Tomboy of the Air

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May 17, 1910. New York City. Blanche Stuart Scott, a 25-year-old “society girl” from Rochester, New York, sets out to drive herself across the country to San Francisco, along mostly unsigned dirt roads. Accompanied by a “presswoman” passenger and a small entourage, Scott expects to drive every mile of the route herself, behind the wheel of a Winton-Overland automobile boldly lettered, “The Girl, The Car, and the Wide, Wide World.” If successful, she will become the second woman to drive across the country, and the first to do so from east to west.

 

Scott reached Indianapolis within two weeks, having passed through Dayton, Ohio, where—as she later told the story—the sight of two aeroplanes circling over the Wright aviation field piqued her interest. Sixty-eight days and more than 5300 road miles after wheeling out of New York, she reached San Francisco. In one of the apocryphal stories emblematic of the era, Scott was reported to have carried with her a bottle of Atlantic Ocean water, which she then tossed joyfully into the Pacific. She proceeded on to San Diego, where she received an invitation to ride in an aeroplane. Whether she actually went aloft is open to debate, but there’s no question she had by then developed a keen interest in flying.

The possible appearance of women aviators was already making for sensational news copy in the summer of 1910. Twenty-year-old Mabel Ely, Eugene’s wife, took her first passenger ride in August at an exhibition on Long Island; there was no real seat, so she perched on the lower wing and clutched a strut. For many months thereafter Mabel was asked to pose at the wheel of her husband’s machine for news photographs that would accompany the recurring (but false) story that she intended to learn to fly—evidently an intentional marketing strategy based on the theory that the mere chance of seeing a woman in the sky would bring spectators flocking to exhibitions.

When Blanche Scott returned to Rochester in early September 1910, she sought flight lessons from pioneer aviator Glenn Curtiss at his factory in nearby Hammondsport. Scott later described the mechanics of handling the earliest flying machines as “trying to balance a needle on a billiard ball.” As it happened, at the same time “proto-feminist” Bessie Raiche and her husband finished building a Wright-type biplane in their Long Island backyard. Mrs. Raiche, without any formal instruction, crashed the plane on September 16 before flying successfully for more than a mile eight days later, becoming the first American woman to complete a public flight. But, because Blanche Scott claimed to have inadvertently made a brief hop or two at Hammondsport as early as September 6, she is now generally credited as the first American woman to fly solo.

Scott became proficient enough that Curtiss gave serious consideration in late 1910 and early 1911 to adding her to his team of exhibition aviators. When his business manager, Jerome Fanciulli, learned of the plan, he sent Curtiss a vigorous protest by telegram. “Have trouble [enough] handling men,” Fanciulli wrote. “[A]m unutterably opposed to having woman.” Curtiss responded: “Miss Scott writes that she must fly, and if we do not take her, she will go with another outfit. I am not sure but that we could use her[] to advantage.”

Curtiss was right. While he and Fanciulli procrastinated, Scott went with another “outfit.” Promoted as the “Tomboy of the Air” under the serial instruction of Capt. Tom Baldwin, Glenn Martin, and Jimmie Ward, Scott flew professionally until 1913, when a crash in Wisconsin left her with cracked ribs and a broken collarbone. Although she vowed to return to exhibiting, there is no record of her doing so. She formally announced her retirement in 1916, explaining many years later that cut-rate exhibition flyers had by then rendered the business unprofitable.

Nonetheless, Scott maintained an interest in aviation for the rest of her life. At a 1937 New York air show she took a flying lesson from 19-year-old Mary Fraser, and around that same time she flew as a passenger in a helicopter. Ten years later she rode with test pilot Chuck Yeager, becoming the first woman to fly in a jet aircraft. But she was quoted as saying that she couldn’t stand to watch jet aerobatics: “I lose a piece of my heart whenever I do.” In 1957 she was invited to the location filming for The Spirit of St. Louis, where she met actor Jimmy Stewart.

Scott celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of her initial flight in 1960. She was quoted then as opining that the public wouldn’t be ready to accept female airline pilots for another fifty years (by which time, she figured, all the qualified men would be flying in outer space). Four years later, although she publicly supported allowing female astronauts into the space program, Scott saw no reason for racing the Soviets to the moon: “That money,” she said, “could be spent now on many things needed here—education, slum clearance, housing.”

Scott lived to witness the moon landing, and she nearly made it to the sixtieth anniversary of her first flight, dying in early 1970 at age 84. By that time, widely accepted as America’s first female aviator, she was working on an autobiography entitled Not on a Broom. Her name and likeness appeared on an airmail stamp in 1980, and in 2005 Blanche Stuart Scott was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

The accompanying image is the cover of the April 1911 issue of The Air-Scout, official organ of the short-lived United States Aeronautical Reserve, a paramilitary organization. The image of a woman aviator is unrelated to any of the contents of that issue. Two months earlier, however, The Air-Scout included a one-page pictorial spread entitled, “The Feminine Side of Aviation” (all eight of the women aviators depicted were European). It’s conceivable the April cover artwork had originally been intended for the February issue—but the February cover ended up being a full-page photograph of Eugene Ely, seated in his aeroplane just after completing the historic ship landing in San Francisco Bay on January 19, 1911.

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Tomboy of the Air

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November 14, 1910. For the first time in history, a flying machine left a ship at sea and landed ashore. The ship was U.S.S. Birmingham, one of three Chester-class scout cruisers operated by the U.S. Navy. The place was the open water known as Hampton Roads, near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and Norfolk, Virginia. The pilot was a self-taught civilian aviator, Eugene Ely, who had turned 24 barely three weeks earlier and had been flying for less than seven months. The weather was atrocious.

The Birmingham flight was made at the request of Captain Washington Irving Chambers, the officer in the Department of the Navy tasked with monitoring developments in aviation — despite the fact that hardly anyone thought flying machines had any possible naval value. Ely, a member of Glenn Curtiss’s exhibition team, volunteered to make the flight after Wilbur Wright refused permission for a member of the Wrights’ exhibition team to make the attempt and called the mere idea of naval aviation “impossible.” In fact, at the time no one was certain that aeroplanes, as they were then called, could operate over open water — to say nothing of achieving take-off speed in such a confined space.

Ely had never flown this particular aeroplane before. The temporary wooden platform constructed over Birmingham’s foredeck offered him only 50+ feet of room to take off. It was angled down to provide additional speed but, as the photograph shows, he started falling almost immediately despite having his forward elevator angled up. His wheels actually made contact with the waves and the propeller, which was behind him, splintered when it made contact with the water. Incredibly, Ely was able to pull up from the dive and fly five miles to shore, half-blinded by spray, landing on the soft sand of Willoughby Spit. His brief flight represented the first practical step in naval aviation and proved that aeroplanes were more than just “carnival toys,” as some highly placed naval officers had dismissed them.

Two months later Ely would reverse the process, landing on a battleship anchored in San Francisco Bay and coming to a stop through a system of ropes and sandbags that was the direct forerunner of the tailhook arresting device used on today’s flat-top carriers.

Ely died in a flying accident in October 1911, days before his 25th birthday. His short life, which coincided with the incredible revolution in personal transportation that saw the world go from horse-drawn wagons to bicycles to automobiles to airplanes in less than a quarter century, is the focus of my forthcoming biography, Gods in Machines: Eugene Ely and the Road to the Sky.

Future posts will touch on some of the remarkable men and women who led that revolution, the pioneers who were seen at the time as nothing short of gods in machines.

 

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