One such is Harriet Quimby whose greatest aviation achievement in a tragically short career was overshadowed by an event of even greater historical significance.
Quimby was born on a farm in Arcadia, Michigan, in 1875, and although she was to become a prolific writer, little is known about her early years as she didn’t write about herself or keep a journal.
However, it seems that the farm where she grew up failed towards the end of the 1800s and Quimby’s family moved to San Fransisco where she hoped to follow her interest in the theatre with a career in acting. Instead, she became a drama critic and found that journalism was her calling.
And Quimby was successful with the pen and by 1903 she had moved to New York after being headhunted by Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly where she made a name for herself as a photo-journalist.
Quimby was the epitome of the independent career woman of the time. She drove her own car and supported both herself and her parents and moved in influential circles of the great and the good.
Quimby’s infatuation with flying began in 1911 when she took her first lesson and quickly became the first woman in to hold a pilot’s licence in the United States.
It was a busy year for her. As well as learning to fly, she wrote seven screenplays for silent films to be directed by D W Griffiths and also toured the US and Mexico in her aeroplane dressed in the purple flying suit she designed herself. This distinctive suit led to her being hired by the Vin Fiz Company to promote their new grape soda.
But Quimby’s ambition was to become the first woman to pilot an aircraft across the English Channel. She kept her intentions secret to avoid any competition and took off from Dover on 16th April 1912 en route to Calais.
She completed the flight successfully in 59 minutes landing about 25 miles from Calais on a beach in Hardelot-Plage. However, her achievement received scant media attention because the papers were understandably full of news of the Titanic which sank the previous day.
Quimby returned to the US to take part in the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet at Squantum, Massachusetts on 1st July. She took off in her brand-new two-seat Bleriot monoplane with the event organiser, William Willard, in the passenger seat.
They flew out over Boston Harbour and returned to circle the airfield. At a height of 1,500 feet, the plane suddenly pitched forward and both Quimby and Willard were thrown out to fall to their deaths.
Ironically the plane glided down and landed itself, lodging in the mud, and nothing to explain the accident has ever been discovered.
Quimby’s aircraft was found stored in a barn in Laconia, New Hampshire in the 1960s and fully restored to flying condition. It can now be found at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Red Hook, New York.
A 1991 United States airmail postage stamp featured Quimby and in 2012 she was inducted into the Long Island Air and Space Hall of Fame.
Below is a short film about Harriet Quimby from the International Women’s Air and Space Museum.