Harriet Quimby was the first of a generation of women that helped pave the way for women in aviation today. Before Amelia Earhart, Quimby was the female pilot that stole America’s hearts. Her aviation career escalated quickly, from the time she first became interested in aviation in 1910 to her tragic death in 1912.
Her first aviation experience was at the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament in Long Island, New York, where she met the “King of Aviators,” John Moisant. Moisant was a pilot, aeronautical engineer, flight instructor and businessman who ran his own flight school at the time. Quimby convinced him to teach her how to fly, and less than a year later, Quimby received her pilot’s license, making her the first woman to earn an Aero Club of America aviator’s certificate, or in simpler terms, the first woman to receive a pilot’s license in the U.S.
Immediately after attaining her license, she joined the exhibition circuit and skyrocketed to fame, taking part in aviation meets from the U.S. to Mexico. She often wore a signature purple satin flight suit, decked out in flashy jewelry, making her easy to spot among the crowds. She was soon approached to take over as the spokesperson for Vin Fiz, a new grape soda, in 1912, making her purple flight suit that much more recognizable.
As if that wasn’t enough, in April of 1912, Quimby became the first woman to fly across the English Channel, which she did in just under an hour. She convinced the London Daily Mirror to fund the flight in exchange for exclusive coverage of the event. Coincidentally, the sinking of the Titanic had taken place the day before, hogging most of the media’s attention at the time. She made the flight in a Bleriot monoplane, pictured below.
Throughout 1911, Quimby wrote screenplays for short films in Hollywood, all of which were directed by D.W. Griffith. She is credited for writing Sunshine Through the Dark, The Blind Princess and the Poet, His Mother’s Scarf, The Broken Cross and Fisher Folks. Shortly after her death, she starred in the documentary about her own flight across the English Channel, The Late Harriet Quimby’s Flight Across the English Channel.
Sadly, Quimby’s illustrious aviation career lasted just 11 months, ending with a fatal accident over Boston Harbor during the third annual Boston Aviation Meet. She and her copilot, the manager of the event, were inexplicably thrown from the plane in midair as the aircraft lurched forward, sending both of them to their deaths.
Since her death, Quimby has been featured on a U.S. postage stamp, she’s been memorialized in Coldwater, Michigan and Manistee County, Michigan, and was inducted into the Long Island Air and Space Hall of Fame in 2012.