The Birth of Balloon Flights
The Contessa Grace di Campello Della Spina gives us whole different view of this process. In 1907 she wrote an article that began with the words “Sport of the Gods!” Queen Margherita of Italy had founded the Roman Aero Club in 1904. The Contessa was an ardent member, and her sport of the Gods was ballooning.
First she flew on a tether rope. Now her second ascent: It’s her honeymoon. She, her husband, and a pilot will fly across the Apennines and across Italy. They take off at 9:30 in the evening. The Contessa rhapsodizes,
A full-orbed moon was just appearing in a mist of golden glory above the Alban Hills …
She tells how to pack for the trip.
Bring the simplest and most practical tailor-made suit of light wool. Take an umbrella. The sun bites hard in the South.
She chooses her food carefully.
It should be light and easily eaten. French Prunes, raisins and chocolate — cold tea, mineral water, and well-baked bread. Bring a light volume of your favorite author, and no alcohol save a small flask of brandy in the case of faintness.
Their balloon has a rip valve so they can let gas out and land, but it’s better to throw out a rope so the peasants can tow you in. They rise into the night sky. The view is lovely. They see their reflection in a pillar of cloud by moonlight. The Contessa describes dawn:
On the wings of the stiffening morning breeze we raced along in joyous flight like happy swallows …
The trip ends in a cornfield.
The peasants, seeing us descending, ran from all sides to help pack the balloon, and claim damages for the corn.
She sits on the passenger car and chats with the peasant women. She tells us that,
They are most primitive and full of rustic curiosity.
Next day they catch a train back to Rome. The trip takes 24 hours on the ground. She’s back to the hard earth. The honeymoon has ended.
A few years later, those balloons would become a weapon in the most terrible war we’d ever seen. And, when the smoke cleared, we’d begun dismantling the Contessa’s royal class. Meantime, with all that money to lavish on play, she’d really been a valid ally of human progress. It was about pleasure, and pleasure has always driven the best technologists.
But new technologies make fine ports of entry for the disenfranchised. Black technologists started making their mark in telegraphy and electric lighting in the 1880’s. The peer structures weren’t established. There was no one to wall them out. Women likewise got into the business of flight. And with heavier-than-air flight the name of the game shifted again.
Here’s one for you: Where do you think the hobble skirt got its name? It was invented on the spot in 1908. A French fashion designer saw the mincing steps of a Mrs. Hart Berg leaving Wilbur Wright’s airplane in France. She was the first American woman to ride in an aeroplane, and she’d tied a rope about the bottom of her skirt to keep it from blowing in the wind. Mrs. Berg was still functioning in the same mode as the Contessa.
Women make a Place for Themselves in Aviation History
But the first American woman piloted a plane two years later, and she echoes the shifting drive toward women’s suffrage. Blanche Scott managed to get into Glen Curtiss’s new flying school. But Curtiss didn’t like the idea of women flying, and he’d blocked the throttle on her plane so it would only taxi.
Scott somehow managed to override the block and get herself 40 feet into the air. Two weeks later a woman named Bessica Raiche soloed quite intentionally. But Raiche eventually gave up flying to become a doctor.
Julia Clark was the first woman to die in a crash. She learned to fly in 1911 and died practicing for an exhibition two years later.
Harriet Quimby was the first American woman licensed to fly, in 1912. A year later she was also the first woman to fly the English Channel. Quimby was a stunning beauty and a natural public figure. But the same year she flew the Channel, she also tried to fly an overweight passenger in Boston. He lurched in his seat, and the airplane went out of control. Both fell out and were killed while the airplane somehow righted itself and landed safely.
Women were amassing firsts and setting records just before WW-I. Then women wanted a piece of the action as it became clear that airplanes would play a role in the war. But at that point the wall went up. The military strongly opposed involving women in war.
The woman who got closest to combat was Katherine Stinson — older sister of airplane builder Eddie Stinson. It was she who got him into the business. First she trained Allied pilots at her own flying school. Then she went to France as an ambulance driver, where she did some flying for the Red Cross. She was a superb pilot who’d already set several flight endurance records.
But war reasserts the male principle. By 1918 women had lost the ground they’d gained, and not only in flight. Yet women had firmly established their courage, determination, inventiveness, and natural ability to fly.