Thursday 16 April 2015

Flying to France

I was born in Dover because my mother was born in Dover and she went home briefly to deliver  babies before resuming her peripatetic life as a sailor's wife.  Her mother witnessed the triumph of Louis Blériot's arrival near the white cliffs of Dover from France in 1909.  Having been shown that it could be done, a bunch of people attempted the same feat but it wasn't until 16th April 1912 that a woman achieved it.  On that day Harriet Quimby, daring American aviator, took off from Dover and landed on a beach near Calais a few minutes later.  That was pretty cool - berluddy freezing actually because the Blériot XI was just struts and string:
She dressed up in a distinctive purple satin flying suit to combat the wind-chill whenever she went aloft. One reporter gushed about a “Dresden China aviatrix”. It must have been a bit like flying a motorbike. Quimby was born in 1875 and had a career as a journalist, so was well-placed to take part on the birth of motorised transport.  Initially she was an automobile geek and drove at least once at 100 mph (160km/h!) in a car.  I get an anxiety attack just thinking about the feat, given the flimsy construction of the car and crappy roads of the day.  She wrote regularly in her column about cars and their maintenance and so was a huge force for empowering [actually and metaphorically] women: vaaRRROOOM.  But when she saw her first airplane while covering a aeronautical meet, she was totally smitten.  In August 1911, she became the first American woman to get a pilot's licence (#37!) from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.  In April the following year she flew the channel and would have achieved immortal fame if it hadn't been the exact opposite of a slow news day, what with RMS Titanic visiting Davy Jones's Locker the day before.

By July she was dead!  After returning from Europe, she went the rounds at aeronautical events, often as the star attraction but on 1st July 1912, while taking a turn with a passenger on the second day of  the Harvard-Boston Aviation Meet, her plane inexplicably pitched forward and flung both people out of the cockpit.  With no hand on the throttle the plane came back to earth and landed in a salvagable condition.  Not so the aviators who plummeted 500m and hit the water of Boston Harbor with a fatal slap.  It is an enduring mystery: with little data the story has been inevitably filled up with unsupported speculation.  What is known is that Quimby was an early advocate of pre-flight check-lists and seat-belts - she loved speed but had no death-wish - but she died anyway.

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