College Park Aviation Museum honors Harriet Quimby, first woman to earn US pilot license

WTOP: Everyone knows the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh and Chuck Yeager, but you can’t write the history of aviation with Harriet Quimby.

Not only was Quimby the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license, she was also the first woman in the world to fly across the English Channel.

The College Park Aviation Museum in College Park, Maryland, is honoring Quimby this Saturday, March 18, with a special free event called “Harriet Quimby, America’s First Aviatrix.”

“Harriet Quimby is an incredible woman who kind of got lost in history,” actress Sara Sincell told WTOP. “In fact, Amelia Earhart boasts that Harriet Quimby was her idol, the person that she looked up to.”

Sincell, a Western Maryland native, now based in Los Angeles, will land at the College Park Airport at 10:30 a.m. to portray Quimby in a 35-minute program that she wrote. Quimby would have appreciated such a performance, as she was also one of the first female journalists and theater critics, a true Renaissance Woman, if you will.

“She also was an amazing artist and activist,” Sincell said. “She was the first female screenwriter in America, writing seven screenplays from 1909 to 1911. She was a journalist and photojournalist, she traveled all over the world in the early 1900s taking photos and writing about controversial topics. … Before researching this, I had never heard of her! That’s one of my missions with this: How have we never heard of this woman?”

After the show, guests can take a free 30-minute “Women in Aviation” tour of the 27,000-square-foot College Park Aviation Museum, which was founded in 1991. It’s attached to the College Park Airport, which was founded in 1909 by the Wright Brothers, who arrived from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to receive a U.S. Army contract.

“It is the world’s oldest continuously operated airfield,” Museum Director Kevin Cabrera told WTOP. “[The Wright Brothers] did some initial tests in Fort Myer, Virginia, where Lieutenant [Thomas] Selfridge died in a plane crash flying with Orville Wright. It was the first death in aviation history. … Fort Myer was not a great location, so they went up in a hot-air balloon to scope out the surrounding landscape and they found College Park.”

The same year that the museum was founded in 1991, the U.S. Postal Service dedicated a stamp honoring Quimby, who died at age 37 in 1912. She was killed during an accident at the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet in Squantum, Massachusetts, where she and passenger William A.P. Willard were ejected from their seats.

“This was really the beginning of aviation, so many pilots were flying brand new models of airplanes for the first time at air shows,” Sincell said. “Unfortunately, many of them met tragic deaths. Her young death is partly why we didn’t learn of her. I can’t imagine what she would have gone on and done if she had lived longer.”

If you miss the 10:30 a.m. event, an encore performance will be held at 1:30 p.m., but if you want to see the plane landing at College Park Airport, be sure to come to the first showtime.

The event is presented by the Field of Firsts Foundation.

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