Journalist Harriet Quimby became the first licensed female pilot in the United States when, on Aug. 1, 1911, she was awarded license #37 from the Aero Club of America.
Harriet was born May 11, 1875, in Michigan. She moved with her family to California where she became a respected reporter and columnist. On to New York City in 1903, she worked first as a freelance contributor and photographer for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, and later held the job of drama critic and then editor of the Women’s Page.
In 1906, she told readers what it was like to zip along in an open-air automobile at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour (161 kilometers per hour). The article revealed her strong interest in machines and speed, some of the qualities that would attract her to aviation.
Harriet’s destiny was sealed at New York’s 1910 Belmont Air Meet. Flight, she told friends, “appeared quite easy. I believe I can do it myself…and I will.” By May 1911, Harriet had convinced her editors that Leslie’s should pay for her flying lessons and she, in turn, would record her experiences for the magazine’s readers.
Harriet took 33 lessons at a total cost of $750 from the Moisant School of Aviation on Long Island, New York. In addition to her Aero Club of America license, she became the first female monoplane pilot certified by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (founded in Paris in 1905) and set out to create a persona that was equal parts aviator and cover girl. On Sept. 4, 1911, she claimed a $1,500 prize by performing a night flight across the Narrows of New York Bay under a full moon.
Most notable, on April 16, 1912, she became the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Unfortunately, her timing was bad. Her landing in France coincided with the news of the sinking of the Titanic. Stories of the tragedy at sea filled the newspapers and Harriet’s impressive feat was relegated to the back page.
Flying in an air meet near Boston July 1, 1912, Harriet took a passenger — the organizer of the meet — aloft in her new Bleriot monoplane. He was a very large man. Unexpectedly, the aircraft pitched forward and went into a dive. It is unclear if either he or Harriet was wearing a restraining device and both were thrown from the plane to their deaths. The monoplane came out of its dive, landed, and then flipped over sustaining minimal damage.
Although Quimby lived only to age 37, she had a major impact on women’s roles in aviation; she was a true pioneer and helped break down stereotypes about women’s abilities during the first decade of flight. Quimby was a beautiful woman and very style conscious. She designed her own trademark flight suit, a purple satin outfit with a hood and a skirt that could be converted to trousers, which she wore whenever she flew.
In 2004 Harriet Quimby was enshrined into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
For more information: NationalAviation.org