Do you know about Harriet Quimby, Pioneer Aviator? In her time, the early 1900s, flying was still so new and dangerous. Every flier risked death whenever he climbed into a cockpit. I say ‘he’ because flying had mostly been a guy thing. That was especially true in Harriet’s time. People thought only a very bold, unladylike female would sign up for flying lessons. Or travel the world taking photos. Or hang around film studios, writing screenplays for silent movies. Or drive her own car. OR become America’s very first woman to earn a pilot’s license, as Harriet did, on August 1, 1911. Harriet did ALL of those things AND wrote newspaper stories about her adventures!
Like other early fliers, Harriet showed off her skills at very popular airshows. High above the crowds, pilots swooped through the sky in their tiny aircraft, difficult to manage in the windy air. When Louis Blériot made the first flight from France to England, in 1909, it was in a plane measuring 25 feet, 7 inches, wingtip to wingtip. The wingspan of a small plane today might be 36 feet and it weighs more than three times as much as Blériot’s 507-pounder!
Beautiful Harriet Quimby, in her purple satin flight suit, was famous. But she wanted more: If only she could match Mr. Blériot’s feat, she’d be the first woman to fly across the stormy English Channel. So, she borrowed one of Mr. Blériot’s little wood-cloth-and-wire airplanes and had it shipped to Dover, England. At dawn on April 16, 1912, Harriet soared up into the clouds, heading for France, 22 miles away. No GPS, radar, or radio. Just her watch and a compass. After an hour of freezing fog in her face, Harriet flew down out of the clouds to see France’s sandy shores. When she landed, people came rushing from all directions.
Alas for Harriet. Alas, alas for those on the doomed Titanic which disappeared under the ocean 27 hours before her flight. The terrible news overshadowed her accomplishment. And how could Harriet know that she had but ten weeks to live? On July 1, 1912, the crowd at a Boston airshow heard her screams as she fell from her little airplane to her death. And alas for us if we let time and tragedy overshadow how cool and brave she was: Harriet Quimby, First Lady of the Air.
Cheryl Harness has written a book about another heroic woman, Mary Walker. She was one of the first women doctors in the country. When the Civil War struck, she took to the battlefields in a modified Union uniform as a commissioned doctor. To find out more about Cheryl's book, click here.
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