Flying Firsts in Triumph
Two spirited women—one black, one white—changed aviation history
“I just wanted to be first . . . that’s all,” Harriet Quimby (1875–1912) explained after becoming the first American woman, and the thirty-seventh person in the world, to receive a pilot license in August 1911. Bessie Coleman (1896–1926) didn’t want to be a manicurist or a wife (though she was already both). She wanted to “amount to something.” These two spirited women changed the twentieth-century social order when they became flying firsts in the fledgling world of aviation.
Already a popular theater critic and globe-trotting writer-photographer for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, Quimby started flying lessons after witnessing the exhilarating 1910 International Aviation Meet at Belmont Park on New York’s Long Island. Immediately on earning her license at thirty-five, she joined the Moisant flying team for exhibition shows in Mexico, becoming the first woman to fly there. After purchasing a Blériot XI monoplane—a distinct design departure from the biplanes of the day—she flew it solo twenty-two miles from Dover, England, to Hardelot, France, on the morning of April 16, 1912, becoming the first woman to fly a plane over the English Channel. She returned in triumph to the United States, eager to pursue and write about her new avocation. But she met with disaster in July, when she and a passenger were thrown to their deaths from her fragile plane over Boston Harbor.
Twenty-seven-year-old Bessie Coleman, whose father was American Indian, was at a personal crossroads in segregated Chicago when she was challenged about her future by her brother, a World War I veteran who taunted her with stories of French women flyers. She sassed back, “That’s it. . . . You just called it for me!” But black men were not welcome in aviation, let alone black women. Unfazed, Bessie learned French and earned her pilot license in France—the first for an African American woman. She learned aerobatics, performed for thousands of people, and lectured too, all in pursuit of opening an instruction school for African Americans. “We must have aviators,” she said, “if we are to keep up with the times.” But in a scenario eerily similar to Quimby’s fate, she too fell out of her plane, a Curtiss Jenny, while flying over Jacksonville, Florida, in 1926. Following her untimely death, the African American aviation community embraced her name and mission, establishing flying clubs in her name.
—Dorothy S. Cochrane, Curator, General Aviation, National Air and Space Museum