The First Female to Fly Across the English Channel
Harriet Quimby was way ahead of her time in terms of what a woman could do and how she should live her life. As the first female to fly across the English Channel way back in 1912, she was an advocate for the emancipation of women.
As supporters of equality everywhere celebrate the centenary of the UK Parliament changing the law to grant women the vote, Quimby’s courage in standing against the typical early 20th century stereotype of a woman’s role in society should be celebrated.
Born in May 1875, in the small town of Arcadia on the shores of Lake Michigan, Quimby’s family moved to San Francisco, California, in search of a better life when she was in her teens. The ambitious young woman had been described, as a child, as being “full of verve” and “prepared to try anything”.
She wanted a career, rather than taking the traditional route of marrying and having children. San Francisco was the ideal place to pursue her dream, as it was a community filled with performers and bohemians. While she tried acting, she excelled at writing and this led her become a journalist.
Moving to Manhattan in 1903, she became a writer for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, where more than 250 of her articles were published in the ensuing nine years. However, Quimby still longed for more adventure and new challenges.
In 1911, she wrote five screenplays, all of which were accepted and made into silent movie shorts by Biograph Studios of New York. They were all directed by well-known film director DW Griffith and their stars included top silent film actresses, Florence La Badie and Blanche Sweet.
Quimby herself had a small acting role in a 1909 movie written by Griffith. ‘Lines of White on a Sullen Sea’ was the tale of a young woman from a fishing village, who waits in vain for six years for her beau to return from a life at sea, not knowing he has jilted her and married another woman.
Quimby played the role of a fisherwoman alongside a young Mary Pickford, who also had a small role before she went on to become one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses. The role of Emily was played by famous silent screen star Linda Arvidson, who later became a screenwriter herself.
Quimby’s career as one of Manhattan’s top journalists, along with her foray into acting and screenwriting, gave her the financial means to enjoy the type of lifestyle she craved. She had always been interested in automobiles and during her career as a journalist, she had enjoyed a 100mph trip in a racing car in 1906, as the basis of a newspaper article.
Thriving on the freedom of motor cars, she then became interested in aviation, but wasn’t satisfied just to write about the early aircraft. Instead, she decided to become an aviator herself. Her interest was born out of a trip around New York’s airfields and a visit to Los Angeles in pursuit of a newspaper feature about flying.
In 1910, she covered New York’s Belmont Air Meet, where she saw American pilot John Moisant win the race, in an exciting finish – he narrowly beat Count de Lesseps of France. Quimby reported that flying was something she wanted to take up and added, “I believe I can do it myself and I will!”
She persuaded Moisant to teach her to fly at his flying school and despite the tragedy of his death in a plane crash in December 1910, Quimby continued in her pursuit to become a pilot.
She asked the editor of Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly to fund her flying lessons in May 1911, in return for publication of her diary, chronicling how she was progressing in the male-dominated pursuit. Once the mass media discovered a woman was learning to fly, she became an instant sensation!
Her subsequent reports outlined everything from how an aircraft worked and learning about the equipment, to suitable attire for flying. Quimby was swept along in a national frenzy, receiving fan mail from readers. She was soon dubbed the “bird girl”.
On 1st August 1911, she took her pilot’s test, becoming the first woman in the US to earn the Aero Club of America Aviator’s Certificate. As well as becoming a pilot, she also became a cover girl for just about every publication in the world.
Quimby became the equivalent of today’s major celebrities in terms of media coverage and mass adoration from fans. She joined a flying exhibition group and then began competing in races, with her first cross-country flight win earning her $600 – the equivalent of $14,670 in today’s terms.
On 16th April 1912, Quimby began her biggest challenge ever! Taking off for a cross-channel flight from Dover to Calais, she completed the journey in only 59 minutes, landing on the Équihen-Plage beach in Pas-de-Calais. She was the first female pilot to fly a plane across the English Channel.
Sadly, the pioneering aviator was to die in a plane crash just three months later, at the annual Boston Aviation Meet on 1st July 1912 at Squantum, Massachusetts. After flying at an altitude of around 3,000 feet across Boston Harbour to the Boston Light, Quimby began her return flight to the airfield.
She and passenger, event organiser William Willard, travelled in her two-seater Bleriot airplane. However, the aircraft suddenly pitched forward when flying at around 1,000ft and both Quimby, aged 37, and Willard, 48, were ejected and fell to their death in front of 5,000 shocked spectators.
The plane came crashing down and lodged in mud on landing, around 300 feet from the shore. The reason for the accident was never discovered, although eye witnesses said afterwards that the plane had “almost stood on end” before plunging towards the ground at high speed.
Questions were asked as to why Quimby and Willard hadn’t been properly strapped in, as she was a safety-conscious pilot, who wrote of the importance of safety and carrying out checks before take-off.
Whatever the cause of the tragedy, Quimby’s memory as a pioneering adventurer way ahead of her time lives on, inspiring female aviators such as Amelia Earhart, Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Jackie Cochran to pursue their dreams.
She had assured the world that aviation was here to stay and that it was not a passing fad. She even encouraged more men to become pilots, as they had the attitude, “If a woman can do it, so can I!”
Thanks to her lasting impact on aviation, Harriet Quimby had a 1991 US airmail postage stamp produced in her honour. She is also immortalised in two Michigan historical markers – one in Coldwater near her birthplace, and the second near her childhood home in Arcadia.
She was an inductee of the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2004. A century after her untimely death, she was also inducted into Long Island Air and Space Hall of Fame in 2012.
First World Wide Web
It was Microsoft founder Bill Gates who recognised how important the airplane was to the world’s evolution. He described it as the “first World Wide Web”, as it brings people, languages, values and ideas together.
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