Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Q is for Harriet Quimby - Pioneer Women in Aviation: A-Z Challenge

Harriet Quimby (1875-1912)
Harriet Quimby was born somewhere in Michigan in 1875. Her parents were farmers, who seeking a better life, moved west to San Francisco (CA) with Harriet and her sister in the early 1900s. 

As a young woman, Harriet noticed that women in California were more relaxed about societal rules and traditional roles for girls. Why here, they could attend college, become a doctor, or even train as an actress if they so wanted. 

The romantic, adventurous side of Harriet must have glowed. She briefly considered acting. She certainly had the looks and gumption to try, for as a child, she had been a “tomboy full of verve and spunk who was prepared to try anything.” (National Hall of Fame, 2011) 

But Harriet was a writer at heart. She took a job as a staff writer at a San Francisco newspaper. As the paper's journalist and drama critic, Harriet excelled in the field and became one of California’s top newspaperwomen.
Ready for a new adventure, Harriet moved to New York City in 1903, where she made a good living writing for various magazines (more than 250 articles over the next nine years).
Many of the articles were written for and about women, encouraging them to pursue their dreams, even pursuits normally sought by men.  

Topics ranged from travel, housekeeping, and drama to more exhilarating pieces, like car racing or flying. Harriet was fascinated with machines and speed. For one article in 1906, she sat in the back of a race car at the Vanderbilt Cup Races to experience the thrill of a car going 100 miles an hour. But after writing an article about a Japanese aviator, Harriet's interest in flying grew to a new level. She started hanging out at airfields in New York to observe the activity. Traveling to Los Angeles in 1910 to write about the first air meet held in the U.S., she met the winner of the race, John Moisant, who happened to own a flight school and was a builder. 

Standing next to her friends, Harriet reportedly said, 
"Quite easy. I believe I can do it myself, and I will." 
1911 Moisant Monoplane - Harriet's first plane

Harriet secretly signed up for lessons at Moisant's school, not wanting the press to know that a woman was learning to fly, but word got out. Taking advantage of the situation, Harriet wrote a series of articles about her experience. Obtaining her license in 1911, she became the first U.S. woman to do so. Interest escalated as she began doing flight exhibitions. At Staten Island (NY) a crowd of 15,000 watched from below, which also made her the first woman to fly at night. Later in an exhibition flight over Mexico, she and Matilde Moisant (John Moisant's sister) teamed up to become the first women to fly over Mexico

The public loved hearing about Harriet's adventures. She made sure she included a woman's perspective too. Not impressed with the shoddy attire of most pilots, Harriet decided to add a bit of class to the sport. She became known for her plum-colored satin flying suit and high heel boots. She was charming, beautiful, intelligent and breathed energy into the field of aviation. She encouraged other women to fly. 

"I'm going in for everything in aviation that men have done: altitude, speed, endurance, and the rest," she said. Then in the same breath, would add, "You don't know what a fine thing for the complexion a dew bath is," referring to the pure, moist air at certain altitudes.

Harriet wrote about the importance of safety in avoiding the dangers of flight. Seat belts were essential, including going over a safety checklist before every flight. Her reputation as a safe pilot was well known, but when Harriet privately announced she wanted to fly across the English Channel, she was ill-prepared

Harriet sailed to Europe and met with the French aviator and builder Louis Bleriot. He had been the first person to fly over the channel in 1909. The new 70 hp Bleriot XI (two-seater model) that she had ordered from Bleriot was not ready.  Worried about weather should she delay much longer, she convinced Bleriot to let her use an earlier model, the 50 hp Bleriot XI (single-seater model). This she had shipped to England, where she would start the crossing.  (She would pick up the new plane later).

Harriet in the Bleriot XI (50 hp)

On the morning of the flight, April 16, 1912, the sky across the channel was locked in a fog bank. Gustav Hamel, a British pilot at the site, had just taught Harriet how to use a compass, something she apparently didn't know she needed. Harriet had never flown over water before either, nor had she ever flown the Bleriot XI, which was no doubt frightening to Hamel, who then offered to fly in her place. He'd wear her outfit and on the other side switch places. Nobody would know the difference, he explained. Harriet stubbornly refused. 

She later wrote: "They knew I had never used the machine before and probably thought I would find some excuse at the last moment to back out of the flight. This attitude made me more determined than ever to succeed." 

So off she went at 5:30 am that morning for the French coast 22 miles away. Flying higher to stay clear of the fog, she found herself immediately surrounded. Flying higher yet, she nearly froze. Relying on her compass now, for she was surrounded by fog, she watched the clock and guessed it was time to descend. Then the engine sputtered and backfired. Gasoline had flooded the engine! But just as suddenly had the engine failed, it began to hum again. Harriet dropped down and  saw the green grass ahead . . . France!  Landing safely, a group of fishermen with their wives and children ran to greet her. They knew. They knew she had crossed the English Channel! 

Greeted by fishermen and their families
The flight over the channel took 59 minutes to complete.

Back at home, news of Harriet's flight had been lost somewhere on the back page of every newspaper. The Titanic had sunk two days ago and it was all anyone could talk about. More than 1,500 lives had been lost. A suffrage victory that had filled New York's streets with thousands of suffragists two weeks ago also didn't help.  When Harriet's new 70 hp Bleriot XI finally arrived, she was cheered and anxious to show off her new plane. She began exhibition flying again.  
While at the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet in Squantum, Massachusetts, Harriet offered the meet's manager, William Willard, a ride in her new two-seater Bleriot XI. He readily accepted. While circling over the water, the plane suddenly went vertical, rear end up, pitching Willard from the plane. Again the plane lurched, and Harriet was thrown from the plane. Oddly, the plane leveled out on its own and landed gently in the mud, flipping over on its back. Both Harriet and Willard were killed.  

People analyzing what might have happened point out that neither was wearing a seat belt. Do you think that would have made a difference?  It was later determined that the plane model had balance problems. Willard, being a heavy set man, could have leaned forward and tipped the plane. Another theory is that the plane's cables had tangled somehow in the steering mechanism. The worst explanation was that Harriet was a woman. She could have swooned, fainted, lost her breath, etc., being so delicate. 

Harriet flew for eleven months before losing her life. In a sealed message to her parents before traveling to Boston (to be read if anything happened), Harriet wanted them to know that she would meet her fate "rejoicing." She died doing what she loved most.

Harriet Quimby wrote seven screenplays (or scenarios) in 1911. Biograph Studios made each one into a silent film short. All seven were directed by D.W. Griffith, and in one, Harriet had a small acting role.

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Sharon M. Himsl

Writer/Author. Blogging since 2011. 
Published with Evernight Teen: 
~~The Shells of Mersing


  1. I am truly amazed that there were so many women flying, also amazed at you finding out all about them. Well done Sharon.

    1. They were so many pilots to choose from, most of us knew nothing about and online sources are amazing. So far, only two letters have been hard: X and I. Thanks!

  2. I know all of the women in you series were posing for their pictures, and we always try to look our best, our happiest when that happens, but every one of these women look truly happy. I don't get the feeling they're only happy for that picture. Another wonderful story.

    1. You know, that may be true. I think once these women conquered their fears, there was no turning back, Therese Peltier being the exception so far (haven't written the rest yet :) Thanks Lee!

  3. That kills me that they thought this daring lady would swoon and faint. I had no idea there are that many amazing female aviators out there. She had guts because these planes look like they would crumble if you sneezed on them

    1. It does feel like a snide comment. It probably came from someone who had no idea what she had actually accomplished. I hope they were criticized later....and embarrassed.
      Yeah, so true... I think I mentioned before these planes remind of the airplanes we put together as kids. Fragile, fragile, fragile!!

  4. A lovely read about this extraordinary woman. My guess is that Willard leant forward, neither were wearing seat belts and the plane tipped. I love her letter to her parents to be read in the event of ...

    1. That's my guess too. An unfortunate miscalculation. She had no idea there was a balance flaw in the plane! As a parent, the letter would have meant the world to me. We want our children to be happy. Thanks for reading Susan!


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You could call me an eternal optimist, but I'm really just a dreamer. l believe in dream fulfillment, because 'sometimes' dreams come true. This is a blog about my journey as a writer and things that inspire and motivate me.