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Today in history… first woman to fly English Channel

12:00am & Lifestyle

Most people have heard of pioneering female aviators Amy Johnson and Amelia Earheart whose aerial exploits thrilled the world in the 1930s, but what about Harriet Quimby?

You may not have heard of the remarkable Miss Quimby, but those better-known female flyers certainly had, because to them she was a heroine and an inspiration.

On April 16th, 1912, at the age of 36, she became the first woman to fly across the English Channel, piloting a single-seat wood and canvas Bleriot XI monoplane. Taking off from Dover she made for Calais, although her aircraft, powered by a single 30 horsepower engine, was subject to being blown off-course in even fairly light winds.

She made the crossing in 59 minutes, landing successfully on a wide beach at Equihen-Plage, about 25 miles from Calais. It was less than three years since Louis Bleriot himself had made the first ever crossing of the Channel by air, grabbing headlines around the world and winning a £1,000 prize put up by The Daily Mail, equivalent to around £110,000 today.

There was no such cash prize for Harriet Quimby, or even the headlines. The tragic sinking of the RMS Titanic the previous day filled the world’s newspapers, almost totally eclipsing her achievement. But she did have the honour of achieving a world-first, and pioneer aviators around the globe applauded her success.

Born on May 11th, 1875, Harriet Quimby was an American, raised in Arcadia Township, Michigan. After her family moved to San Francisco, California, in the early 1900s, she became a journalist, moving to New York City in 1903 to become a celebrated theatre critic. She became interested in flying in 1910 after attending an international aviation tournament on New York’s Long Island.

It was there that she met aviator John Moisant, who operated a flying school on Long Island with his brother, Alfred, and sister, Matilde. Together they encouraged Harriet’s interest, teaching her the basics of flying. On August 1st, 1911, she took her pilot’s test and became the first woman to earn an Aero Club of America aviator’s certificate. Matilde, who had become friends with Harriet, took her test on August 17th to become the club’s second licensed female aviator.

Harriet was clearly a hard worker. Also in 1911, she wrote seven short screenplays and scenarios which were made into silent film shorts by Biograph Studios. They were directed by D.W. Griffith, who would become a giant or early film-making and cinema.

Harriet’s channel crossing 106 years ago today was especially brave given that her friend, Matilde, had suffered serious injuries when her plane crashed in Texas just two days earlier. Although Matilde recovered and lived to the age of 85, she never flew again. Harriet knew only too well that crashing into the English Channel could mean death, but she flew on anyway.

Her success brought her some fame and she was recruited to endorse and promote a new American grape soda, ‘Vin Fiz’, appearing in several advertisements wearing a distinctive purple flying suit. She had plans for other flying adventures, but less than three months after crossing the Channel, her life was cut tragically short.

On July 1st, 1912, she was flying in the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet, in Massachusetts, piloting a brand new two-seater version of the Bleriot XI monoplane. With the event’s organiser, William Willard, as her passenger, she flew out to Boston Light (a lighthouse in Boston Harbor) at about 3,000 feet, then returned to circle the airfield, dropping to around 1,000 feet to give the crowd a better view.

While circling, and for reasons still unknown, her aircraft suddenly pitched forward, catapulting both Harriet and her passenger from their seats. This was before aircraft harnesses or parachutes were widely used and they both fell to their deaths, while the aircraft glided down and lodged itself in the mud of Boston Harbor.

It was a tragic end to an all-too-brief flying career in which Harriet Quimby not only achieved two significant ‘firsts’, but inspired a new generation of female aviators who would ‘fly in her footsteps’ and achieve what she could not.

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