Harriet Quimby – Myth Obscured by Legend

20 April 2012

This is a few days late but perhaps that, after all, is not altogether inappropriate. The American lady pictured, Harriet Quimby became, one hundred years ago this week, the first woman to fly the English Channel.  However, her remarkable achievement was overlooked by a great deal of the media – they had other things on their mind that day.

Quimby flew the Channel on 16 April 1912.  On any normal day she would have made front page news and been lauded by the press, especially considering her glamorous movie star looks.  However, on 15 April, the day before her flight, a certain RMS Titanic had sunk.  Quimby’s groundbreaking flight was lucky if it got a mention.

Born in Arcadia, Michigan, the young Harriet Quimby moved to the bustling metropolis of San Francisco where she trained as a journalist. She moved to New York in 1910 to pursue her career and it was there that she fell in love with the nascent art of flying. She gained her pilot’s license the very next year, becoming the first American woman to earn an Aero Club of America aviator's certificate.

Never one to hang around for history, Quimby made her record attempt the next year, in the April of 1912.  She completed her flight from Dover to Calais in just fifty nine minutes, although she landed about thirty miles away from Calais.

She had created her own myth just hours before the Titanic became legend.

1912 was not to be her year to say the very least.  Later, on the first day of July, she participated in an aviation meet in Massachussetts.  William Willard, who had organized the event, flew out with her as a passenger - the picture above shows them just before take off. Minutes later they would both be dead.

The pair flew up to 3,000 feet with grace and ease. After circling the airfield they descended to 1,500 feet but it was then that tragedy struck. Remarkably, photographs exist (above) of the frantic rush to reach Quimby's body to see if any help could at all be given.

No one has ever been able to explain why Quimby’s brand new Bleriot Monoplane suddenly pitched, throwing both Willard and Quimby from their seats.  They fell to their deaths. 

Quimby was thirty seven when she plummeted to earth, a record breaker who became an unfortunate footnote in the story of aviation.

Yet she should be a much more well known name and through this we hope to help ensure that Harriet is not hidden from history!

First Image San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives


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