The officials of the Aero Club of America, the licensing agency for American pilots, were reluctant, but there was no gainsaying that she had passed the test with some fine flying. So Harriet Quimby became the 37th licensed pilot in the United States, the first female licensed pilot in the United States, and the second female licensed pilot in the world, on August 1, 1911.
Born in 1875, Quimby had made a name for herself as a journalist and a theater critic. In 1911 she wrote seven silent film screenplays that were made into movies by up and coming director DW Griffith.
Not adverse to publicity, she wore a striking purple pilot’s uniform and was the spokeswoman for Vin Fiz grape soda. She became something of a media sensation, being called the Queen of the Air in the newspapers on occasion.
However, she also had solid ability as a pilot in the infant world of aeronautics. On April 16, 1912 she became the first female to fly across the English Channel. Several male pilots had already lost their lives while attempting the same feat.
Like so many of her male compatriots, however, her career as a pilot was a short one. On July 1, 1912 she was flying in the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet at Squantum, Massachusetts. She was flying a Bleriot XI monoplane and had the Meet manager William A.P. Willard as a passenger. After a 20 minute flight they were returning to land at Harvard Field when the plane suddenly pitched forward, and horrified onlookers saw first Willard and then Quimby catapulted over the engine, plummeting to their deaths a thousand feet into the Neoponset River. Ironically the plane then glided to the ground, practically unscathed. The cause of the accident remains open to speculation but I think the reasoning of Quimby’s mechanic, Hardy, is persuasive: ‘I personally tested every screw, bolt. and wire before we pushed the machine from the hangar. ‘I always did that for I would never allow Miss Quimby to get into the seat, much less allow her to carry a passenger, unless I was satisfied that every part of the machine was perfect. But what could have happened? I can only say what has always happened to Blériot monoplanes …. Most of the accidents to Blériot types have happened almost always alike. They all have lost their balance.’ Several pilots in France flying the Bleriot had lost their lives in similar mishaps.
And so passed Harriet Quimby, who wrote a brief, but memorable, early passage in the history of American aviation.