Historic Aviator Harriet Quimby

Born in Arcadia, Michigan, on May 11, 1875, Harriet Quimby became the first woman in the United States to be awarded a pilot’s license in 1911. On April 16, 1912, she became the first woman to successfully pilot an airplane across the English Channel – an event which earned her the moniker of “America’s First Lady of the Air”. As a journalist, Quimby described her experience in detail and it was printed in the New York-based magazine she wrote for – Leslie’s Weekly.

While working for the magazine in New York City, in 1910 Harriet attended the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament on Long Island, where she met aviator and flight school operator John Moisant and his sister Matilde. She took a series of flying lessons and on August 1, 1911, passed her pilot’s test to become the first woman to obtain an aviator’s certificate from the Aero Club of America. (The second woman to earn her aviator’s certificate was Matilde Moisant.)

Quimby’s crossing of the English Channel, from Dover in England to a beach in Hardelot-Plage in France, took 59 minutes on April 16, 1912. Her intended destination had been Calais, but primarily due to poor visibility, she landed on a beach about 25 miles from Calais after considering, and rejecting, the possibility of landing in nearby cultivated fields. In her account of the event, Quimby notes that she jumped from her airplane and was alone on the beach, when a French-speaking crowd of locals came rushing toward her and carried her up the beach triumphantly, no doubt realizing that they had witnessed the landing of the first woman to pilot an airplane across the channel. Although her achievement was certainly newsworthy, it was overshadowed in the newspapers by the tragedy of the Titanic sinking on April 15, 1912.

Participating in the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet on July 1, 1912, Quimby flew her new two-seater Bleriot monoplane out over Boston Harbor before circling the airfield on her return. At an altitude of around 1500 feet, the airplane pitched forward sharply and Quimby and her passenger, William Willard, were catapulted from the plane, falling to their deaths. The plane glided down and landed in an area of mud. The reason for the accident was never established, but it sadly brought an abrupt end to the life of an adventurous aviator who made history and inspired other women to take to the skies, among them the legendary Amelia Earhart.