Harriet Quimby was born in Michigan in 1875, to William and Ursula Quimby. She grew up in California where, during her formative years, was highly influenced by women who broke traditional stereotypical roles. She became an actress, and authored several screenplays that became silent film shorts, but eventually found she was better suited as a writer, so she went to work for the San Francisco Dramatic Review. At home with the diverse crowd that made up the entertainment circles, she became a well-known and respected journalist. Eventually, she yearned for more excitement and in 1903, moved to bustling New York City where she worked for a number of publications including Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, as staff writer, photographer, and drama critic. Her travels took her to a number of countries including Mexico, Egypt, Iceland, Europe and Cuba.
Quimby had developed a fascination with the automobile, and in 1906, participated in a race in which the car she was riding in reached speeds of 100 miles per hour. Afterward, she published a piece titled, “A Woman’s Exciting Ride In A Racing Motor-Car".
“You are now going at about seventy miles an hour, and you feel the swift currents of air produced by the mad flight of the machine… A curve and a sharp angle there are thirteen curves on the course- you slow down to about fifty, and the car careens virtually on one wheel, and the whole machine seems lifted up in the air and comes down to earth again with a jump. You are so busy with the register, your hat, and the corner that you did not hear the lever click into fourth speed, but you feel the car -zip! – for the fraction of a minute you are going a trifle over a hundred miles an hour.
You think, if indeed you think at all, that if it goes much faster you will topple right over, but soon you begin to slow down, seventy, sixty, fifty. Why you seem to actually crawl along at fifty an hour, and although every nerve in your body is quivering and you have just enough strength to hang on to the strap, you manage to shout an answer to Lytle, who asks with exquisite sarcasm, at the top of his voice, “Was that fast enough?” and you enjoy the satisfaction of seeing him nearly fall over with surprise as you fire back “Twasn’t very fast; can’t you make one hundred and twenty?”
(Click here to read the original article in its entirety!)
As much as Quimby loved the speed of the automobile, as is evident in her published piece, she loved the freedom offered by flying more, and after watching American flyer John Moisant fly across a finish line so effortlessly and gracefully, she was determined that she could do it, too. She managed to convince her employer that they should pay for her flying lessons, reminding them that she would be sharing the adventures with her readers. She took to aviation and learned the ropes quite easily. As word spread that a woman was learning to fly, Quimby gained quite a following and she received a number of letters of support from her fans.
In 1911, after 33 lessons that spanned four months, and with just over four hours of flight time in a 30 hp Blériot-type monoplane, Harriet Quimby took her flight exam and passed, becoming the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license. From that moment, when flying, she donned a very stylish plum-colored satin flying suit which consisted of trousers tucked into high-laced boots, a long sleeved blouse, choker collar and hood.
After earning her pilot's license she became part of the Moisant International Aviators, an exhibition flying team, and competed in a number of events. She won her first cross-country race, and became the first woman to fly a plane at night. She penned an article about her experience earning her pilot's license in an article, "How I Won My Aviator's License" (Click here to read).
In April 1912, Harriet Quimby departed Dover, England for Calais, France, making the flight in just under one hour, and becoming the first woman to pilot an aircraft across the English Channel. However, her feat was overshadowed by the sinking of the Titanic a day earlier.
A seasoned traveler and adventurer, Quimby continued to travel around the country, chronicling her adventures and speaking to audiences about her experiences. She quickly became one of the most influential pilots of the time, inspiring women everywhere to dream of experiencing the freedom of flight.
In a 1912 Good Housekeeping article, Quimby spoke about aviation as a “sport for women”. She said, “There is no sport that affords the same amount of excitement and enjoyment, and exacts in return to little muscular strength. It is easier than walking, driving or automobiling; easier than golf or tennis…Flying is a fine, dignified sport for women…and there is no reason to be afraid so long as one is careful.” Quimby was known by all to be a very cautious and safe aviator. She was adamant about conducting pre-flight checks and the use of seat belts.
Harriet Quimby was at the top, enjoying a life of fascinating exploits and adventure when it all came to a sudden, tragic end. On July 1, 1912, while participating in the Harvard-Boston Aviation Meet, where she was one of the main attractions, Quimby set out in her brand new Blériot monoplane with the event's organizer William Willard, who had won a coin toss to fly with her. They flew for twenty minutes and circled the field, climbing to a height of 6,000 feet when suddenly, as the plane was in a steep glide and starting a turn toward the left to make a final approach to the field, Willard tumbled out of his cockpit seat, followed by Quimby. Both died instantly when they landed in the shallow water below. The exact cause of the accident was never determined.
Though Harriet Quimby died young, her legacy lives on. Her courage and fierce determination influenced some of America's greatest and most famous women aviators, and she will never be forgotten.