Harriet Quimby and the theatrics of flight

The Wright Brothers didn't teach women, and so Harriet Quimby went to the Moisant School of Aviation.
The Wright Brothers didn’t teach women, and so Harriet Quimby went to the Moisant School of Aviation.

KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. — Way back in 1903, just a short walk from here, Orville Wright made history when he flew the remarkable little plane he and brother Wilbur had designed in Ohio. The flight lasted 12 seconds. Sixty-six years later, man would land on the moon.

Everyone knows the Wright brothers’ names. Finding stories about them isn’t difficult, and I encourage you to do that if you’re very interested in the early history of flying.

But I’m going to tell you a different little story, that of a Michigan farm girl turned New York journalist, Harriet Quimby.

Harriet Quimby was a daredevil who raced cars as well as flying planes.
Harriet Quimby was a daredevil who raced cars as well as flying planes.

Quimby left her family’s failing farm first for San Francisco, then New York, and while she harboured a great love for the stage, it was words she fell into, becoming one of the world’s first female scriptwriters, but also writing, editing and taking award-winning photos for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly.

According to the museum at the Wright Brothers’ memorial, she acquired her pilot’s licence in secret. But your average journalist is not going to keep quiet about such a thing, and Quimby was so much more than your average journalist.

In an article headlined How I Won My Aviator’s Licence, she wrote in 1911: “The thrill of pleasure with which the eager and anxious university student after years of patient endeavour secures his diploma has been mine. It takes four years of study to win a college diploma. It takes a much shorter time, if you have a competent instructor and if fate deals kindly with you, to secure your license to pilot an aeroplane.”

Harriet Quimbly climbs into her Moisant monoplane, wearing her trademark satin flying suit.
Harriet Quimbly climbs into her Moisant monoplane, wearing her trademark satin flying suit.

She was finally able to live in the world of theatre, where the sky was her stage. She designed for herself a unique purple satin flight suit and set off to conquer the hearts of the people with exhibition flights in Mexico and elsewhere. The English Channel was her next conquest. She turned down a friend’s offer to secretly pilot for her (because, really, could a woman accomplish such a thing?), making the flight in a borrowed plane with an unfamiliar compass. She wrote: “I only had to rise in my machine, fix my eyes upon the castle, fly over it and speed directly across to the French coast. It seemed so easy that it looked like a cross-country flight. I am glad I thought so and felt so, otherwise I might have had more hesitation about flying in the fog with an untried compass, in a new and untried machine, knowing that the treacherous North Sea stood ready to receive me if I drifted only five miles too far out of my course.”

She landed after an hour on a beach full of fishermen who, she said, cheered and congratulated themselves that the first woman to cross the Channel had landed in their back yard. It would have made a great story but for the timing—all journalistic resources were busy with the sinking a day earlier of the Titanic.

“It is easier than walking, driving or automobiling; easier than golf or tennis,” she wrote in Good Housekeeping in 1912. “Flying is a fine, dignified sport for women … and there is no reason to be afraid so long as one is careful.”

Careful she was. She advocated for safety and for the wearing of seat belts in aircraft. However, 11 months into her aviation career, during an exhibition flight, her plane jerked and she was thrown from it, falling to her death in front of hundreds of spectators. It was, perhaps, the theatrical death she might have wished for.

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