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In the summer of 1910, photojournalist Harriet Quimby joined an Aero Club that made model airplanes. Some of its members were to become notable aircraft inventors and aviators, including A. Leo Stevens and Lilian Todd. The following year, Quimby became America’s first licensed female pilot and exhibition flier. Other aviators chose bi-planes built by Curtiss and Wright, but Quimby once quipped that she felt it prudent to follow nature’s design of birds, which had one set of wings. Her training and exhibition flights were in Bleriot-type monoplanes, copied from the French factory-built aircraft designed by Louis Bleriot. In the spring of 1912, Quimby arrived in England with a goal to become the first woman to solo across the English Channel. Her plan was to borrow a Bleriot from the famous French flier and make his 1909 flight in reverse, taking off from the cliffs of Dover at the narrowest distance over the channel to Calais, France. Meanwhile, the European press was preoccupied with the debut of the Star Line’s luxury liner, RMS Titanic. On April 1, 1912, the Titanic passed its sea trials and headed for Southampton, England, to pick up passengers. That same day, the skies over the English Channel cleared just long enough for England’s famous aviator, Gustav Hamel, to fly Eleanor Trehawke-Davies from England to France, making her the first woman to cross the channel by air. Although a passenger and not at the controls, it was enough to steal much of Quimby’s thunder. As she waited in the south of England, Quimby did not let the foul weather nor this news impede her resolve.Two weeks later, with predictions for a few days of clear weather, Quimby was eager to make her flight. Although experienced in monoplane types, she had never flown a factory-built Bleriot, and missed her chances to make test flights prior to her cross-channel attempt. On the morning of April 15, Quimby and the rest of the world was shocked to read that more than 1,500 people had lost their lives when the Titanic sank after striking an iceberg. As a New Yorker, Quimby probably knew some of the victims personally, if not by association as a reporter.Nevertheless, the following day, April 16, she went forward with her own entry into the history books. Her flight was perilous, and others had died making the effort. Without a parachute, safety belt or life vest, Quimby’s only precaution was a pontoon that Bleriot affixed to the fuselage in case of a water landing. From the cliffs of Dover, Quimby flew more than 25 miles in about one hour, making a beach landing near Equihen, France. Her flight had been perilous, in extreme cold and over treacherous waters.
Harriet Quimby (May 11th, 1875 – July 1st, 1912)
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Exulting in her personal triumph, Quimby returned to the U.S. several weeks later. Headlines continued to be dominated by the Titanic disaster, and her achievement was not celebrated with major recognition at the time. Eager to join in the Harvard-Boston Air Meet, Quimby was soon back on Long Island and making test flights in her newly purchased two-seat, 70hp Bleriot. It was to be her last public appearance.On July 1, 1912, Quimby and her passenger were both thrust out of their seats and fell to their deaths as she flew an exhibition flight around the Boston Light in Massachusetts. A design flaw in the tail assembly was later determined to be cause of the sudden mid-air imbalance which Quimby could not control. This had not been the first accident of its type, and Bleriot thereafter improved the elevator design.
The time is coming when we shall find the means of transportation by bird-like flights as safe and satisfactory as transportation by steamship or locomotive and with still greater speed. This is not to be accomplished by racing or doing circus tricks in the air at aviation meets.- Harriet Quimby, Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, 1911