Planes, Feigns and AutomobilesOn August 18, 2021 by Elyse
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s. . . me in the pilot seat! Well, close enough.
A few weeks ago, I checked off a bucket list item and took a flying lesson. I wasn’t flying quite like Superman, but I sure felt like a superhero when I successfully turned the ignition key in the right direction, said the magic words to the air traffic control tower and managed to avoid crashing in a cornfield, with a little—okay, a lot of—assistance from the trained pilot sitting next to me with dual controls.
More than anything, I was delighted to prove Claude “No Place in the Air for Women” Grahame-White wrong. Happily, plenty of brave female pilots have come before me, including Matilde Moisant, the second woman in the U.S. to earn a pilot’s license. She was a daredevil in more ways than one:
On Sunday, October 8, 1911, a crowd of 500 people gathered at an airfield in Nassau County, New York to see an aviation tournament. However, they weren’t the only ones.
Archvillain and cliché killjoy Sheriff De Mott was determined to stop the spectacle, which he believed violated the county’s Sabbath law. Thus, he dispatched 22 deputies to the airfield, “stationing one before every third hanger and at every entrance gate.” He quite literally covered his bases.
Things did not go according to plan:
Miss Matilde Moisant, who wanted to fly over to her brother’s field at Mineola, was ruminating over her constitutional rights. . . she came to the conclusion, about 4 o’clock, that she had a perfect right to travel between two points as she saw fit. . .
Surely everyone knows by now to never stand between a “Karen” and her rights.
The deputies remonstrated and threatened, but she reminded them they must wait until she left the ground before acting. They watched her climb into her seat, start the motor, run along the ground and ascend.
As she circled the aerodrome and made as if to alight, the officers of the law ran out to arrest her, but just as she seemed about to flutter into their grasp she tilted her planes and soared aloft again, waving them a fond farewell. . .
Like in any good Hollywood movie, a car chase ensued, with several deputies piling in and setting out for Mineola, where Matilde was set to land.
When [Matilde’s brother] had placed Joe Stevenson’s car in readiness for her at the center of the aerodrome she descended, hopped out of her monoplane and into the automobile. Another crowd of 500 saw the sheriffs give chase, the pursuit zigzagging about the inclosure like a game of tag. . .
The sheriffs were gaining on her and came close enough to attempt to yank her out of her car. But just then, the cavalry arrived when another car driven by fellow aviators pulled up. Without hesitation, Matilde hopped in.
[A]gain the pursuit was on. [The driver] made a dash for the highway. His car, being fast, soon left the deputy sheriffs far behind, and it seemed as if the incident was about to close.
But wait, there’s more!
But Miss Moisant decided that she would do well to surrender, since she had committed no crime. So the car was turned about and she entered the aviation field once more and drove up to the hangers to give herself up.
It ain’t over until Elena Theodorini sings:
But her brother, white with anger, confronted the deputies as they stepped up to make the arrest, and asked them for their warrant. They had none. He ordered them off his field, saying they had no right trespassing on private property without a warrant.
The crowd, greatly excited, surged about, with uncomplimentary suggestions to the law officers, and when the latter refused to depart the fight started. . . The fair flier slipped away without waiting for the outcome, reached the hanger of the Aeronautical Society and hurried away in her brother’s car for Manhattan.– The Evening Star, October 9, 1911
An attempt to stop flying in Nassau county yesterday broke up the peace of the Sabbath as no flying meet has ever done. A free fight to prevent the arrest of Miss Matilde Moisant, pursuit and escape by automobile, with speed laws forgotten, and the excitation of the whole countryside were perhaps the principal features of what looked like a conspiracy to make the law ridiculous.– The Evening Star, October 9, 1911
Conspiracy or not, mission accomplished.
Matilde risked far worse than arrest every time she sat in the cockpit:
According to Miss Matilde Moisant, the aviator accidents in the air do not blunt one’s courage or destroy the desire to fly. And Miss Moisant ought to know because she has experienced most every kind of mishap known to the game. She has been lost in cloud banks, pinioned under wreckage and rescued from a burning aeroplane, and yet she says she would fly again. . .
It was not until she had been the victim of four accidents and in each instance had narrowly escaped death that she was persuaded to give up flying. And now she says she only quit because she had made nervous wrecks of members of her family and was compelled to make a promise to stay on the ground.– The Colorado Statesman, July 25, 1913
Any one of those incidents would’ve been enough to send me running for the hills—on foot, not by plane. Along with her own near-death experiences, Matilde lost both her brother, John Moisant, and her friend, Harriet Quimby, to flying accidents. Talk about courage.
I’m grateful to all the aviation pioneers like Matilde who smoothed the way and made my 21st-century flight exhilarating rather than terrifying—to say nothing of fighting the law so I could fly on a Sunday without being chased down the runway.
My little blog is growing up so fast! On August 15, Second Glance History celebrated its third birthday. I couldn’t have kept writing through dishearteningly low pageviews and incessant WordPress updates over the last few years without your clicks, likes, kind comments and encouragement, dear readers. Your support gives me so much more than a social media-induced dopamine rush. On my three-year blogiversary, I’m thanking and celebrating all of you!
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Welcome to Second Glance History! This blog seeks to uncover the people and the stories forgotten by history and give them another read through a modern lens. Join me every week as we examine the differences that divide and the common threads that connect the then to the now.