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The TV western Sky King is partially to blame for my interest in flight. In his airplane, the Songbird, Sky and his niece Penny flew across the hardscrabble of Arizona capturing desperadoes. Once in awhile Penny took the controls of the Songbird. Thus, before knowing about Amelia Earhart, I saw that girls could fly airplanes. While this appealed to me, I knew I was never going to pilot a plane. Since the age of ten, I have been a nocturnal being. Getting up at 4 a.m. to be at the airfield and learn to fly? – – never going to happen. Not then, not now.
The First Licensed Woman Aviator
Michigan native Harriet Quimby (She was born near Arcadia.) got up early to learn how to fly. A writer and editor for Leslie’s Weekly Illustrated, Harriet began taking lessons at the Moisant School of Aviation in May 1911. Her reluctant teacher, Frenchman Andre Houpert, instructed her. Harriet wore a heavy veil to hide her gender, but this did not work. Reporters from The New York Times discovered her. They published an article in which she admitted her ambition to become America’s first licensed woman aviator.
On July 31, Harriet amazed the Aero Club of America members by executing all of the required maneuvers but one (the landing) for a license. The next day, she passed the required test and became the first United States woman to earn a pilot’s license. Harriet then joined the Moisant International Aviators Exhibition team.
English Channel Flight
In 1912, Harriet became the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel. This excerpt, from Laura Ashlee’s article “Fadeless Immortality” (Michigan History Magazine July/August 1993) captures her flight:
On Tuesday, Harriet and her entourage arrived at the aerodrome by 4:00 a.m. She wore her plum aviation suit, two pairs of “silk combinations,” a long woolen coat, a raincoat and a wide sealskin stole. Hamel [English aviator Gustave Hamel] taught her how to use a compass, warning her that if she drifted even a few miles off course, she could find herself over the North Atlantic Ocean. At the last minute, he insisted she tie a large hot-water bottle around her waist for additional warmth. Harriet was impatient, but experienced no trepidation. She later recalled, ‘For the first time, I was to fly a Bleriot monoplane. For the first time, I was to fly by compass. For the first time, I was to make a journey across the water. For the first time, I was to fly on the other side of Atlantic. My anxiety was to get off quickly.
The monoplane ascended swiftly – fifteen hundred feet in thirty seconds. She fulfilled her promise to the Mirror photographers in a boat below by flying directly toward the Dover castle flagstaff. After passing over the stronghold, she was enshrouded by fog. “I could not see ahead of me at all, nor could I see the water below,” she remembered. “There was only one thing for me to do and that was to keep my eyes fixed on the compass.”
Although exposed to the chilling mist, Harriet’s adrenalin kept her warm. Her goggles became wet, obscured her vision, so she pushed them up on her forehead. Since her plane’s speed was over sixty miles per hour, Harriet anticipated the twenty-two-mile trip would take approximately twenty minutes. As Harriet descended from two thousand to one thousand feet the sunlight struck her face and she saw the white, sandy shores of France. She later wrote, “I felt happy, but I could not find Calais.”
Harriet landed on the beach near Hardelot about thirty miles away from Calais. Her achievement garnered very little press coverage. She crossed the Channel on Tuesday, April 16, 1912. The Titanic had sunk on Monday, April 15, and that tragedy was front-page news. The New York Times eventually ran an editorial on Harriet’s accomplishment. The author deflected its importance by concluding, “A thing done first is one thing; done for the seventh or eighth time is quite different. Of course it still proves ability and capacity, but it doesn’t prove equality.” (Ashlee article page 17.) Harriet’s own newspaper, Leslie’s, proudly covered her Channel crossing. In spite of the sarcastic Times editorial, she became known to the aviation world.
Death and Legacy
Her time in that world lasted until July 1, 1912. At a meet near Quincy, Massachusetts, Harriet’s monoplane pitched unexpectedly. She and her passenger, William Willard (the event’s organizer and father of aviator Charles Willard) were ejected. The two fell to their deaths in front of a horrified crowd.
Harriet Quimby, an early aviation pioneer, died after only eleven months of flying. Sources say that Harriet was not a suffragette. Yet, as a journalist, she championed women’s issues and as a pilot, she believed that flying could be “a fruitful occupation for women.”
“Fadeless Immortality,” by Laura Ashlee. Michigan History Magazine, July/August, 1993.
For an article on another Michigan woman aviator, click From Soda Pop to the Clouds by Mary Zimmeth