The morning of April 16, 1912 was still and cold in England. Thick, black clouds floated low overhead. At a narrow airfield a few miles from Dover a 28-year-old American woman named Harriet Quimby bundled herself into a long, gray wool overcoat, a raincoat and a heavy sealskin stole. She pulled on a pair of thick gray gloves and climbed nimbly into the cockpit of a frail monoplane. The few onlookers watched with foreboding as the tiny plane disappeared in the murk—Miss Quimby was attempting a feat as daring in its day as the invasion of space half a century later.
An editor of Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, Harriet Quimby had learned to fly in 10 minutes only the year before. With a month's practice behind her, she had defied all the conventions of the times and applied for a pilot's license. On August 1, 1911, after long and heated debate over "setting a precedent by granting a pilot's license to a woman," the Aero Club of America awarded her license No. 37.
"Miss Quimby," said a newspaper account, "passed all tests brilliantly, including altitude and the difficult one of cutting figures of eight. One would never suspect to see her, or hear her talk, that she would manipulate an aeroplane or go into the air alone. But she is absolutely fearless in a flying machine."
Immediately after she became America's first aviatrix, Miss Quimby toured the United States and Mexico in a series of exhibition flights.
"Flying is just the sport for women," she said. "It's splendid for the complexion, and all that fresh air must be good for anybody!"
Her flying costume, consisting of purple satin knickerbockers, blouse and hood, was very becoming to her trim figure and pert, dark-eyed beauty. With it she wore high laced boots and, around her neck on an antique silver chain, a tiny East Indian idol that was her flying talisman.
She was obviously quite a great attraction, but with other women following her lead in flying, the novelty started to wear off. Harriet decided on a flight that would command headlines and if successful make her undisputed Queen of the Air. She would fly the English Channel—a flight no woman had yet dared. (The Channel had been crossed the first time only three years earlier.)
Keeping her plans secret, Harriet sailed to England in March, 1912. There she persuaded the London Daily Mirror to back her flight. Louis Bl�riot agreed to loan her a 50-hp monoplane, a type Harriet had never flown. Concerned only with being the first woman to fly the English Channel, she brushed aside his suggestion of a trial flight.
Harriet was at the flying field before dawn on April 16. A mauve silk motor veil, wound loosely round her cap, floated out behind her as she moved. "I wear that to show I'm a woman if people see me flying up high," she said.
Gustave Hamel, the English aviator, made a quick flight to try out the engine. He reported it perfect but said the clouds were so low that Miss Quimby must fly by compass. Harriet, completely unconcerned, announced that she had never used a compass and saw no reason to do so.