On this day in 1912, Harriet Quimby becomes the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Perhaps she’s the most famous female aviator you’ve never heard of? Not only was she the first to make the then-dangerous trip across the Channel, but she was also the first woman to fly at night, and the first American woman to earn her pilot’s license.
Quimby’s aviation career began, oddly enough, because she was a journalist.
The ambitious young woman was living in New York when her magazine decided to devote one issue to aviation. Quimby attended an international air show, thinking she would write about it. Instead, she discovered a love of flying that ultimately led her to flight school—and a pilot’s license. She was the first American woman to earn one—and the second worldwide.
Quimby was soon making a splash at air shows, but she wanted more, too. No woman had ever piloted a plane across the English Channel. Quimby was determined to be the first. She needed funding and a plane, but she convinced London’s Daily Mirror to sponsor her. She also got herself introduced to famed aviator Louis Blériot, and she borrowed one of his monoplanes.
Quimby was getting antsy. She’d hadn’t yet tested the plane because of uncooperative weather, but she didn’t want another woman to beat her to the punch, either. Perhaps that explains the risk she took on April 16, 1912?
The day opened with patchy fog and dicey weather. Quimby had never flown the plane, never flown long-distance over water, and had only just learned to use a compass. If she flew even 5 miles off course, she could be forever lost in the North Sea.
The task was so difficult that a British pilot offered to don Quimby’s distinctive plum-colored satin suit, pretend to be her, and fly across the Channel. They could switch places on the other side, he said. No one would ever know.
What an infuriating offer! “I was annoyed from the start,” Quimby said, “by the attitude of doubt on the part of the spectators . . . . [It] made me more determined than ever to succeed.”
Quimby departed at 5:30 a.m. in fog that “quickly surrounded me, like a cold, wet, gray blanket.” She climbed to a higher altitude but couldn’t clear it. “There was only one thing for me to do,” she concluded, “and that was to keep my eyes fixed on my compass.”
She flew for more than an hour, in an open cockpit, unable to see. Finally, her watch told her that she should be close. As she descended, she broke free of the clouds and fog. “[S]unlight struck upon my face,” she said, “and my eyes lit upon the white and sandy shores of France.”
Quimby was soon surrounded by a crowd of locals, but it was the biggest celebration she’d get. Back home, big news was breaking because the Titanic had just been lost. Quimby’s accomplishment got lost in the shuffle.
Quimby’s story ended tragically just a few months later. She’d taken the manager of a local air meet, William Willard, up for a quick flight. As they returned, the plane’s tail unexpectedly rose high up in the air, throwing Willard out. Another unexpected pitch threw Quimby out, too.
Simple seat belts would have saved them both.
Quimby’s career had been cut short far too soon, but her influence was more long-lasting. Female aviators such as Amelia Earhart found her inspirational.
“Without any of the modern instruments, in a plane which was hardly more than a winged skeleton with a motor,” Earhart wrote, “and one, furthermore, with which [Quimby] was totally unfamiliar, to cross the Channel in 1912 required more bravery and skill than to cross the Atlantic today. Always we must remember that . . . .”
Aerospace Pioneers: Harriet Quimby (Federal Aviation Administration website) (click on her name, HERE)
Eileen F. Lebow, Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation (2003)
Harriet Quimby (The National Aviation Hall of Fame)
Henry M. Holden, Her Mentor Was an Albatross: The Autobiography of Pioneer Pilot Harriet Quimby (1993)
Joyce Duncan, Ahead of Their Time: A Biographical Dictionary of Risk-taking Women (2001)
Karen Bush Gibson, Women Aviators: 26 Stories of Pioneer Flights, Daring Missions, and Record-Setting Journeys (2013)