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Arts & Culture

Remembering Harriet Quimby, A Daring Female Pilot

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now for a story about another kind of traveler. This one from Nate DiMeo who tell stories from America's past on his podcast "The Memory Palace."

NATE DIMEO: Let's remember a woman named Harriet Quimby, born in 1875 in Arcadia, Mich. Her parents were farmers, and the farm failed. They moved to San Francisco with Harriet. She was unmarried and lived with her parents because that's what she did then. And let's remember that she wanted to see the world, wanted to live a bigger life, bigger than the failed farm, bigger than the room in her parents' house. And let's remember that it's 1900 or 1901 or something like that. And just about the only thing she could do that might open up her world was to write.

Women, some women, were allowed to do that, even if what Harriet Quimby could write was limited. But writing let her travel and got her to New York. And she took pictures and wrote stories for National Magazine. And she wrote screenplays for D.W. Griffith, tales of great adventures that she would never have. But let's remember an October day out on Long Island, cool autumn light, breeze off the day at Belmont Park where the horses ran, where they run still. But on this day, the field was cleared.

The white rails were pulled up and the infield was turned into a runway for the second International Aviation Exhibition. Planes, wooden frames and bicycle tires rose and banked and made slow, little circles over the gathered thousands. Let's remember that this is a handful of years after the Wright brothers flew for 12 seconds above the dunes at Kitty Hawk. So the people below were craning and cheering simply because they got to watch men fly. And Harriet Quimby was with them on the ground. And she went home to file her story. And then she learned to fly.

The next year, Harriet Quimby rose 150 feet in the air, circled five times and landed within an acceptable distance from a designated point in the grass and became the first American woman to get her pilot's license. Let's remember that it's 1910, and women can't even vote. But here is Harriet Quimby flying, rising above. Let's just embrace the metaphor. Let's just see her in the open air cockpit not far above the trees, but high enough to see Long Island Sound to her left and the open ocean rolling out to her right and men and women down below looking up with widened eyes.

Let's remember the life she led thereafter as a traveling daredevil, the first woman to fly at night, the first woman to fly across the English Channel. And let's note her death just two years later in 1912, a crash, Squantum, Mass. She was flung from the cockpit simply because they hadn't thought to put seatbelts in planes yet. Let's note the fall and note the fear. But let's remember her flying. Let's remember her flying.

MARTIN: That's Nate DiMeo. His podcast is "The Memory Palace." You can hear more of his stories at TheMemoryPalace.us. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.