Late at night on April 14, 1912, as the Titanic blazed toward its frigid destiny somewhere in the North Atlantic Ocean, Harriet Quimby was sleeping. The weather off the coast of England had been terrible all week, stormy and overcast. Not good flying weather. And Quimby — who'd been called a "lady bird," "airship queen," aviatrix, newspaper woman, and nicknamed "Dresden China" on account of her fair skin — had one more title she wanted to add to the list. Pioneer.
In the early morning hours two days later, on April 16, as every newspaper in the world set their type to announce the "greatest marine horror in history," Quimby stepped into a Blériot XI, a machine her contemporaries still described with that extra syllable, aeroplane. It was cloudy in Dover, but 23 narrow miles of water beckoned and the winds seemed alright. She took off, her goal known only to two female friends and a handful of male ones in order to prevent anyone from beating her to it. When she next touched land an hour and nine minutes later, she was in a fishing village in France, beaming amid a crowd of surprised fishermen, now the first woman to have done what only a handful of men at the time had managed: fly across the English channel.
In April 1912, Quimby was already renowned for being the first woman in America to have received her pilot's license, and like Amelia Earhart — that far more famous aviatrix who would follow in her footsteps — she would go on to die dramatically and tragically, doing what she loved. But Quimby has never received the level of recognition she deserves in the American pantheon, despite her extraordinary life. There is no flashy biopic about her spectacular adventures, no airport named in her honor. Literature on her is limited, apart from a smattering of children's books; talk of a potential biography, announced in 2015, has since gone quiet.
Still, during her time, Quimby was a celebrity; it's not difficult to find articles from the early 1900s that breathlessly followed her career. Human flight, after all, was still an exciting new concept when Quimby attended an international aviation meet at Belmont Park in New York, where she first fell in love with the sky. But when she was born in 1875 — likely in Michigan, although her lack of a birth certificate has led to some dispute — the Wright Brothers were still 28 years out from liftoff in Kitty Hawk.