Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, May 11, 2015

Harriet Quimby, "America's First Lady of the Air"

Harriet Quimby (born 11 May 1875)

Harriet Quimby in 1912,
in a flight suit
she designed for herself
Most of us know about the aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, if for no other reason than her mysterious disappearance in 1937. Fewer of us know about Harriet Quimby, the first woman in the United States to earn a pilot's license.

Born in Michigan--the exact place is disputed--Harriet Quimby was the daughter of an unsuccessful farmer who moved moved his family west, to California, in 1887 (though this dated is also disputed).

According to the U.S. Census of 1900, by the time she was twenty-five Harriet Quimby was living in San Francisco, and she claimed her profession as "actress." While no records of her as an actress have emerged, she was working as a journalist for The San Francisco Dramatic Review and the San Francisco Call

It was as a journalist that Quimby relocated to New York in 1903, working there as a writer for Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, reviewing theater, writing about her life as a single, career woman, and traveling as a photojournalist.

In New York Quimby developed two other interests: in cars and in film. In 1906, she reported on the Vanderbilt Cup Race for Leslie's--but days before the race, she took a test spin in a Pope-Toledo race car, an exhilarating ride that reached speeds of 100 mph. (For her account of the test drive, click here.) After that experience, she got her driver's license and bought a yellow "runabout." 

Her second passion became film--she wrote seven screenplays for director D.W. Griffith in 1911 (though IMDb credits her with only five), and acted in one short film, written and directed by Griffith, "Lines of White on a Sullen Sea," from 1909--she is credited as "Fishermaiden."

In 1910, sent to cover an international air race at Belmont Park, Quimby became interested in aviation and, just as she had done earlier, learning to drive after her experience in a race car, she decided to take aviation lessons. The winner of the 1910 race was John Moisant, and Quimby enrolled at his school. As noted on the Women in Aviation website:
Her instruction was at the Moisant School of Aviation in Hempstead, Long Island. In 4 months and 33 lessons, Harriet flew for her Fédération Aéronautique Internationale License (FAI) July 31, 1911, and on August 1, 1911 she became the first licensed female aviator in the United States. Her license number was FAI # 37.
When she became a licensed pilot, Harriet Quimby was thirty-six years old. The next year, she became the first woman to pilot a plane across the English Channel, crossing from Dover to Calais on 16 April 1912 in a flight that clocked in at fifty-nine minutes. (News of her flight was overshadowed by reporting on the sinking of the Titanic--given her initial comments on the ship's fate, Quimby, as many others, was unaware of the extent of the disaster.)

Quimby in France, just after her landing
Three months later, Quimby participated in the Harvard–Boston Aero Meet. After a successful flight, she returned to the air with the event organizer aboard. As she approached her landing, the plane pitched once, ejecting her passenger; it appeared as if Quimby had stabilized her plane when it pitched sharply again, this time throwing Quimby from the plane. Both were killed.

For an excellent article on Harriet Quimby, see Peter Tyson's "America's First Lady of the Air," posted at NOVA Online, or the entry on Quimby in the Encyclopedia of World Biography. There are several biographies, though all of them seem to be for children.

For a brief but exceptionally informative film on Quimby, "Harriet Quimby: American Hero," click here. There is a wonderful introduction to Quimby's life and contributions to aviation posted online by the Owls Head Transportation Museum, with an assessment of her Channel crossing, click here

And if you enjoy Nate DiMeo's The Memory Palace, Episode 59 includes a remembrance of Harriet Quimby.

Quimby's test ride in 1906,
an illustration for her Leslie's reporting