Terminal Baggage Claim Notes on the culture of flying

Striking air traffic controllers showing solidarity during their 1981 showdown with the Reagan Administration. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

1. Aluminum rain

At nearly 10:30, on this cloudy, cold winter morning in 1960, foggy with light rain after a snowfall, Brother Conrad Barnes, instructing his class at St. Augustine Catholic School in Brooklyn, looked up, probably startled by the noise, and saw a jet falling from the sky and headed straight toward the school. He could only tell his students to put their heads on their desks and pray. If they prayed not to die, God answered them. The pilot of the doomed aircraft desperately steered toward Prospect Park. He did not make it. The plane crashed one block from the school in Park Slope. The Douglas DC-8, United Airlines Flight 826, with eighty-four people (seventy-seven passengers, seven crew) was flying from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to Idlewild, what is now called John F. Kennedy Airport. It crashed in midair into Trans World Airlines Lockheed L-1049A Super Constellation Flight 266, carrying forty-four people (thirty-nine passengers, five crew) from Dayton and Columbus, Ohio, to LaGuardia. The fireball of the DC-8 “consumed ten brownstones, several small businesses, and a Pentecostal church prophetically named Pillar of Fire,” writes Joseph A. McCartin. The TWA plane crashed in Miller Field, an army installation on Staten Island. In total, passengers, crew, and people on the ground, 134 died. God answered some prayers but apparently did not answer others, or answered them in ways only the deity could understand. The weather made it a hazardous day for flying, although weather did not factor into the official cause of the crash. This was one of the worst aviation disasters of its time, what people in the airline industry call aluminum rain.

In McCartin’s Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, The Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America (2011), we learn what propelled the air traffic controllers to form PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) and go out on strike on August 3, 1981. The origin, the first tipping point of the controllers’ discontent was this horrific midair airplane crash over New York City on December 16, 1960. In the subsequent investigations and court cases that resulted from the accident, it was never clear whether the excessive speed of the DC-8 in its approach to a holding area called Preston in northern New Jersey or equipment failure was the cause: one of the VOR receivers of the DC-8 did not work, which would mean that the pilot may not have heard air traffic controllers’ instructions. We learn from Collision Course that Jack Maher was working at Hangar 11 that day, and had even directed the pilot of the TWA flight shortly before the crash. Perhaps the pressurized, hectic air traffic control system had something to do with the crash, that the system was precarious, one glitch or human error away from a catastrophic accident. As McCartin writes, “Scheduled airlines carried fifty-eight million passengers by 1960, which represented a quadrupling of air passenger traffic since 1950. Not only had air traffic grown, but its nature had also changed as high-speed jets replaced piston-engine propeller planes, thus significantly reducing margins of error. By 1960, the nation’s twelve thousand air traffic controllers—laboring on inferior equipment and following antiquated rules in 205 airport control towers, twenty-three terminal radar approach control facilities (TRACONs), and thirty-four air route traffic control centers (ARTCCs) like Hangar 11’s New York Center—were having trouble keeping up, and after December 16, 1960, the ‘big sky theory’ [the idea that two planes colliding in the wide expanse of the sky was extremely unlikely] was dead.” (25)

The TWA plane crashed in Miller Field, an army installation on Staten Island. In total, passengers, crew, and people on the ground, 134 died. God answered some prayers but apparently did not answer others, or answered them in ways only the deity could understand.

And, to Maher, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in its investigation, wanted only, to use an apt, if crude, expression, to cover its ass and make sure it, and the air traffic control system under its aegis, was not to blame. Maher, along with another Hangar 11 air traffic controller named Mike Rock, who was also working on that tragic December morning, became the main organizers of the air traffic controllers’ union, Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10988 gave federal workers the right to organize unions and bargain collectively with the federal government. This opened the door for the formation of PATCO. But, most importantly, Kennedy’s executive order did not give federal workers the right to strike.



2. The First Book of learning about things or the boy’s book

In elementary school, I once was taken on a field trip to the Philadelphia airport. I had never been on a plane or at an airport, so I was excited to go. In fact, I did not know any child who had ever taken a flight. I thought the class would board a plane while we were at the airport and was disappointed when we did not. I guess it was something just to see planes take off and land, to see names like Pan American, TWA, United, and Eastern, emblazoned on various fuselages. I had seen their television commercials. I knew airplanes took people to exciting places, took people on adventures. When my mother took me to see Dr. No (1962), I learned that an airplane flight to Jamaica launched James Bond on his mission. According to the movie, merely walking through an airport was fraught with mystery, and Bond nearly took a cab that had stopped for a pair of stewardesses. When I saw The V.I.P.s (1963) not very long after, I was reaffirmed in my boyish thought that airports were places of romance, intrigue, and drama, and to travel first-class seemed unimaginably grand. (I was more than a little disappointed years later when I finally was able to travel first-class and discovered it was not like a movie; either the status of first-class had diminished, or the quality of air travelers had.)

I remember clearly preparing for my airport field trip by reading a book in the children’s section of the Southwark Branch of the Philadelphia Free Library, the only section I was permitted to be in. It was Jeanne Bendick’s The First Book of Airplanes (1958).

When my mother took me to see Dr. No (1962), I learned that an airplane flight to Jamaica launched James Bond on his mission. According to the movie, merely walking through an airport was fraught with mystery, and Bond nearly took a cab that had stopped for a pair of stewardesses.

If I did not know anything about a subject, I would go to the library to see if there was a First Book about it. The First Book series must have been popular because there are a great number of them covering a range of topics. I learned about Negroes by reading Langston Hughes’s The First Book of Negroes (1952), the first book by Hughes I remember reading, the first book by a Negro writer I ever read. I learned about Africa from his First Book of Africa (1960). The most immediate thing I learned from those books was that Negroes—later in my childhood to be called Blacks—and Africans were distinct, though related, peoples with distinct experiences. I liked Hughes’s book on Negroes better than his book on Africa, probably because I did not fully understand the politics described in the Africa book but more because there was a fictional boy named Terry in The First Book of Negroes, a device to help young readers navigate the book as a story rather than chunks of history, with whom I strongly identified. I was a sucker as a kid for a book about a boy, especially a Negro boy.

I also learned about automobiles and baseball (1958 edition) and Eskimos (1952 edition) and American Indians (1950 edition) reading First Books as well. I would read any First Book that dealt with any subject about which I was the least bit curious. As a child, I read several books by Bendick, an author and illustrator who specialized in science and technological books for children (she wrote The First Book of Automobiles, 1949), not because she wrote them. I hardly paid attention to authors then, unless a teacher or some other adult told me to read a particular author, such as Langston Hughes who was highly recommended to all of us Black boys and girls. I read Bendick’s books because she wrote about interesting subjects, like automobiles and airplanes. They were subjects I thought a boy should know something about.

There were two questions I hoped The First Book of Airplanes could answer. The first was how could something that was heavier than air fly. This was answered in a marvelously clear way that, even as a child, I fairly understood. Bendick wrote that two things made a plane fly: an engine and air. (6) The engine provides thrust, forward motion. She continued: “Because an airplane is solid, it offers resistance to the air moving around it. This resistance is called drag. Airplanes are designed to make the air move around them in a certain way. Air has to move faster over the top surface of the wings than over the bottom. In moving faster, the air on the top of the wing presses less than the bottom. This difference in pressure lifts the plane up; it is called lift. Lift and thrust together make an airplane fly.” (7) When I first read that as a nine-year-old, I thought it was simply fantastic. It was so simple and neat that I was startled, amazed. But how did anyone ever think of this? People could surf the ocean of air as we surfed oceans of water.

The book was thorough: it taught young readers the different parts of an airplane (10-11), the kind of routes airplanes fly (2-3), how airplane engines work by burning fuel with oxygen (12-13), what happens in control towers (22-23), what airplanes are used for other than carrying people (32-35), what a drone is (long before they became “a thing,” 52), what the words “supersonic” and “mach” mean (56-57), and how airplanes are made. (48-49) I did not fully understand what made an airplane work, but I was awed by the world of the airplane, the world of aviation, how many people it took to make the thing work.

My second question was what happened to the feces and urine when people used the restrooms on planes. One of my classmates told me that when someone flushed a toilet on a plane, the poo and pee shot out of the plane and eventually fell to earth.

“That’s why,” he said, “You don’t want to be standing under no plane when it is flying overhead. ‘Cause you could hit in the face by toilet-load of shit. It happens to people all the time.”

The First Book of Airplanes did not mention anything about this. That was the only aspect of the book that disappointed me. When I told my oldest sister about this, she scoffed, saying only a boy could think of something that stupid.



President Reagan with William French Smith in August 1981, making a statement to the press regarding the air traffic controllers strike from the Rose Garden. (White House Photographs)


3. The strike or how PATCO imitated Icarus

Ronald Reagan had been president for nearly eight months when PATCO went on strike, August 3, 1981. He saw the strike as a test of his resolve. If he failed to meet the measure of the moment, he could, like the man he succeeded, wind up a one-term president. Reagan was the only president to have served as the head of a labor union, the Screen Actors Guild, from 1947 to 1952. But he was also a pitchman and ambassador for General Electric, starting in 1954, when, first, he became host of General Electric Theater, in which he owned a 25 percent stake. Then, he traveled to all 139 GE plants across the country, delivering company-compliant speeches to over a quarter-million employees. He was good at making speeches, being an ex-actor. And it was during his time with GE that he became a conservative.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan sought the support of some labor unions, trading, in part, on having been a union president, and on his moderate stance on two public sector strikes during his time as governor of California: in 1969, the police and firefighters of Vallejo went on a five-day strike for higher wages; Reagan deplored the strike, but as McCartin writes, “did not meddle in the Vallejo negotiations or vilify the strikers.” (244) Right-to-work activists in California criticized Reagan for his response. In 1972, State Water Resources Department workers went on strike. Reagan once again “showed forbearance,” treating “the walkout as a case of unauthorized absence from work rather than an illegal concerted action against the state.” (244) Under state law, Reagan had the power to fire the workers if their unauthorized absence exceeded five days. It never came to that as the strike was settled within that time, with state officials bargaining with the workers despite the fact that it was an illegal work stoppage. (245) Despite his reputation as a hard-nosed conservative, it was not at all unreasonable or unrealistic for Reagan to reach out for union support, especially as President Jimmy Carter was not popular with labor.

Reagan won the support of the air traffic controllers but not easily. PATCO negotiated strenuously with Reagan’s representatives, wanting specific promises from the Republican nominee. Reagan dodged their list of demands. He did not endorse them, but he did not reject them either. He expressed sympathy for their taxing working conditions and for their desire for new leadership at the FAA as well as increased wages. While he did not ultimately promise PATCO anything, his expression of concern was more than anything the union received from Carter. (246-247) Also, PATCO was overwhelmingly White, overwhelmingly male, and made up of a number of military veterans, many from the Vietnam War era. They might have been inclined to support Reagan because they felt an identification with some of his political views or his overall political demeanor.

But PATCO was not in any way conservative about its strike. They were, in fact, intensely militant, an attitude that had been building among the air traffic controllers for years, certainly since the 1960 New York air crash. The fact they went on strike was a sign of how determined they were. The strike was illegal, but they seemed to revel in its illegality, in the sanctity, the righteousness, of their rebellion, not only because they were striking for more wages, but they were striking for the cause of public safety. The public simply did not know how unsafe flying really was with the current state of air traffic control. Their clenched fist salutes—remember these were White middle-class workers, not inner-city Black radicals—seemed to evoke the 1960s. (298) Interestingly, Rick Jones, co-founder of the Coalition of Black Controllers, and Sue Mostert, founder of the Professional Women Controllers, urged their members not to strike, thinking it was a foolhardy, hopeless effort. Blacks and women were among the striking air traffic controllers but the fact that the leaders of these two groups discouraged them from striking indicated serious fissures within PATCO.

In any case, we know how this ended. Reagan gave the strikers forty-eight hours to return to work. Those who did not return to work would be terminated immediately. Most did not return to work, and they were fired. Union leaders realized that the president was not bluffing, simply because he could not bluff. The strike was illegal, and Reagan was determined to enforce the law. The president could not look weak in the face of this challenge to the federal government’s authority. Reagan became the great union buster, the man who meant what he said. His poll numbers went up immediately despite a crippling recession. He impressed foreign governments. But the air traffic controllers could not lose face by capitulating, so most of them fell on their swords. Of course, most did not believe that Reagan would really fire them all as the cost of replacing them was far more than the cost of settling the strike. They were wrong.

The strike was illegal, but they seem to revel in its illegality, in the sanctity, the righteousness, of their rebellion, not only because they were striking for more wages, but they were striking for the cause of public safety. The public simply did not know how unsafe flying really was with the current state of air traffic control.

As McCartin makes clear, PATCO failed for several reasons: the strike never gained public sympathy or support because of how well the controllers were paid compared to the average worker and because the union did little to win public support (there was no shortage of people who applied for their jobs); the airline pilots did not support the strike because they felt it damaged them; support from other unions was not robust; foreign air traffic controllers did not support the strike by denying American flights entry because it was not in their countries’ economic interest to do so.

So it was with one of the most famous strikes of the twentieth century. And commercial airplanes, through it all, despite reduced schedules, never stopped flying.



Luftgangster! Terrorflieger!”: To alleviate the boredom of life as a POW in the Nazi camp Stalag Luft III, Tuskegee Airman Alexander Jefferson began drawing cartoons of camp life and military adventures.

4. Air gangster

Luftgangster! Terrorflieger!” yelled a group of Hitler Youth when Alexander Jefferson, along with fellow Tuskegee Airmen Bob Daniels and Richard Macon, passed through a train station on their three-day trip to Stalag Luft III on August 24, 1944. According to his autobiography, Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: The Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman (Fordham University Press, 2005), it was the only time during his entire captivity that Jefferson was afraid. “We had heard of downed Allied flying personnel being beaten and even murdered by angry German civilians.” (64) It was a real possibility. One of the most famous POWs in American history, bomber pilot John McCain, was nearly killed by his Vietnamese captors, a case everyone knows. Air gangsters, indeed. In Mrs. Miniver (1942), the title character, played by Greer Garson, tried to aid a downed and wounded German bomber who, in fact, acted and spoke so like a Nazi gangster that she angrily slapped his face. Jefferson was not harmed, that is to say, brutalized, during the entire eight months of his being held a prisoner of war, discounting the forced march that took place at the end of January 1945, when the Germans decided to move their prisoners south from the invading Soviet army toward the advancing Americans. It was bitterly cold that January. The captives walked for six days, with little food and little rest, arriving at Stalag VIIA in Moosburg on February 3. “The place was a nightmare, with tens of thousands of men arriving from other prison camps. There was insufficient housing and very poor sanitary conditions.” (101) The pit toilets soon overflowed sending waste into the men’s living quarters. To add insult to injury, most of the men were suffering from diarrhea. (102) The captives were also tormented by bedbugs, lice, and fleas. And there he stayed until liberation on April 29. He was one of thirty-two Tuskegee Airmen from the 332nd Fighter Group to be shot down during World War Two.

Red Tails Pilot Lt. Col Alexander Jefferson in an undated photo. (Alexander Jefferson/Pacific Aviation Museum)

He did not encounter racism from the German soldiers who guarded the prisoners, or, at least, not the racism he expected. In fact, when he first spoke to a German officer immediately after his capture, the officer told him about spending time in Atlanta, enjoying the Black clubs on Auburn Avenue, about hanging out at the Howard Theater in Washington, D. C., about partying in Black Detroit, where Jefferson grew up. “At first, he rubbed my feelings a little raw, hearing him speak about the ‘good’ loving he received from our black girls back home. In the end, however, I was truly thankful for their efforts on behalf of the war. Truly thankful, indeed.” (58) Maybe sarcasm was the only sensible response. Later, when he was interrogated by a German officer who spoke “perfect English,” he discovered that not only did the officer know what his grades were at Clark College and Howard University but even about the ten-hour inspection of the plane he flew.  “He was very condescending and acted as though Germany respected blacks. But, if Germany had still been winning the war, I am quite sure it would have been very much different for me and the other black prisoners.” (60-61)

Jefferson’s biggest problem, aside from the physical privations he endured, partly relieved by Red Cross parcels, was boredom, to alleviate which he began drawing cartoons depicting life in the stalag including meals, work, toilet facilities, sleeping quarters, the nightmares some of the pilots had, and the sexual urges for women. Many of the drawings are comical, and, together with his account of being a POW, constitute one of the most engaging and important aspects of the book. The cartoons serve as both an illumination and a contrast to his account of being a POW.

He did not encounter racism from the German soldiers who guarded the prisoners, or, at least, not the racism he expected.

The other two important aspects of the book are: 1) Jefferson’s account of his training to become a wartime pilot and, 2) what it felt like to fly a P-51 escort for B-24s and B-17s. Jefferson was born in Detroit in 1921. Both of his parents were from the south and moved north in search of greater economic opportunity during the Great Black Migration that began in 1915. He grew up in a Polish neighborhood, so he had a fairly integrated childhood. His father worked as a laborer in a foundry but after visiting his father there once, Jefferson was determined not to wind up there himself. (15) Although his background was not middle-class, it was not impoverished either. He was not the first in his family to graduate from college. After a bit of time at loose ends, he entered Howard University as a chemistry graduate student. In 1942, he also signed up for the Army Air Corps, largely because Public Law 18, passed in 1939, authorized the creation of a program to train Black airmen, and so the opportunity was available for a Black man to fly planes. The training was launched in 1941 at Tuskegee. He began his flight training in April 1943. Ninety men were in his class; only twenty-five graduated. Jefferson describes the training in considerable detail: the intense hazing from the upperclassmen; the enormous amount of study; the practicing on various aircraft; the men who died in training accidents; the awful racial segregation of the officers’ facilities when training switched to Selfridge Army Air Field, just north of Detroit, and the fierce opposition to it on the part of the Black flyers; his determination to graduate, to be a flyer.

He flew eighteen missions before being shot down. They all proceeded in the same way:


We would pile out of the briefing shack, get in jeeps and trucks, and ride to our planes. In the meantime, our mechanics had been up most of the night preflighting our aircraft. We would walk around our planes and talk with the crew chiefs about any concerns. We’d then strap ourselves in, start the engines, check the dials, and clamp our feet on the brakes to prevent premature movement of the 10,000-pound plane. (43)


Jefferson continues:


While awaiting takeoff, with that big eleven-foot prop spinning and those 1,500 horses pulling the plane, your pulse begins to race, especially when you look down the line and see the other fifteen planes in your squadron slowly easing forward to begin taxiing down the ramp. Canopies are open, and the noise is deafening but exhilarating. You just hope the bastard behind you doesn’t let up on his brakes and chew your tail off, or that the so-and-so on your left has his gun switch off or his finger off the trigger so he doesn’t blow you to smithereens. You sit at the end of the runway and wait, your plane throbbing and threatening to bolt. Your legs are tied in knots from clamping your feet on the brakes. Fumes and dust penetrate your oxygen mask. . . . Finally, you look to your left and watch the 99th beginning to take off from the other end of the strip directly toward you. The first few guys pass over about fifty feet out in front of you. As number five and six begin to hit the turbulence of the previous guys, they wobble back and forth. You look up, and a P-51 sails over your head with about ten or fifteen feet to spare! (45)


Surprisingly, perhaps, Jefferson experienced little, if any, racism from his fellow White American pilots while a prisoner.  As he writes: “Most American prisoners had flown bombers. Of course, as Tuskegee Airmen, we were held in high esteem. We were also a bit older and more mature. All of us were college graduates, although some of the white pilots were not.” When a B-17 crewmember arrived at Stalag Luft III and praised the Red Tails, as the Tuskegee Airmen were called, “the reputation of the 332nd Fighter Group spread quickly throughout the camp.” They nearly became celebrities. (76)

Jefferson’s biggest problem, aside from the physical privations he endured, partly relieved by Red Cross parcels, was boredom, to alleviate which he began drawing cartoons depicting life in the stalag . . .

When Jefferson came home, it was a different story. He heard the n-word and was immediately segregated as soon as he descended the gangplank when his homebound ship landed in New York. He wound up becoming an elementary school science teacher, a choice he does not regret, an honorable pursuit, to be sure. But did race play a part in why he did not become a commercial airline pilot or a chemist, as he always wanted to be? For Black Americans, the United States has always been a harsh mistress.



Harriet Quimby (1875-1912) in her Blériot monoplane. (Library of Congress)


5. The girl can’t help it or air intoxication


“The most successful aviators of the future,” remarked Stephen, thoughtfully, “are bound to be women. As a rule they are lighter than men, more supple and active, quick of perception and less liable to lose their heads in emergencies. The operation of an aëroplane is, it seems to me, especially fitted to women.”

—Stephen, Orissa’s brother, in Edith Van Dyne’s (L. Frank Baum), The Flying Girl, (1911), 161


“I have the air intoxications and only a flier knows what that means.”

—Matilde Moisant, the second American woman to earn a pilot’s license and considered an even better aviator than Harriet Quimby, quoted in Don Dahler’s Fearless: Harriet Quimby, A Life Without Limit (171)


Lockheed’s SR-71 Blackbird, considered one of the finest spy or stealth planes ever designed, was 107 feet long, 18 feet high, with a wingspan of 56 feet. It was 85 percent titanium and could be washed only with distilled water. As pilot Richard Graham writes, it was “purposely painted black. . . carried 80,000 pounds of a special fuel, called JP-7.” It had a speed of Mach-3 or better (three times the speed of sound or better), “could cruise at 80,000 feet . . . Blackbird crews were required to wear full pressure suits and breathe 100 percent oxygen while flying.” It could outrun a surface-to-air missile (SAM) and could fly higher than any Russian interceptor jet.  It was “the world’s most secretive, highest, and fastest plane.” When the planes were first flown over Okinawa in the late 1960s, the Okinawans called them the Habu, after an evil-looking poisonous black snake.  “No SR-71 was ever shot down or damaged as a result of hostile action, and no Air Force crew member was ever killed as the result of a mishap.” (8-12, Richard Graham, Flying the SR-71 Blackbird: In the Cockpit on a Secret Operational Mission, Quarto Publishing, 2019) It was as far beyond the Blériot monoplane, the first airplane to successfully cross the English Channel, or La Manche as the French call it, on July 9, 1909, as a Formula One race car is beyond a Model T Ford. Many died from mishaps in planes like the Blériot monoplane or the Curtiss JN (Jenny) biplane. Piloting was never for the faint of heart. In the summer of 1911, there were thirty-six licensed American pilots. All of them were men.

Harriet Quimby, the first American woman and the second woman worldwide to earn a pilot’s license, refused to fly across the English Channel on Sunday, April 14, 1912, despite the fact that the weather was perfect for the attempt, sunny, hardly any wind. She had promised her mother she would not fly on Sundays. Weather prevented the attempt on Monday, the 15th. It was not until Tuesday, the 16th, that she was cleared to try even though conditions were far from ideal; low ceiling, heavy fog made matters tricky. She had to wait until the fog began to clear.

She was warned during the flight it would be extremely cold, the coldest she ever endured. According to her biographer, Don Dahler, in Fearless: Harriet Quimby, A Life without Limit (Princeton Architectural Press, 2022): “Under her wool-backed satin flying suit she wore two pairs of silk long underwear. She added a long woolen coat, as well as a rubberized raincoat, and a long sealskin stole. Completing the ensemble were two pairs of long gloves. Reaching around her waist, Gustav [her adviser] insisted on tying a large leather hot-water bag to her midsection ‘like an enormous locket.’” (260) Quimby touched up her make-up before climbing aboard the wood-and-cloth, heavier than air Blériot XI monoplane, similar to the model inventor Louis Blériot used to cross the Channel nearly three years earlier. The plane was 25 feet long, almost 9 feet high, had a wingspan of 25 feet, and Quimby’s model, had a 50-horsepower engine. It could obtain a speed of 45 mph. From Dover to Calais, the span of the Channel, was 22 miles. It would take Quimby a little less than 30 minutes to complete the trip. And although she landed in France, she went off-course, having to fly by compass rather than by sight, and never landed in Calais. The biggest fear was that she would lose her bearings to such an extent that she would wind up flying out into the open Atlantic and certain death. She was confident.

Harriet Quimby, the first American woman and the second woman worldwide to earn a pilot’s license, refused to fly across the English Channel on Sunday, April 14, 1912, despite the fact that the weather was perfect for the attempt, sunny, hardly any wind. She had promised her mother she would not fly on Sundays.

As she writes, “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 Blériot monoplane. For the first time I was to fly by compass. 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. . . . 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.” (Fearless, 260-261)

Quimby negotiated engine problems, bitter cold, and poor visibility, becoming the first woman pilot to fly across the Channel, something she very much wanted to do. (She was a bit disappointed that on April 2, Eleanor Trehawke Davies flew from London to Paris, becoming technically the first woman to cross the Channel in an airplane, but as Dahler notes, “Trehawke Davies was never a pilot. She was what was known as an ‘air companion’—a passenger ever and only.” (Fearless, 253) The public considered flying so dangerous that even a passenger was a daredevil. The pilot was British aviator Gustav Hamel, Quimby’s friend who provided vital assistance for her flight. Quimby, unlike Trehawke Davies, crossed the Channel alone and actually flew the plane.) Quimby wanted to be the first woman pilot to do many things; being a pilot was a commercial venture for her, a way to make money and boost her career as a magazine writer.

“It’s not a fad,” she said, “and I didn’t want to be the first American woman to fly just to make myself conspicuous. I just wanted to be first, that’s all, and I honestly and frankly am delighted. I have written so much about other people, you can’t guess how much I enjoy sitting back and reading about myself for once. I think that’s excusable in me.” (Quoted in Fearless, 207)

She did not quite get the fame from flying the Channel as she had hoped, but not because of Trehawke Davies. The papers the next day were filled with news about the sinking of the Titanic, which occurred on April 15. Timing is everything, as the old saying goes.

Despite wanting to make money from the novelty of being a woman flyer, Quimby truly loved aviation and she preached the gospel to anyone, particularly urging women, using her position as staff writer for Leslie’s Weekly to write frequently about her flying, including a detailed account of her lessons that began in May 1911 at the Moisant School of Aviation, the only American school that would take women students. She received the license in August. Aviation was emancipation: “I felt like a bird cleaving the air with my out-stretched wings. There was no thought of obstruction and obstacle.” (Quoted in Fred Erisman, From Birdwomen to Skygirls: American Girls’ Aviation Stories, TCU Press, 2009, 35) In a Good Housekeeping article, she wrote, “There is no reason why the aëroplane should not open up a fruitful occupation for women. I see no reason why they cannot realize handsome incomes by carrying passengers between adjacent towns, why they cannot derive incomes from parcel delivery, from taking photographs from above, or from conducting schools of flying.” (Quoted in From Birdwomen to Skygirls, 35) As D. H. Lawrence opined in the title of his 1929 essay, “Men Must Work and Women as Well” or, put another way, Women Must Work for Their Own Sake.

If the twentieth century marked the arrival of the New Negro, it was also the era of the New Woman which, as Fred Erisman writes, was an idea built on three assumptions: first, “a belief, not so much in the idea of sex equality, but rather in ‘opposition to sex hierarchy’”; second, that the status of women was socially constructed; and third, that “individual actions reflected upon all womankind.” (From Birdwomen to Skygirls, 24) In this regard, Quimby was a near-perfect embodiment of the New Woman. Nothing could signify the modernity of women more than flying a plane, the quintessential machine of the twentieth century. Women were part of the way of the future.

At air shows, which were common in the formative days of aviation during the early 1910s, women pilots were an attraction because they were an oddity: there were so few of them, and the debate as to whether women should be permitted to fly was fierce.  It was considered a masculine endeavor because of the nature of the machinery and the high risk of injury or death. Many felt that only men needed to prove their mettle in this arena, not women, not necessarily because they were braver or more daring, although this was a common belief, but because they were more insecure and self-conscious about their fragility.

Nothing could signify the modernity of women more than flying a plane, the quintessential machine of the twentieth century. Women were part of the way of the future.

Aviation was something of a stunt profession: the shows offered prize money for speed, endurance flying, and aerial tricks. These shows often drew thousands of spectators, to see flying machines, the latest technology to have the world abuzz; to see death-defying feats; and, often, to see death itself. Many an aviator died at these shows. On the same day that Quimby flew across the Channel, D. Leslie Allen took off in a monoplane in an attempt to cross the St. George’s Channel from Holyhead, Wales, to Dublin, Ireland, a more daunting distance of 72 miles. He disappeared without a trace. (Fearless, 259) These primitive, simpler planes were far more dangerous than, say, the unimaginably more powerful and complex SR-71 Blackbird. When true simplicity is gained, indeed!

L. Frank Baum, writing under the pseudonym of Edith Van Dyne (not the only female pseudonym he used professionally), clearly had someone like Harriet Quimby in mind when he published the juvenile novel The Flying Girl in September 1911, although Quimby herself only earned her license the month before. Baum wrote a series of eleven Aunt Jane’s Nieces girl books under the name of Van Dyne that span from 1906 to 1918. But the aviation craze of the early 1910s made him turn his pen to aviation in hopes of producing a book that would sell well. He attended the famed Los Angeles International Air Meet at Dominguez Field, held from January 10 to 20, 1910. Over 250,000 people attended including nine-year-old Florence Lowe, accompanied by her grandfather, who would grow up to be a noted flyer, aviation groupie, downhome girl, spendthrift, and sex hound “Pancho” Barnes. Baum used what he learned at the Meet as research for The Flying Girl, whose climax occurs at an air meet with the heroine, Orissa Kane, saving in midair the life of an evil pilot who had been sent aloft to sabotage her performance and her plane. The Dominguez Meet is mentioned at the start of chapter three as the inspiration for Orissa and her engineer brother, Stephen, for Stephen to devote his time to designing an airplane while his sister went to work to support the family. (Like Quimby, Orissa is a working girl with a day job.) Stephen builds a plane and teaches his sister not only to fly the plane but also its mechanical structure so that she can repair it, an ability that figures importantly in the sequel, The Flying Girl and Her Chum (July 1912). When Stephen breaks his leg in an airplane accident, Orissa takes his place at the big air meet that ends the book, proving herself a better flyer than her brother.

Many have noted that Baum was a feminist for his time. He featured a spunky heroine in his most famous children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) …. It comes as no surprise that he would be inclined to create a girl aviator character.

In the sequel, Baum has Orissa express an attitude that elucidates the epigraph used at the start of this section and closely echoes Quimby’s own views about women, flying, and eliminating the enervating psychological “superstition” of fear of a gruesome death. Knowledge, competence, and confidence trump all doubt:


. . . the Flying Girl never wittingly took chances in the dangerous profession she followed. The remarkable success of her aërial performances was due to an exact knowledge of every part of her aëroplane. She knew what each bolt and brace was for and how much strain it would stand; she knew to a feather’s weight the opposition of the planes to the air, the number of revolutions to drive the engine under all conditions and the freaks of the unreliable atmospheric currents. And aside from this knowledge she had that prime quality known as “the aviator’s instinct”—the intuition what to do in emergencies, and the coolness to do it promptly. (The Flying Girl and Her Chum, 8)


Many have noted that Baum was a feminist for his time. He featured a spunky heroine in his most famous children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), another spunky and opinionated heroine as the title character in The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913), and wrote an openly feminist work with a gender-bending main character in The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), the immediate sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He had a suffragette mother-in-law, and he felt strongly that women ought to aspire to many of the things men do. It comes as no surprise that he would be inclined to create a girl aviator character. A New Woman in the Age of the New Machine.

On July 1, 1912, just a little over two months after her successful flight over the Channel, Harriet Quimby was killed at an Air Meet in Boston. While doing some routine circuits around the field accompanied by a passenger, she lost control of the plane, possibly hit an unexpected air pocket or current, and both she and the passenger fell from the plane before a horrified audience. Baum never fulfilled his plan to write a third book in The Flying Girl series. The craze for children’s books about women aviators diminished greatly for many years following Quimby’s death.