Quimby blazed the trail and followed it with passion and conviction. She willingly assumed the risks and earnestly told a nation that aviation was not a passing fad, but that it would change the world. In so doing, Harriet Quimby changed the world. For her lasting impact on aviation and aviators, Harriet Quimby is enshrined into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
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