Harriet Quimby was on top of the world on July 1, 1912. Flying high above the waters south of Boston in little more than a powered kite of sticks and muslin, the young woman pushed her new Bleriot monoplane into a moderate descent and made ready to land. Ahead lay Harvard Field, a fat finger of gravel and sand jutting into the muddy waters where the Neponset River spilled into Quincy Bay.
Quimby was participating in the third annual Boston Aviation Meet. The exhibition was a weeklong celebration of various contests and aerobatics, featuring some of the nation’s greatest aviators.
Marking the end of the first day’s festivities, Quimby took off and made her way out to Boston Light, located on Little Brewster Island in outer Boston Harbor. She made one circle of the lighthouse and then turned back toward the airfield to squeeze in one more flight that evening.
In the narrow fuselage several feet behind her sat William Willard, the air show’s manager. Willard, a local Bostonian, had invested heavily in the show. There had been problems along the way, arguments with the Aero Club of America and the usual pre-event glitches. But from his vantage, high above the enthusiastic crowd of 5,000 happy attendees, was proof enough that he had made the right decision.
Quimby was one of his star attractions. Only a few months before, she had been the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel. In the previous year she had secured the first flying license issued to a woman in the United States, the second in the world.
A drama critic for Leslie’s Weekly, Quimby had traveled throughout the world as a journalist, photographer, screenwriter and actress. Her portrait had hung in the Bohemian Club in San Francisco and her image now adorned the popular soft drink, Vin Fiz. Counted among her closest friends was D.W. Griffith, the rising young filmmaker. Quimby, now celebrated on two continents, was poised to claim the status of a national celebrity.
As they made their final approach the unimaginable happened. Without warning, the tail of the aircraft pitched sharply upward. The crowd screamed as they watched Willard being tossed high above and out of the aeroplane.
The Bleriot righted itself momentarily, the pilot wrestling to regain control. But then the horror played out once more and Quimby too was ejected as the tail angled well past vertical.
They fell over 1,000 feet, landing just off shore in the shallow tidal flats. Though attempts were made at resuscitation, it was obvious to all that both had died on impact. Not far away, the Bleriot came to rest in the waters, suffering only moderate damage.
Many theories were offered in the days following the tragedy, from tangled control lines, to the inherent delicate nature and inadequacies of female pilots. However, one hypothesis stood out from the rest, validated by a history of similar incidences.
Quimby’s new two passenger Bleriot was inherently unstable in flight. The manufacturer had compensated for the extra weight of a passenger by adding a lifting horizontal stabilizer to the design. Quimby was well aware of its tendencies. While flying solo, she would strap in sandbags as counterweights to balance the plane.
But sandbags do not move.
Willard, a large and exuberant man, had been told repeatedly before the flight that he must remain seated at all times. If, in his excitement, he leaned forward to congratulate, or be heard above the engine, he would have set in play a chain of events that were unrecoverable. The lifting tail would only compound the problem, inevitably pushing the Bleriot and Willard past the point of no return.
Quimby was most likely saved at first by grabbing onto the controls. But without the extra weight in the back to counter the design flaw built into the machine, she was hopelessly doomed.
Neither, pilot or passenger wore seatbelts that day. It was a common practice and rarely did aeroplanes come equipped with them. It was reported that Quimby had a strip of leather that ran just above her knees, a restraint that would have been little match for the forces involved.
The next morning, the accident was front-page news. In the weeks to follow, the pain of the loss rippled outward, far beyond the bereavement of the immediate families, aeronauts and their enthusiasts.
The ultimate tragedy of that day was of a legacy cut short and a historic figure too quickly lost to time. At the age of 37, Harriet Quimby had barely begun her rise in the nation’s awareness. Nearly a decade before the signing of the 19th Amendment, Quimby’s grace, courage, and determination set her apart as a woman and role model. Challenging in every way the secondary position she had been assigned in a male dominated society.