Today, four women gravitate skyward. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
In 1910, the new flying
machines began converging on Long Island, about
twenty miles east of Manhattan. Nassau County's
Hempstead Plains was ideal for flying. Aerodromes
and dirigible masts were sprouting. Later,
Lindbergh took off for France here, as did
Wrong-Way Corrigan, who followed in his slipstream.
But now the Wright Brothers, just back from their
triumphal Europe trip, were setting up shop here.
So was their fierce competitor, Glenn Curtiss. A
recent book about the Hempstead Plains, calls it
The Cradle of Aviation.
Four women came to Nassau County's flying fields in
1910 and 1911: first Blanche Scott and Bessica
Raiche, then Matilde Moisant and Harriet Quimby.
Historian Eileen Lebow tells their stories:
At 19, Scott had driven a woman journalist in a
looping six-thousand-mile automobile trip across
America — a publicity stunt for the Willys
Company. Glenn Curtiss rewarded her with an
airplane ride. She loved it and badgered him into
teaching her to fly.
Curtiss only let her taxi around the airfield with
a governor on the engine. But, in September, 1910,
a gust of air made her airborne. Scott circled and
landed, thus becoming the first American woman to
Bessica Raiche, on the other hand, was a
34-year-old doctor and married. She and her husband
built their own Curtiss-style airplane, and she
soloed in it a few days after Scott. Though she
shares credit as the first American woman to fly,
she got out of the business. She moved to
California and, in 1923, served as president of the
Orange County Medical Association.
Scott, on the other hand, became a famous flyer.
She miraculously survived during her six years
of barnstorming, although she liked to boast that she
had 42 mended bones to show for it.
The oldest of the four, Harriet
Quimby, was a writer for Leslie's
Illustrated Weekly. And her friend Moisant
was the sister of an important pioneer airplane
builder. They both learned to fly in Moisant
airplanes. Harriet Quimby is famous for her style
and pizzazz, for being the first woman to fly the
English Channel — and for falling to her death at
a Boston air show.
Moisant lost her brother in a Louisiana air show.
She eventually gave up flying, to live to an age of
85. But, of the four, the greatest pilot was
probably Blanche Scott. Billed as The Flying
Tomboy, she did extraordinary feats of raw
daring. She was flying with Quimby at Boston the
day Quimby died. Scott was barely able to land
afterward, with crowds milling about the field
But she lived. And in 1948 the great test pilot
Chuck Yeager took her for a ride in a new jet
airplane, soon after he'd broken the sound barrier
in one. Thus Blanche Scott, first American woman to
fly, was also first to fly in a jet. Think of it —
what a remarkable reminder of just how rapidly
early flight came of age!
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
G. C. Dade and F. Strnad, Picture History of
Aviation on Long Island: 1908-1938. New York:
Dover Publications, Inc., 1989.
E. F. Lebow, Before Amelia. Washington,
D.C.: Brassey's Inc., 2002, Chapters 7, 8, and 9.
For more on early women fliers, see: J. H.
Lienhard, Inventing Modern: Growing up with
X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins. New York:
Oxford University Press, August, 2003, Chapter 10.
For many excellent images of Blanch Scott, see
For images of Harriet Quimby and Matilde Moisant,
And Bessica Raiche:
Harriet Quimby mounting her Moisant monoplane
From The American Review of Reviews,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.