Jul 14

Aerial pioneer Harriet Quimby

Harriet Quimby with her trainer craft, the Moisant monoplane.

Fearless, flamboyant and famous Harriet Quimby was the first American woman to be licensed as a pilot.
She was the first person to be licensed to fly a monoplane and the first woman to fly across the English Channel.
Her daring aerial feats inspired a young Amelia Earhart, and both would later be memorialized on U.S.  postage stamps.
Miss Quimby  said she was born May 1, 1884 in Arroyo Grande.
Probably false.

While Quimby claimed to have been born in Arroyo Grande but definitive documentation remains elusive. She was a great self promoter in addition to being a pioneer but all we have at this point is what was said.
A clipping from the Telegram-Tribune files from October 29, 1980 tells the tale of Mary Giambalvo’s efforts to honor the pioneer pilot. Giambalvo had been researching a paper in the Cal Poly library when the words ‘Arroyo Grande’ leaped off the page.

More recent authors and internet researchers place her family near Coldwater, Michigan and a birth date of May 11, 1875.
Her family moved early in her life and they may have lived in Arroyo Grande or visited but according to about.com her name appears in the 1900 census in San Franciso, listed as an actress. Soon she was writing for the daily newspaper the San Francisco Bulletin.
By 1903 she was in New York working as a drama critic and writer for the popular women’s journal Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. She traveled the world, Europe, Mexico, Cuba and Egypt writing over 250 articles for Leslie’s. She also wrote seven screenplays for filmmaker D.W. Grifith.

She covered a flying tournament in 1910 and became enamored to the sport.
Quimby, an independent woman who drove her own car, began taking flying lessons. She continued the lessons despite the death of her first teacher in a flying accident.
August 1, 1911 she passed her pilot’s test and was awarded license #37 from the Aero Club of America. She was the second woman in the world to be licensed.

Harriet Quimby cut a dashing figure in plum-colored satin, lined with wool.
Her April 16, 1912 flight across the English Channel in fog was a major accomplishment given the primitave state of aeronautics. Unfortunately her feat was overshadowed by the sinking of the Titanic two days earlier.
Her exploits attracted a sponsor, the Vin Fiz  grape soda put her picture in their advertising after the death of a previous celebrity pilot, Calbraith Perry Rodgers. Not unlike today’s drink makers who try to leverage celebrity.

Her flying career would last exactly 11 months and end in tragedy.

She had hoped to set a record for women’s high altitude flying that day but it was not to be.

The story was on the front page of the New York Times. Quimby was flying in a Boston air show. Quoting the first few paragraphs from the Page 1 story:

BOSTON, July 1. — Falling from a height of 1,000 feet into Dorchester Bay soon after 6 o’clock to-night, Miss Harriet Quimby of New York, the first woman to gain an aviator’s license in America and the first woman to cross the English Channel in an aeroplane which she operated herself, met instant and terrible death. With her was killed her passenger, William A.P. Willard, manager of the avation meet at Atlantic and father of Charles P. Willard, the aviator.
Five thousand spectators witnessed the accident, which occurred as the machine, a Biériot monoplane, was volplaning down toward the aviation grounds. Miss Quimby and Willard were thrown from their seats as the machine suddenly turned almost perpendicular in the air and two bodies turned over and over as they shot downward. Both victims were found terribly crushed when extricated from the mud of the shallow bay into which they had sunk deeply.

Various contributing factors have been offered to to explain the accident.
•  Broken or tangled wires on the monoplane
•  Wind gust
•  Lack of seatbelts
•  Willard suddenly shifted his substantial weight contributing to loss of control
•  Pilot error

There was no federal investigation in the early days of private flight accidents and though the plane was recovered nearly intact there was no definitive cause agreed upon.

Mary Giambalvo — herself a pilot — said in a recent e-mail that there has been no movement toward an Arroyo Grande memorial for the pilot. Unless new information comes to light confirming the clouded Arroyo Grande origins for Harriet Quimby it appears unlikely.
The Daily Telegram of July 3, 1912 ran a story on page 4, too far back inside the paper for a famous local native daughter, but the headline claims that she was born in California.
The origins of Miss Harriet Quimby remain elusive.

Here are a collection of Quimby links not included above:





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