By Suzanne Norquist
A US postage stamp issued in 1991 shows Harriet Quimby flying a plane in her trademark purple aviator’s uniform.
She’s most well-known for being the first woman to receive a U.S. pilot’s certificate in 1911 and the first woman to fly over the English Channel in 1912.
After growing up on a farm in obscurity, she splashed into the public arena as a journalist in 1902. At twenty-seven years old, she seemed determined to live a larger-than-life adventure and share it with her readers.
Her career started in San Francisco when her family moved there. She was a journalist for the San Francisco Dramatic Review and also contributed to the Sunday editions of the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Call.
In 1903, she moved to Manhattan, New York, where she worked for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. Initially, she wrote theatrical reviews and articles about housekeeping. However, she longed for more exciting assignments. In 1906, she had the opportunity to ride in an open-air automobile at more than one hundred miles per hour. Two days before the Vanderbilt Cup Race, one of the racers took her for a ride. A hair-raising experience, for sure.
Of the automobile ride, she wrote:
… you did not hear the lever click into fourth speed, but you feel the car -zip!- for the fraction of a minute you are going a trifle over a hundred miles an hour. You think, if indeed you think at all, that if it goes much faster you will topple right over, but soon you begin to slow down, seventy, sixty, fifty. … …you manage to shout an answer to Lytle [the driver], who asks with exquisite sarcasm, at the top of his voice, "Was that fast enough?" and you enjoy the satisfaction of seeing him nearly fall over with surprise as you fire back "Twasn’t very fast; can’t you make one hundred and twenty?"
Of course, when Harriet visited the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament, she wanted to fly. And, so she did. At the show, she met John Moisant, a well-known aviator and operator of a flight school. She and his sister, Matilde Moisant, attended the school together.
At first, she intended to keep her flight lessons secret, but her story was big news when the press learned of it. So, she penned a series of articles herself, again taking her readers on the adventure.
On August 1, 1911, she became the first U.S. woman to earn an Aero Club of America aviator’s certificate. Soon after, Matilde Moisant became the second.
She quickly engaged in a number of firsts for women by flying over fifteen-thousand spectators on Staten Island, flying at night, and flying over Mexico. She participated in competitions and exhibition events, all the while writing about her experiences.
The press called her the “Dresden China Aviatrix” or “China Doll” because of her petite stature and fair skin. She set herself apart by wearing trousers tucked into high lace boots accentuated by a plum-colored satin blouse, necklace, and antique bracelet.
She became the spokesperson for Vin Fiz Company’s new grape soda.
On April 16, 1912, Quimby became the first woman to pilot an aircraft across the English Channel. Several friends tried to talk her out of it. A male pilot even offered to pretend to be her, even wearing the purple jumpsuit. She performed the feat and described it for all of her readers to experience with her.
I soon broke free of the cloud bank and there lay a white-sand beach and, beyond it, green farmland—France.
This accomplishment received very little media attention because the Titanic sank the day before. Articles about the Titanic filled the newspapers instead.
Unfortunately, shortly after her English Channel crossing, and only eleven months after receiving her pilots’ license, Harriet died in an accident while piloting a plane. The cause of the accident is uncertain. She was thirty-seven years old.
She lived well during those eleven months. In fact, she ensured that most of her adult life was a grand adventure which she shared with her readers. And, she wore purple, so she was my kind of gal.
”Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection
Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.
Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist
Rockledge, Colorado, 1884
Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?
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She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.