From Dover to Calais in 1912 — First Flight Commemorative Half Dollar Coin

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Today, the First Flight Commemorative Half Dollar Coin remembers the first woman pilot, Harriet Quimby, to cross the English Channel on April 16, 1912.

From Leslie’s Illustrated Magazine of May 16, 1912:


EDITOR’s NOTE: The first American woman to receive a pilot’s license to fly was the dramatic editor of Leslie’s Weekly, Miss Harriet Quimby. She is conceded by all to be the foremost aviatrice of the world, though she is making aviation only a favorite sport and not a regular occupation. Recently the news was flashed around the world that an American girl had the honor of being the first woman to pilot an aeroplane across the English Channel. The story of this remarkable achievement is herewith told, for the first time, by Miss Quimby.


The Editor of LESLIE’s asked me to write “the thrilling story” of the crossing of the English Channel, on April 16, in a monoplane, for the first time, by a woman pilot. I am afraid I shall not be able to make it “a thrilling story,’’ although there were some very doubtful moments for me while passing through the heavy banks of fog that rose from the chilly waters of the notoriously treacherous channel separating Dover, on the English coast, from Calais, in France.

“All things come to him who waits.” At three-thirty Tuesday morning we were called, had our hot tea, got into our automobiles and at four o’clock were on the flying grounds. There was no wind. Scarcely a breath of air was stirring. The monoplane was hurried out of the hangar. We knew that we must hasten, for it was almost certain that the wind would rise again within an hour. Mr. Hamel, whose courtesy and consideration I shall always remember, jumped into the machine and was off for a short “try-out” of the engine and to report atmospheric conditions. He found everything satisfactory and hurried back, making one of the beautiful and easy landings for which he is famous.

It was my turn at last. Everybody was expectant. I was eager to get into my seat and be off. My heart was not in my mouth. I felt impatient to realize the project on which I was determined, despite the protest of my best friends. For the first time I was to fly a Bleriot monoplane. For the first time I was to make a journey across the water. For the first time I was to fly on the other side of the Atlantic. My anxiety was to get off quickly.

The sky seemed clear, but patches of cloud and masses of fog here and there obscured the blue. The French coast was wholly invisible, by reason of moving masses of mist. The wind had not come up yet. The smooth grounds of the aerodrome gave me a chance for a perfect start. I heeded Mr. Hamel’s warning about the coldness of the channel flight and had prepared accordingly. Under my flying suit of wool-back satin, I wore two pairs of silk combinations, over it a long woolen coat, over this an American raincoat, and around and across my shoulders a long, wide stole of sealskin. Even this did not satisfy my solicitous friends. At the last minute they handed up a large hot-water bag, which Mr. Hamel insisted on tying to my waist like an enormous locket.

I soon found that I was not too warm. The channel passage was chilly enough, especially when I shot through the damp banks of mist that speedily enveloped me. I did not suffer, for the excitement stimulated my warmth; but I noticed, when I landed, that the hot-water bag was as cold as ice. It surely saved me something.

It was five-thirty a. m. when my machine got off the ground. The preliminaries were brief. Hearty handshakes were quickly given, the motor began to make its twelve hundred revolutions a minute, and I put up my hand to give the signal of release. Then I was off. The noise of the motor drowned the shouts and cheers of friends below. In a moment I was in the air, climbing steadily in a long circle. I was up fifteen hundred feet within thirty seconds. From this high point of vantage my eyes lit at once on Dover Castle. It was half hidden in a fog bank. I felt that trouble was coming, but I made directly for the flagstaff of the castle, as I had promised the waiting Mirror photographers and the moving-picture men I should do.

In an instant I was beyond the cliffs and over the channel. Far beneath me I saw the Mirror’s tug, with its stream of black smoke. It was trying to keep ahead of me, but I passed it in a jiffy. Then the thickening fog obscured my view. Calais was out of sight. I could not see ahead of me at all nor could I see the water below. There was only one thing for me to do and that was to keep my eyes fixed on the compass.

My hands were covered with long, Scotch woolen gloves, which gave me good protection from the cold and fog; but the machine was wet and my face was so covered with dampness that I had to push my goggles up on my forehead. I could not see through them. I was traveling at over a mile a minute. The distance straight across from Dover to Calais is only twenty-two miles, and I knew that land must be in sight if I could only get below the fog and see it. So I dropped from an altitude of about two thousand feet until I was half that height. The sunlight struck upon my face and my eyes lit upon the white and sandy shores of France. I felt happy, but I could not find Calais. Being unfamiliar with the coast line, I could not locate myself. I determined to reconnoiter and come down to a height of about five hundred feet and traverse the shore.

Meanwhile, the wind had risen and the currents were coming in billowy gusts. I flew a short distance inland to locate myself or find a good place on which to alight. It was all tilled land below me, and rather than tear up the farmers’ fields I decided to drop down on the hard and sandy beach. I did so at once, making an easy landing. Then I jumped from my machine and was alone upon the shore. But it was only for a few moments. A crowd of fishermen—men, women and children each carrying a pail of sand worms —came rushing from all directions toward me. They were chattering in French, of which I comprehended sufficient to discover that they knew I had crossed the channel. These humble fisherfolk knew what had happened. They were congratulating themselves that the first woman to cross in an aeroplane had landed on their fishing beach.

It was now nearly seven o’clock and I felt like eating breakfast. I knew that friends at Dover and Calais were anxious to hear the result of the trip. Just before I had started, someone had thrust a London Mirror between my woolen coat and my raincoat, as a further protection from the cold. I tore off the margin of this paper, sat down on the sand and wrote a telegram, while curious fishermen pressed about me. From one of them I learned that Hardelot was the nearest place and was about two miles distant. I asked a fisherboy to take the message for me. I had no money with which to pay him, as I had expected to land at Calais among waiting friends. But the fisherboy took the message and the operator sent it. Who paid for it I do not know. Then I hunted up a life saving station nearby, and one of the men kindly telephoned to Boulogne the news of my safe descent—this also without charge.

I had to send these messages by someone, for I feared to leave my aeroplane with an inquisitive crowd of strangers who had never seen one at close range before. Perhaps I misjudged the fishermen. They were helpful and thoughtful in every way. Taking note of the rapidly rising tide, they made me understand that the aeroplane should be moved higher up on the beach. An aeroplane is a difficult thing to handle. I did not want my machine harmed, so I picked out an elderly, sensible-looking fisherman, who seemed greatly interested in the mechanism, and put him in charge of the moving. It was pleasant to notice with what care these fishermen, even the children, handled the aeroplane under my direction, while pushing it up the beach to a place of safety.

An incident that pleased me more than anything else was the hospitality of one of the fisherwomen. She insisted upon serving me with a very welcome cup of hot tea, accompanied by bread and cheese. The tea was served in a cup fully six times as large as an ordinary teacup and was so old and quaint that I could not conceal my admiration of it. The good-hearted woman insisted upon giving it to me, and no cup that I have ever won or ever shall win as an aero trophy will be prized more than this.

It was not long before all of Hardelot was racing to the beach. Foremost among the crowd I gladly recognized my good English friends, whose guest at luncheon I had been a few days before —Miss Whiteley and her American guest, Miss Frances Drake, of Chicago. So overjoyed were they to see me safely across the channel that they lifted me impulsively on their shoulders and bore me over the sands. I felt more uncomfortable than I had at any time during the trip. Perhaps I ought not to admit it, but I note the fact because the Mirror photographers and moving-picture men, who, on hearing of my landing, had rushed over from Calais on their automobiles, caught this particular scene with their cameras, and that means that they will give it to the public.

The good-natured fishermen were wild with delight. They were ready to do anything for me. They were only too willing to tote my machine over two miles along the beach and to put it back into the Bleriot hangar, where a week before I had seen it reposing peacefully and invitingly by the sands of Hardelot.

The newspaper representatives, as soon as they arrived from Calais, produced a bottle of champagne from a place of careful concealment and insisted that I permit them to drink my health while seated in the machine. Of course I did so—anything to oblige these faithful recorders of the events of the day. But the real refreshment, I confess it, was a cup of hot and fragrant tea and some delicious little cakes that Mrs. Whiteley served in the warm and spacious dining-room of her hospitable mansion.

I had no change of garments, but the Mirror men had taken my long seal coat on the tug across the channel, the day before, while they were waiting my arrival, and it covered my flying suit effectively. Then I got into an automobile and motored to Calais, about thirty miles distant, in time to catch a fast train that took me into Paris at seven p. m., a very tired but a very happy woman.


The First Flight Commemorative Half Dollar Coin shows with an image of Harriet Quimby and the Bleriot monoplane prior to her flight across the English Channel, April 16, 1912.

First Flight Commemorative Half Dollar Coin