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July 11, 2010

'Harriet Quimby'

Special thanks to Marci Hersel for her illustration. To see more of her work, visit

July 11, 2010|By Marcia Lynch
  • "Harriet Quimby"
"Harriet Quimby" (Marci Hersel )

Harriet hurried to work at the newspaper office. As a columnist for Leslie's Weekly Newspaper, she was always on the go. And boy, did she intend to go places.

She was tall and slender and her brown hair floated on the breeze. She was dressed elegantly and always ready with a grin. As she rushed by her editor's office she heard his deep voice. "Hey, Harriet! Or should I say 'woman in trousers' ?"

Harriet laughed and peered into the office. "So you read it."

" The New York Times, May 11, 1911, page 6, 'Woman in trousers daring aviator; Long Island folk discover that Miss Harriet Quimby is making flights at Garden City.' "

"All I have to say is this: There's nothing like flying. It's like riding in a high powered automobile. Only you don't worry about how fast you're going or whether or not you'll get a ticket from a policeman. And get this — it's easy!"

Harriet Quimby was many things: actor, screenwriter, journalist and aviator. Flying was her joy and passion.

But she was always careful. Especially today. She said landing instructions out loud, "Shove in the black throttle knob to reduce power. Pull the stick back as I cross the boundary fence of the airfield. Keep the plane's nose up high so it stalls at just the right moment. The tail's wheel must meet the ground first. I did it! I'm on the ground."

"Congratulations, Harriet," John Moisant said. He watched as she shifted her body to avoid the many wires and cables in the open-cockpit plane as she prepared to climb out. Then he helped the slender, dark-eyed woman to the ground.

He shook her hand as he said, with an air of pride and gallantry, "Today, Aug. 1, 1911, you've become the first licensed woman pilot in the United States."

Some time later, she decided to fly across the English Channel. The crossing was filled with danger. Harriet's monoplane was made out of wood, fabric, wires and cables — not metal like the planes today. The weather was cold and foggy. If she didn't guide her plane exactly right, she could wind up in the North Sea.

On April 16, 1912, Harriet, using only a compass, flew from Dover, England, to Calais, France. That day, with the purple hood partially hiding her face, a radiant Harriet Quimby stepped out of her plane onto French soil. She wore the trademark purple flying suit she had designed herself.

"I didn't land exactly where I planned, but I'm the first woman to cross the English Channel."

Harriet thought back about her first contact with the world of flying: "My life changed when I went to the Belmont Park International Aviation Tournament [in 1910]. I knew instantly I wanted to learn to fly. I went to many flying schools, but the instructors wouldn't teach a woman. I was so discouraged. But I refused to give up. I kept going to other airfields and finally met John and Matilde Moisant at their flying school. Matilde convinced her brother to teach me. I loved the lessons, both on the ground and in the air."

Amelia Earhart was inspired by Harriet. She said, "To cross the Channel in 1912 required more bravery and skill than to cross the Atlantic today ... we must remember that, in thinking of America's first great woman's flier's accomplishment."

Recommended reading: "Brave Harriet: The First Woman to Fly the English Channel," by Marissa Moss.

Special thanks to Marci Hersel for her illustration. To see more of her work, visit

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