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Reflections from Faith and History

America’s First Lady of the Air

By Jeff Olson

When it comes to women in aviation, Amelia Earhart is probably the first name which comes to mind for most Americans. However, one name which may have escaped us is that of a lady who inspired, among others, Earhart herself.

Harriet Quimby was born in Arcadia, Michigan on May 1, 1875. Her family moved to San Francisco in the early 1900s. As a child, Quimby had been described as a “tomboy full of verve and spunk who was prepared to try anything.” Harriet had always dreamed of becoming a journalist, so in 1902 she took a job as a writer for the Dramatic Review. The following year she moved to New York City where she began writing for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. There, she was the drama critic writing reviews of plays, the circus, comedians, and moving pictures. She also wrote articles advising women on their careers, on auto repairs, and on household tips. In addition, she served as a photojournalist, traveling to Europe, Mexico, Cuba, and Egypt.

Harriet was well into a successful career in journalism – that is until she attended the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament on Long Island, New York in 1910. There she met Matilde Moisant and her brother John, a well-known American aviator and operator of a flight school at Mineola. It was John who most inspired Harriet to pursue flying – which in her words, appeared “…quite easy. I believe I can do it myself, and I will.”

Sure enough, Harriet learned to fly and on August 1, 1911 she became the first American woman to earn a pilot’s certificate. Soon afterward, she joined the Moisant International Aviators, an exhibition team with whom she traveled to Mexico and became the first woman to fly over Mexico City.

In 1912 Harriet borrowed a 50-horsepower Bleriot monoplane from Louis Bleriot and began preparations for an English Channel flight. One hundred seven years ago this past week, April 16, 1912 (the day after the Titanic sunk), she flew from Dover, England to Hardelot, France – becoming the first woman to pilot a plane solo across the English Channel. Even though it was only a 25 mile flight, keep in mind that this was just 8 years after the Wright Brother’s first flight. Amelia Earhart later described Quimby’s crude aircraft as “hardly more than a winged skeleton with a motor.” Three months later, on July 1, 1912 during an aviation meet, Harriet died in a flying accident at Dorchester Harbor near Boston.

For her bold and inspirational pioneering spirit and lasting impact on aviation and aviators, Harriet Quimby is considered “America’s First Lady of the Air” and is enshrined into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

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