Jill Tallman

Thanks, Harriet

August 2, 2011 by Jill W. Tallman, Associate Editor

Like me, Harriet Quimby worked in newspapers for awhile and became intrigued by aviation through the pages of a magazine. That’s pretty much where our similiarities end.

Quimby was writing for something called Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly in 1910 when the magazine published an article promoting an upcoming international “air meet” at Belmont Park in New York. She went, watched the pilots, decided that flying didn’t look too difficult, and started taking lessons. On Aug. 1, 1911, she became the first U.S. licensed female pilot.

It sounds so cut and dried, but I find myself thinking about what she must have experienced to earn that title. Start with the clothes. She couldn’t wear pants, nor would she wear “harem-style” skirts that French female pilots favored. According to Eileen F. Lebow’s excellent book, Before Amelia, Quimby designed her own flying costume: a plum-colored wool suit that converted from knickerbockers that could be tucked into boots to a full skirt by undoing some buttons. If I had to design a completely new type of clothing for something I wanted to do, I’d probably take up knitting instead.

Some things Quimby experienced will sound very familiar to today’s aviators. Interviewed by the New York newspapers when she earned her ticket, she was asked about “the months of predawn rising, the inconvenience of weather, the expense”–was it worth it? Apparently so. She later became the first woman to fly across the English Channel, and would have been the first woman to participate in air mail delivery had she not died in an airplane accident 11 months after she earned her license.

I didn’t know a lot about Quimby before writing this blog. My own aviation role models are the women who ferried military aircraft during World War II–the WASP. Whenever I struggled with a concept or worried that I wasn’t up to the flying task at hand, I pictured those women in their flight suits, climbing into  B-26s, and B-29s, and drew inspiration from their strength. Now I wonder who their aviation heroines were. Could one of them have been a petite woman in a plum-colored wool flying suit?

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