First woman to fly across the channel – 16th April 1912

Thanks to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, whose Facebook page prompted that today is the anniversary of Harriet Quimby flying solo across the English Channel.

Harriet Quimby, 1911

Harriet Quimby, 1912
By Bain (Library of Congress). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Previously a journalist and also a screenwriter, Quimby was the first woman to gain a pilot’s license in the United States, and was the subject of much media attention for her daring. She was sponsored by the Vin Fiz company to be a spokesperson for its grape soda, and wore a purple flight suit as part of the arrangement.

The Vin Fiz company was no stranger to aeronautical sponsorship, having sponsored Calbraith Perry Rodgers’ coast to coast flight across the USA in the fall of 1911 in the Wright Model EX Biplane the Vin Fiz Flyer. Rodgers died in a crash in California April 1912.

Quimby’s flight from Dover to Calais did not attract as much media attention as her previous flying activity, coming as it did a day after the loss of  RMS Titanic on its maiden Voyage to the United States.

Her career was tragically cut short in July, 1912 when the two-seat Blériot she was flying at the Boston Aviation Meet in Squantum,  Massachusetts  suddenly pitched forward, and ejected her and event organizer William Willard from the cockpit at an altitude of 1500 feet. Both were killed.

The Wikipedia article on Quimby says it is possible that the Blériot XI she was flying on the day of her death was found and restored to flight by Cole Palen at his flying museum at Old Rhinebeck, NY in the 1960s.    This is tantalizingly plausible, but another writer, Pat Trenner in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Magazine, thinks it is unlikely.  Significantly,  the Old Rhinebeck machine is a single-seater. Trenner’s conclusion is that while the 1909 Blériot may have attended the Boston meet, there is no evidence to suggest a connection with Quimby.

The Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island, NY has an original Blériot XI (construction number 153) in its collection which was the first aircraft to be imported into the United States.  It is displayed with a female mannequin wearing a purple flight suit standing alongside it.

Harriet Quimby at the controls of a Blériot XI.

Harriet Quimby at the controls of a Blériot XI.
George Grantham Bain collection, Library of Congress. No known restrictions.