VINTAGE KITS ANNEX 5
The Moisant brochure was given to me by the late Hope Keller, daughter of an Iowa Early Bird aviator, Oscar Solbrig. Solbrig built his first airplane in 1911-1912 in Davenport, Iowa and attended both the San Diego North Island Curtiss Flying School and the Hammondsport school. A friend of Lincoln Beachey and Art Mix, Solbrig and his wife worked the mid-west fair circuit with flying exhibitions in 1913 through 1916 using their 2-stroke Roberts powered, Curtiss headless pusher. He collected many brochures from flying schools and manufacturers prior to his entry into aviation as a builder/pilot and this Moisant booklet was apparently studied as one of many choices of schools available in 1911-1912. I edited a monograph in 1991, "An Early Bird's Flying as Described by His Daughter," which briefly examined the flying career of Solbrig as told by his daughter, Hope, and his wife, Mary. Hope Keller died in 1992 at the age of 96. Oscar Solbrig would have been sure to cross paths with Alfred Moisant's touring aerial exhibition group, the Moisant International Aviators, as they flew at Davenport, Iowa in 1911, about the time that Oscar's enthusiasm for flying was building.
Solbrig subscribed to the Aero and Hydro magazine; most of his issues were donated by Hope Keller to CollectAir. The advertisement for the Moisant school, shown below, is from the August 24, 1912 issue. The markings on the ad are a check mark by Solbrig; he apparently sent for the brochure from this ad.
You can view the interesting 1911 letter from Curtiss Aeroplanes to Oscar Solbrig which informs him of his acceptance to the North Island Curtiss Flying School by clicking here. Use the back arrow to return.
The November 22, 1913 issue of Aero and Hydro magazine displayed a photo entitled, "Important Members of the Curtiss Organization." The caption below the photo states, "Harry C. Genung and Mrs. Genung in their HUP at Hammondsport." Harry C. Genung, Vice President of Curtiss, was the signer of the letter to Solbrig.
Before examining the brief career of Matilde Moisant and the Hempstead Plains flying fields, the short aerial exhibition history of Oscar Solbrig and his wife Mary, operating from Davenport, Iowa, will be shown below in several photos. Several of the photos may be seen in an enlarged version by clicking on the picture.
The advertisement shown below for the Benoist is from 1913; for a large version, click on the ad. Use back arrow to return.
From the February 8, 1913 issue of Aero and Hydro:
There is a plane builder - Benoist,
Before continuing with this tale, let's take a look at what the magazine, "AERO, America's Aviation Weekly", dated April 6, 1912, Vol. IV, No. 1, 16,500 copies, printed about Matilde in a section (page 17) entitled, "Terse Biographies of Leading Aviators." Keep this date of April 6, 1912 in mind as it assumes more importance later in the story.
"MISS MATILDE MOISANT, sister of the late John B. Moisant, the winner of the Statue of Liberty flight, and whose famous achievement in flying from Paris to London with a passenger is well remembered, and sister also of Alfred J. Moisant, president of the Moisant International Aviators and of the Hempstead Plains Aviation Company, is a graduate of the Moisant Aviation School, where she obtained her pilot's license No. 44, on August 17, 1911.
"Miss Moisant made her public debut October at Nassau Boulevard, L. I., where she won the Rodman-Wanamaker trophy for altitude against Miss Harriet Quimby and Mademoiselle Dutrieu.
"Miss Moisant was born 24 years ago in Illinois and has spent a large portion of her life in traveling throughout the United States and in Central America. She flies a Moisant monoplane equipped with a 50-horsepower Gnome motor. During the past winter she has been giving exhibitions in Mexico and the Southern states in company with Andre Houpert and Francisco Alvarez, the latter having also obtained his pilot's license at the Moisant Aviation School on December 13, 1911. During her tour in Mexico, Miss Moisant flew in higher altitudes than have ever before been undertaken by a woman aviator and than male aviators are usually willing to tackle. Miss Moisant is booked exclusively through the Moisant International Aviators, Times Building, New York."
Note that in the above bio the author shaved about nine years off Matilde's age! At her request? More glamour for a young aviator than a "mature" women in her thirties; the famous woman pilot, Harriet Quimby, friend of Matilde, did her own age manipulation in an equal dose.
Matilde was an "aviator" according to the above biography. Why not an aviatrix, or aviatrice, or aviatress? Or some other term denoting a woman pilot? Simply stated, an aviator is an aviator! "Aviatrice" and "aviatrix" were commonly used in 1911 as well as today, however, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics decided in 1916 that an aviator has no gender and that's the way it's going to be. Blanche Scott, the earliest American woman pilot, was billed in 1912 exhibition posters as "The Tomboy of the Air, the Most Famous Aviatrix in the World"; Matilde likewise characterized herself as a "tomboy", a term that would not be considered gender correct in today's uptight, PC society.
A superb new book, "The Magnificent Moisants - Champions of Early Flight," by Doris L. Rich, explores the flamboyant Moisant family and their aviation exploits along with the family background and history, warts, tragedy and all. Matilde's adventures in aviation are covered, but so are the aerial exhibitions, ambitions and airplanes attributed to her brother and pilot John, her non-flying entrepreneur brother Alfred, and exhibition pilots Harriet Quimby, Roland Garros, Andre Houpert and many others. The family intrigue and tribulations in Central America make up a background of human failings and troubled businesses that is interwoven with the difficult aeronautical challenges of the times experienced by enterprising aviators touring the exhibition circuit and attempting to teach flying. By 1911, only five years had passed since anyone outside of the Wrights had flown an airplane (Santos-Dumont flew about 21 seconds On November 12, 1906 - following that flight, it wasn't until April 11, 1908 that anyone outside of the Wrights flew for more than five minutes and that flight was at Issy, France by Delagrange. By the Summer of 1908, many flights were being made but the majority of endurance flights were being performed in Wright machines); a fledgling business proposition indeed when you consider that the field of aviation, outside of the Wright brothers' successes, was only about three years old! One aeronautical source from 1950 states that only 34 persons, worldwide, had piloted an airplane by the end of 1908. Rich's book draws upon some important original source material from the estate of the Moisants in addition to Smithsonian files and other historical material. The book is crammed with historical facts and maybe a few tales which are hard to substantiate. As a historian, Rich has omitted material that is purely fanciful or embellished with the passage of time. If you enjoy this article, I highly recommend that you read Doris Rich's book. This article covers just the period of the Moisant saga during Matilde's brief flying career - read Rich's book for the complete story.
I have drawn upon Rich's Moisant book for validation of some material in this article. As this tome is not the academic definition of "history", I am including some rather fabricated "first hand" information and then pointing out some of the errors. In a few cases, Matilde was just plain mistaken and unable to adjust her thinking to the facts, a point of view that I find interesting and perhaps instructive when you read many of the "first hand" accounts by aviators, early and combat. Matilde was not trying to intentionally change history but I'm certain she honestly believed what she was saying (well, maybe not on the age question!). On the other hand, comments by her "manager," as you will read, are laced with pure fiction to embellish his role in her exhibition flying career, or to simply pump up the story to be more dramatic and exotic. Since we're just having fun here, I do not have the constraints of a historian nor worry about adverse reaction to a story "told twice." Being your own editor may be frought with danger but it does have some perks.
The Moisant School of Aviation was established by Alfred Moisant in late May, 1911 at the aviation history-rich Hempstead Plains area on the east side of the road from the Mineola fairgrounds on Long Island at Garden City.
This central Nassau County grasslands area, Hempstead Plains (the only natural prairie east of the Allegheny Mountains), was home to several aerodromes centering around what is now Meadowbrook Parkway and Country Road. Moisant's field was renamed Hazelhurst Field in 1917 and part of the aerodrome parcelled off to Curtiss Field, all of which later became Roosevelt Field and today is the Roosevelt Field Shopping Center. A south portion of the field was dedicated to the Army as Mitchel Field. The May, 1916 edition of "Flying" magazine states that the "Hempstead Plains aviation field" was leased to the new Wright Company for an aviation school; the field was also mentioned in 1916 as being the "Wright Flying Field" with hangars for U.S. Army aircraft at Mineola, L.I. Mentioned in 1916 also was the "Garden City Aerodrome" where the First Aero Company of the New York National Guard was mustered in on July 13, 1916, being the first militia aviation company in the U.S.
Photos and historical information on both Roosevelt Field and Mitchel AFB can be found at www.airfields-freeman.com/NY/Airfields_NY_NY_E.html. Charles Lindbergh began his historic solo flight to Paris from Roosevelt Field in 1927; film of this dicey takeoff can be viewed by clicking here. Use the return arrow.
Considered the aviation center of the east, this field, Mineola, was home to the Aeronautical Society of New York and was the site of Glenn Curtiss' Washington Avenue field in 1908. The Nassau Boulevard field of the Aero Club of America was located just west of the Mineola field near what today would be the corner of Nassau Boulevard and an imaginary extension of Old Country Road (it's tough superimposing the old maps of 1912 on a modern street map without having a topographic chart etc.). A few more miles to the west, toward Queens, the famous Belmont Track still exists, the site of famous air meets. Moisant's "pasture", the new Hempstead Plains Aviation Company field, under construction while the school temporarily opened at Mineola, was supposed to be open in 1911, but in fact, didn't become useful until over another year passed.
The New York Times carried the following article in the June 25, 1911 paper:
It is unclear how the "Hempstead Plains Aviation Company" and the "Moisant International Aviators" manage and separate the activities and finances. Obviously, the 500 airplanes a year output was rather bloated. It is reported that the factory was located at 276-280 Ninth Avenue, New York City.
Excerpts from several 1912 "AERO" magazines explain the interaction amongst the flying fields, certainly the most concentrated aeronautical activity in the country at that particular time. "AERO", March 16, 1912: "There is again a rumor that ex-Lieut. Gov. Timothy Woodruff is going to abandon the Nassua Boulevard Aerodrome. This time it is said that residents of Garden City, who have from the first objected to the flying field, have decided upon a definite plan to put the ground out of business... For more than a year now there have been rumors that the field was to be cut up into building lots. Nobody seems to know what is really going to happen here..." Note that Woodruff stated in the February 2, 1912 "AERO" that, "...plans are under way for the season of 1912 which will make the field (Nassau) a very profitable place for aviators to locate." The "AERO" of April 13, 1912 revealed that, "Nassau Boulevard aerodrome is going after all. Gage E. Tarbell, who has taken the place of ex-Lieut.-Governor Woodruff as the head of the real estate company controlling the field and surrounding property, has deferred to the wishes of objecting residents and has decided to abolish the famous flying ground. The occupants of the 31 hangars have received orders to quit before June 1. The entire equipment will be removed to the Moisant field, one mile east of Mineola, thus bringing the ancient flying glory back near to the place where it had its birth on Long Island. The Moisant field has an area of 650 acres. It is close to a branch station of the Long Island Railroad and is easily accessible from either Brooklyn or New York. There are already several concrete hangars on the ground, and the Moisant company intends building more of the same type, which will be in addition to the wooden sheds that will be removed from Nassau Boulevard. The majority of the aviators at Nassau Boulevard will probably move to the Moisant field...The Aero Club of America is now without an official flying field. It is rumored that the club is negotiating for the use of Belmont Park." Then, in "AERO", May 12, 1912, "There has not been a great deal of flying on Long Island during the last few days. This has been moving week in the neighborhood of Garden City. Nearly all hangars at Nassua Boulevard are now down. They are being erected on the field of the Hempstead Plains Aviation Company, which has been officially designated the flying ground of the Aero Club of America...", and, "In a few weeks the center of aviation in the East will be located at the 1,000 acre field of the Hempstead Plains Aviation Company, which lies between Hempstead and Westbury, about one mile east of the old Mineola field. This aerodrome was originally laid out by the Moisant Company, which put up six concrete and steel hangars. Under the new arrangement the Moisant people will occupy two of these hangars...at the present time there are four Moisant monoplanes, a Moisant biplane and the new Gallaudet monoplane at Hempstead...Until everything is ready at Hempstead, the Moisant School will be conducted at Mineola. S.S. Jerwan, who will have charge of the school this season, has already four pupils." Note that Shakir S. Jerwan received his license #54 in August 1911, the same month as Matilde. The Early Bird newsletter, "Chirp," mentioned in 1939 that Jerwan was living at 1701 Locust St., Philadelphia and that he was the comptroller of a hotel.
S.S. Jerwan was one of five original flying students at the Moisant School of Aviation along with Matilde and Harriet. He became chief pilot and manager following his obtaining of license #54. The photo shown below is of particular interest for several reasons. Jerwan used this beautiful model of the Bleriot for training in the school. Amazingly, this model still exists in a private collection and is in outstanding condition; it has a motor dirven propeller. Jerwan spent about 3 or 4 years at the school and then accepted a position offered by the Guatemalan government to conduct flight training. Moisant had previously sold several Bleriot types to Guatemala. He returned to the U.S. around 1917 and had nothing more to do with aviation. I will provide a PDF of an old article written by Jerwan, entitled "Flying as it Was," if you request it by email.
S.S. Jerwan with Bleriot training model. Photo courtesy of Tom Heinzman.
Jerwan's Bleriot model as of 2013.
Note that Gage Tarbell, a successful New York insurance executive with Equitable, was one of six men profiled in the September, 1910 issue of the monthly magazine "Aircraft" as being one of the "Big Men of the Movement." Tarbell was one of the early members of the Aero Club of America. It is noted in the article that, "One great work, however, that Mr. Tarbell has already accomplished for the good of aviation in America, and Eastern aviators in particular, was the converting of the vast Hempstead Plains of Long Island into one of the very best aviation fields in the world." Gage Tarbell was on the board of directors of Alfred Moisant's Hempstead Plains Aviation Company. Also profiled was pilot Charles Keeney Hamilton who, for a period, flew with the Moisant International Aviators.
Many famous pilots, foreign and domestic, of the period either got their start on the grassy fields or participated in exhibitions. T.O.M. Sopwith frequently used the Long Island fields during his brief six months visit to America in 1911. Matilde Moisant met Sopwith many times during this American tour as he flew out of the Nassau field. This famous British motorist, yachtsman and flier, T.O.M. Sopwith, shipped his new 70 hp, tandem Bleriot and a Howard Wright biplane to America in May 1911 and initially located to the Hempstead Plains, Long Island. He soon crashed the Bleriot, ordered another from Bleriot, and proceeded to assemble his Howard Wright at the Philadelphia Driving Park, Point Breeze and began touring with his biplane. He went to Columbus, Ohio from May 29 through June 3 to engage in aerial competitions. He went back to Long Island where he took Timothy L. Woodfuff's wife on a passenger-carrying flight, followed by the ex-Lieutenant Governor himself. Flying from Nassau Boulevard Field, Sopwith flew his Howard Wright out to sea near Brooklyn to greet the passenger liner Olympic. During this period, Sopwith was making passenger flights from the Garden City Estates site. In August, Sopwith had received his new Bleriot from France; he took his Howard Wright, along with the newly received 70 hp, tandem Bleriot, to a nine-day aviation meet in Chicago where he competed against some famous aviators of the time, such as Eugene Ely, Lincoln Beachey, Frank Coffyn, Earle Ovington, Phillip Parmelee, Rene Simon and many others. In early September, Sopwith took his Howard Wright and Bleriot to the Harvard-Boston meet at Quantum and won the Boston Lighthouse race with his Bleriot which sported a number 7 on the rudder.
Sopwith returned to New York and gave exhibition and passenger flights from Brighton Beach Aerodrome using the tandem Bleriot and the Howard Wright. On September 10th, Sopwith dumped his Howard Wright Biplane into the water off the Manhattan Beach Hotel while carrying passenger Lee Hammond, himself an aviator. By October 1911, Sopwith decided to return to England. He shipped the Bleriot and the wrecked biplane back to England where they arrived in late January 1912 - Sopwith flew the Bleriot as his personal airplane at his newly opened "Sopwith School of Flying" at Brooklands, Weybridge, Surrey.
The detail (shown below) of T.O.M. Sopwith's second Bleriot is taken from the painting, T.O.M. Sopwith Rounds the Boston Lighthouse - 1911, completed in 2009. The entire painting may be viewed by emailing CollectAir. This was a rather unusual configuration for the Bleriot XI, with the pilot moved forward and the "passenger" seat located in the bay normally occupied by the pilot; later two-place versions placed the passenger behind the wing, one bay aft. The rotary engine and landing gear was moved one new bay forward to compensate for the passenger's weight. Sopwith's airplane is the only example of this configuration that I have run across. The configuration has been documented by several photos taken at the time.
Many of the aviation meets of 1911, including Chicago and Harvard-Boston, are covered in detail in Robert Campbell's terrific book Reminiscences of a Birdman, a biography of early bird pioneer, Earle Lewis Ovington, who had close ties to the Santa Barbara area during the 1920s. This book is highly recommended. ISBN 978-0-615-28188-9. The book may be ordered from the Goleta Valley Historical Society museum store at www.GoletaHistory.org. Click here to learn more about this book and visit Mr. Campbell's website.
The majority of the Bleriot XI airplanes were powered by the French-built, rotary Gnôme engine; the Moisant-Bleriots used this engine. A 1910 advertisement for the engine advised that the engine was "made from forged nickel steel" with "no cast parts" and "no aluminum" parts. The normal speed was given as 1200 R.P.M. with "throttle control, 200 to 1300 R.P.M." The ad boasted that the engine is "light in design not in parts" and that it is the "stongest aviation engine made." The 50 H.P. version's weight was listed as 167 lbs. with a price, f.o.b. factory, Paris, France, of $2600; the 100 H.P. version cost $4800. The engine could be mounted with a front support bearing and a rear support bearing (as pictured in this article)or could be overhung with no front support bearing. Most of the Bleriots used the front bearing but other installation arrangements were made. Many other Gnôme installations on airplanes such as the Morane-Saulnier and Borel used the overhung method which would save some weight with a shorter nose shaft and no support brackets.
Alfred "Fred" Moisant, founder of the Moisant School of Aviation, was the older brother of John B. Moisant who, after his Paris-to-London flight and a controversial win in the 1910 Belmont Meet's Statue of Liberty race with a 50 h.p. Bleriot, was killed in a bad landing at New Orleans on the last day of 1910. John had originated the idea of a forming a flying school with his brother Alfred.
The magazine, Popular Aviation, in the November 1937 edition, carried an article by Capt. Hugh C. Downey entitled "Old Days at Hempstead Plains." The author describes activities at Hempstead in 1913 (somewhat after the era of this webpage article). You can view this entertaining piece of journalism by clicking here. Use the back arrow to return.
John Moisant didn't live to see the dawn of the year of 1911 so his exploits aren't intertwined with Matilde's flying "career," yet John's influence and enthusiasm for flying and his brief stint with the International Aviators set the stage for Alfred's flying school. The July 1928 issue of the magazine, Popular Aviation, carried a lengthy article on John B. Moisant in the "Pioneer Air Pilots" section. If you are interested in John's life (which was quite exciting at times), I have attached a copy of the article which you can read or print out by clicking on the magazine cover below.
The "Moisant Aviation School" brochure was written, at least in part, during later-1912 as several references are made to 1912 events such as Jeam Olieslagers "recent" 389 mile non-stop flight, Rene Barrier's 88 m.p.h. flight at Memphis, Garros' performance in European races such as the Paris-London-Paris race, and Miss Bernetta Miller is pictured as a graduate and she received her F.A.I. license in September 1912. Matilde Moisant's flight in Mexico City in November, 1911 is also mentioned. Although much promotional material concerning aviation is attributed to John Moisant along with coverage of his early aerial exploits and John's outline for successful pilot training, the brochure does not mention John's death in one of his own airplanes. Several mentions and a picture of Harriet Quimby must of been printed about the time of her tragic July death in a Boston Harbor airplane crash. The brochure intimates that the new field has been in use for several years when, in fact, the Aviation School had been operating at the old Mineola site for most of the time.
One of Alfred Moisant's sisters, Matilde, was a friend of Harriet Quimby who, after seeing the flying at the 1910 Belmont Meet (nearby), decided to learn to fly and was accepted as a student (for a school not yet operational) by John Moisant prior to his death. Blanche Scott, considered to be the first U.S. woman pilot (though never licensed), took lessons from Curtiss at Hammondsport (see Appendix) and then later was taught to fly at Nassau Boulevard by Captain Thomas Scott Baldwin just before Harriet took to the air; Harriet Quimby passed the rigorous flight test routine of the Aero Club of America on August 1, 1911 to be the first woman pilot licensed by that body (license #37). Matilde followed her friend Harriet into the air and received her Aero Club license on August 13, 1911 (In the following story, Matilde gives September 13 as the date and in the "AERO" biography above the date is given as August 17th, the actual date of issuance, not the flight date); as recipient of license #44, Matilde became the second woman pilot to be licensed and only the fourth woman in the U. S. to pilot an airplane.
The following quotes are from the New York Times.
All three of these Hempstead Plains pilots became exhibition aviators. Blanche Scott and Matilde Moisant survived their brief careers but Harriet Quimby, winning fame for being the first woman to fly the English Channel in April 1912, Deal to Cap Gris-Nez, died in a bizarre airplane accident at Boston Harbor only a few months later, only eleven months from her licensing. As previously mentioned, this article is about Matilde's career as a pilot - a very brief but exciting episode. The chronological details of the airfields of the Hempstead Plains given above are to outline where Matilde actually flew during the training period from July 13, 1911 to August 13, 1911 and where some of her local flights took place for the next few months. It does not appear that Matilde ever flew from the new Hempstead Plains Aviation Field as she abandoned her flying "career" before the field was completed in mid-1912.
For more information on the Bleriot XI from the Cradle of Aviation Museum "Hempstead Plains" webpage, CLICK HERE. Use back arrow to return.
It should be kept in mind that aviating in 1911/1912 was a risky proposition for man or woman. At the beginning of 1912, in the midst of Matilde's flying career, there were only 82 aviators licensed by the Aero Club of America, and of that number, 8 had been killed so far.
Ms. Moisant did all of her flying in the Moisant-built, French-designed Bleriot in 1911 and 1912. Consider the place the French occupied in the aeronautical world at that time. At the end of 1911, the French held the World's records for speed (82.73 mph), distance (449.2 miles) and altitude (12,828 feet). By the end of 1912, the picture hadn't changed; the French held the World's records for speed (108.18 mph), distance (628.15 miles) and altitude (18,405 feet). The very first qualified woman pilot in the world was French Baroness de Laroche who earned her "brevet de pilote d'aéroplane" in a Voisin on March 8, 1910; the second qualified woman pilot was a Belgian, Mlle. Hélène Dutrieu who also earned her rating in 1910. Furthermore, the first American woman to ever fly in an airplane was Katharine Wright who flew with Wilbur in France in 1909; Wilbur Wright had carried three European women in the Flyer in 1908.
Matilde Moisant relived her flying experiences in a tape-recorded interview with the Columbia University Oral History Office in 1960. Author Sherwood Harris made use of this interview in his quality account of early flying titled "The First to Fly: Aviation's Pioneer Days", recommended reading for history buffs of this period. I contacted the Oral History Office at Columbia and was informed that transcripts of interviews can only be released with the written authorization of a living relative. I was able to contact John A. Weyl who is a nephew of Matilde Moisant and Mr. Weyl very kindly sent me a transcript of "The Reminiscences of Matilde Moisant" made in 1960. Also, I ran across a story by Matilde's exhibition flying manager, Richmond Pease, who told the tale of her flying exploits to "Popular Aviation and Aeronautics", now "Flying", for publication in the February, 1929 issue; now 80 years later, this article is being reprinted, in part, here for your pleasure along with portions of her interview at Columbia and other source material used to corroborate the events and add to the story. I trust that you'll agree that these "first hand" accounts are interesting even considering that some fictional chronicles creep in.
I will introduce editorial comments or information on Mr. Pease's story in italics.
I had been in the theatrical line for a number of years in a managerial capacity, when the offer came to me about seventeen years ago to take the management of a company to go through the country giving airplane flying exhibitions.
A form of amusement that then drew marveling multitudes into the fields; an affair of thrills, of breath taking ventures, of dangers immeasurable as thought of then, would today be too familiar to attract paying visitors. The lonely element that up to the beginning of this century belonged to the winged and feathered creation has since become so completely a part of man's dominion that the operation of flying machines is no longer a subject of curiosity and wonder.
I found by this experience that an aviation manager's life is not entirely a happy one. Putting on a horserace is not in it with an aviation meet. Dealing with very expensive and fragile machines, liable at any moment to lie in fragments on the field and representing hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars of uninsurable loss; dickering with managers of fairs and parks, with chambers of commerce, with boards of trade, and with mayors and chiefs of police for guarantees or privileges without which financial success for such open and above board displays as ours would have been impossible; facing crowds on exhibition grounds and induring calmly their impatient gibes when weather conditions made flying too risky for even the most daring to attempt; these were among the problems a manager had to solve in the early days. The few months I spent in this work I regard as one of the most colorful passages in a life well filled with exciting episodes.
In the year 1911 there existed in New York an incorporated company, the Moisant International Aviators, A.J. Moisant, President, A. E. Wupperman, Secretary. Its purpose was the building of flying machines and the staging of aviation exhibitions. This company was then maintaining the largest and most complete college of aviation in the world, which was also the only fully equipped and permanently located school of flying in America (In May, 1911, the Moisant Aviation School had one flying airplane and one instructor, Mr. Houpert!).
Located on Long Island just out of New York, the school occupied a ten thousand acre tract (The actual acreage was variously reported as 650,850,1000 or 1600 acres with large flying areas adjacent and, of course, this complete tract was not in use in 1911), with great cement hangars and grand stand; also a large factory for constructing monoplanes was located near. I was employed as superintendent in this factory, building monoplanes of the Bleriot type equipped with Gnome motors (no substantiation of this employment has been located by this writer).
When the time came to send out an exhibition company its members were chosen from graduates of the school. Among these were Miss Matilde Moisant, Miss Harriet Quimby, Harold Kantner, Jesse Selegman, the Mexican, Francisco Alvarez, and Andre Houpert, the latter a member of the French Aero Clique and head instructor in the Moisant school.
Note: the Moisant Aviation School brochure lists S.S. Jerwan as the Chief Pilot, licensed by the Aero Club of America. Shakir S. Jerwan received license #54 on August 26, 1911 and is mentioned as taking charge of the school for the 1912 summer season (Aero & Hydo, May 4, 1912). The Moisant brochure is for 1912 even though it has a 1911 copyright. Andre Houpert, a Frenchman, was the sole instructor when the school opened in 1911, and was Matilde's instructor.
Matilde, in her interview, said that she learned to fly "Just for fun," and that her brother, Fred, agreed to teach her to fly in the school, "If you promise me you will not fly commercially, I'll let you go."
Her training was somewhat abbreviated in that she didn't attend ground classes. When asked about mechancal training, she stated, "Well the men did. They'd go and get classes on the motor and the carburetor and all that. But I didn't - if I had I wouldn't have known what they were talking about. To me, all I wanted to do was to fly. I felt, my brother flew, and he had never had a lesson when he designed those machines and just started to fly and went up in that corrugated one there."
Matilde toured with the exhibition team "Just for fun." When asked if she went barnstorming, she answered, "Well, in a way, and in a way I didn't. I went with my brother's fliers and Miss Quimby. She was flying for money."
Richmond Pease: It was Houpert's first tour in America. He was the winner of over two hundred prizes taken at aero meets in France; a man of splendid physique, and wonderfully skillful in his profession. Under his tuition Miss Moisant had learned and he named her the most apt of all his pupils.
Two separate exhibition parties started out at first. One under my charge with Kantner as aviator, went south and exhibited at Jacksonville and Tampa, Florida, and Montgomery and other cities in Alabama (Again, I can find no substantiation for this claim for managership by Mr. Pease). The other division, comprising the two ladies and Houpert, Selegman and Alvarez, (Actually, the five pilots were the two ladies, Houpert, George Dyott and Patrick Hamilton) was sent to cover the Antilles, Central America and Mexico (The Moisant International Aviators had previously participated in an air meet in Mexico City early in 1911). They met with but indifferent success and considerable trouble all through the Latin-American countries, especially in Mexico, where they encountered real danger from the revolutionists. The Mexican revolution involved one great adventure that can be deemed of historic importance, as the first recognition of the airplane's adaptability for war service. Certain of the Mexican outlaws made overtures to secure the Moisant equipment and the services of the men to drop explosive bombs upon the Federal forces. The reply of Miss Moisant and her companions was that they were not in Mexico for that purpose; that war was not their trade. The insurgent forces began closing in on them in a hostile manner at Torreon, having burned bridges and rendered the railroad impassable for sixty miles outside that city besides instigating the burning of the Moisant grand stand at the aviation field. The issue was joined at once. It was a clear case of science versus force. The story is essentially true to this point, but wait, the tale becomes somewhat clouded.
The Moisant party held a hurried consultation and in the early dawn started their monoplanes and winged their way out of the beleagured city of Torreon to the railway sixty miles away, where they found facilities to enable them to safely continue their journey to the United States. (In fact, the Moisant group waited almost two weeks and the government troops cleared up the tracks so their train continued its journey to Loredo, Texas. Winging their way out is certainly more dramatic). Not long after this the Moisant company sold five monoplanes to the Mexican government. The foiling of their plans rankled for sometime in the minds of the rebels. Threats were made that Miss Moisant would be kidnapped for ransom. Mutterings of that kind even came to me when we were traveling through Texas.
Bleriot XI displayed at National Air & Space Museum Garber Facility.
Matilde always traveled with her younger sister Louise, even to Mexico. Here is Matilde's description of an exploit in Mexico starting with her description of the Mexican trip as told in her oral history of 1960, pages 16 through 18a. Also, see excerpts from her oral history in the Appendix.
So then my younger sister went with me. I never went alone. Wherever I went, she went with me. So I went to Mexico (November 1911). I was the first woman to fly over Chapultepec and President Madero was in office then. My sister and I had been to the palace - we'd been invited several times to functions there. There was to be a meet there, Moisant's Meet in Mexico and Harriet Quimby was to fly because she would fly for money and I was only flying for fun. We went over, and they shipped our machines from New York on the train. We didn't fly them down.
One evening, or late afternoon, before the meet was to start, I said to my sister, "Will you go to the field with me?"
"Now what are you up to?"
"Well," I said, "I was at the flower market this morning and I bought a great big bunch of flowers. I would like to go and fly over Chapultepec this evening and see if I can locate Chapultepec Palace from where we are in the field." They had a great big patio, which was twice as long as this room. I said, "I would like to see if I could fly over that and drop this bunch of flowers." I printed my name and "with compliments" and so on.
She said, "Well, I guess I can't keep you," so she went with me (to the field). Mr. Houpert, our instructor, was always flying with the group - that is, he was there. He didn't do any flying much but he was there. So he was on the field and I went there and said, "Mr. Houpert, would you bring out my machine?" My brother had given me one when I graduated, when I got my license, and then I'd had a few nickels and I bought one. "What do you want another for?" he asked.
"Oh, I don't know. I might break one, and I'd like to have another." So I brought another one. These were the Moisant monoplane; we had our own factory. My brothers had a factory then where they built their machines.
So we went, and I got in, and I said to Mr. Houpert, "Please tie a great big rock to the flowers, but not too heavy, because I want to be able to lift it into the cockpit and drop it." So they did. "Now," he said, "what are you going to do?
"I'm going to see if I can locate Chapultepec." There was an Indian standing there, and I asked him in Spanish where it was, in what direction. He pointed and answered, "Over there?" "What do you mean?" "Right over there."
I said, "All right," and I cranked my machine. You see, in those days, we didn't have any brakes, we didn't have anything on our machines, you know. The mechanics, or anybody who was there, hung onto the tail, and then somebody cranked the propeller, spun it, and that cranked the motor.
So I said, "Come on, I'm ready to go." Two or three hung onto the tail, and one of them spun the propeller. I felt it was going all right, and I stuck up my hand. Once they let go of the that tail, you had to go, you know. There was no way of stopping it, unless you cut off your motor and the motor died, and sometimes then you died too. But I was very lucky. I had a lot of falls but I always came out all right. I'm like a cat - I think I've got two lives left yet.
So we started. I started to the right, and sure enough, I located Chapultepec - beautiful palace, you know - I flew around and located it and I had just enough sense to know that when I dropped a thing like that, the air or whatever it was would come up, so I thought, "I'd better cross the patio before I drop my flowers." I didn't know a doggoned thing about a motor or anything, all I knew was to turn it on or turn it off. That's all I knew about a motor or a plane or anything.
So when I located it, I flew directly over it, and as I passed over it, I dropped my flowers. I looked back and I could see it going down, and I thought, "Oh boy, I'll hit the patio now." It hit right in the middle of that patio.
Then the next day the president, Madero, came and he said, "Miss Moisant?"
I said, "Yes?"
He said, "You see? I got your flowers." "Now," he said, "if that had been a bomb, I wouldn't be here today, because it dropped right in the patio."
I said, "Well, I aimed it for the patio, but it's not a bomb. It's only a bomb of friendship, nothing else."
He thanked me and everything. That was my first flight in Mexico City. I was the first woman to fly in Mexico City.
Matilde's aircraft flight instruments consisted of only a watch and an aneroid which were stuck on nails! She said, in response to a question about her instrument panel, "Well, I had just the big watch that my brother John had, and I had this little aneroid. I didn't have the compass because after he died, somebody took the compass from my room, or anyway it disappeared, but fortunately I still had those two. And the compass wouldn't have done me any good, because I didn't know how to read a compass."
The Mexican meet was mentioned in the November 25, 1911 issue of "AERO" as follows: "New York, N.Y., November 14 - The Moisant International aviators will be assisted by Aviators J.A.D McCurdy, C.F. Willard and C.F. Walsh during the exhibition in Mexico City, commencing November 16. Their services, which were only recently obtained by contract, will add greatly to the attractive power of the meet by giving the Mexicans an opportunity to see three biplanes and five monoplane operators in a joint exhibition. The misses Harriet Quimby and Matilde Moisant have arrived in Mexico City, accompanied by George M. Dyott and Capt. Patrick Hamilton. Alfred J. Moisant has been in the captal now for several days arranging the details of the exhibition. He will personally superintend their field work."
Now, to rejoin her "manager's" story from "Popular Aviation":
Instructions reached me when this party came out of Mexico to join with mine in New Orleans and conduct the combined troupe in a tour through this country (Doris Rich describes Richmond Pease as a man sent to New Orleans by Alfred to act as Matilde's "assistant"). It was at the New Orleans meeting that I first met Matilde Moisant. I saw in her a most charming and unaffected young lady, full of enthusiastic devotion to her hazardous profession. There was poetic significance in her presence and intention to fly at the Crescent City just fifteen months after her brother, the famous Johnny Moisant, hero of the Paris to London flight, had fallen to his death on the same field she was to fly over.
(After Matilde received a loving cup from the Central American Community of New Orleans in honor of John Moisant; in an interview in about 1936-37, the writer remarks that Matilde had this cup in her living room) To be ready to make repairs after accidents it was necessary to carry with us nearly a (rail)car load of parts. On the way to New Orleans the car was plundered of nearly all of our materials, causing us much delay in our opening.
On Sunday afternoon, March 12th, 1912, in New Orleans, Matilde Moisant in her Bleriot monoplane thrilled several thousand spectators by her spectacular flights and daring evolutions in the air. She made two flights. In the last one she rose about 3,000 feet and a moment later was a mere speck in the blue sky as she sailed away toward the place where Johnny was buried. in passing over she dropped a floral wreath on his grave. Returning she came gracefully to earth only a few feet from where she started.
At the close of the successful meet at New Orleans we proceeded to Shreveport to give exhibitions under the auspices of the Fair Association. It was in a pouring rain that we arrived. Matilde greeted the friends who surrounded her with the sprightly remark, "They do call us birds, but we're not ducks." .... She is described as a charming little woman, with a beautiful olive complexion, and a swift, brilliant smile. In a manner devoid of any sign of posing she talked of her air conquests and adventures interestingly and ardently. Her sister Louise, also a handsome woman, and her devoted companion, lived in constant terror while Matilde was in the air. She would not even look at a flight, so fearful was she that she might witness her sister's death.
Matilde described herself as "..short and on the fat side." She was afraid that she wouldn't get a license because she was too old (32)! Try and reconcile her poor opinion of herself with the lovely lady pictured herein.
"We have been out at the fair grounds to brush the cobwebs off the sky," said big, jolly Brueggerhoff, Secretary of the Shreveport fair, breathing a prayer for fair weather during Saturday and Sunday, for the aviation meet. The weather did clear and exhibitions were given on those days. That Sunday afternoon thousands of spectators had the great thrill of their lives in witnessing the narrow escape of Miss Moisant from destruction. She had been up about 3,000 feet in a splendid flight, but in swooping down to alight on the race track, near an automobile where a few of her friends were standing, the plane touched the ground at a dangerous angle. There was a knoll and small embankment where it struck. This caused one wheel to strike with extra force; the other wheel if it hit at all struck lightly. The machine bounded diagonally thirty feet in the air. The motor had been cut off and the plane instead of rebounding evenly, tipped and then turned completely upside down.
The occupant, jolted from her seat by the first shock, managed to keep her balance until near the ground, when she fell, landing on her hands and knees. A second later the great fabric fell on top of her, completely hiding her from the horrified witnesses. The right wing and propeller were broken and also the right landing wheel. had it not been for the iron wing supports that stuck in the ground and held up the heavy parts, the girl must have been crushed to death. As it was she wriggled from under the wreck unhurt save for a scratched and blackened eye where her goggles had pressed against it.
Aviators of this era did not generally wear seatbelts, an oversight which resulted in the death of Matilde's friend, Harriet Quimby, and could have resulted in serious injuries to Matilde on several occasions.
She sprang lightly to her feet laughing, and evading the help of those who rushed to her aid, hurried to where Louise sat to prove her safety. A few minutes after the accident she merrily approached Houpert saying, "I'll make another flight this afternoon, professor, if you'll lend me your plane." At a sign of dissent from me he shook his head in refusal. "And just think," she sighed, as she regretfully watched the removal of the wrecked monoplane, "I wore a green suit this afternoon in honor of St. Patrick's Day." The scene ended in a rush of souvenir snatchers seeking splinters from the shattered propeller.
The following painting, Matilde Moisant - Exhibition Flier - Shreveport March 1912, shows Matilde and her Bleriot as she careens off the turf. Her sister Louise views the event from her vantage point next to a 1912 Ford T.
Early bird researcher and historian, Carroll Gray, has noted that in 1911 and 1912 the Moisant school initially taught students in the Moisant-Bleriot to land at a steep angle with full power and flare close to the ground, a method known as the "French school." Mr. Carroll states that by 1914, the steep approach was abandoned and referred to as "the old way" of landing. The full power, steep approach was probably thought to provide a safe way to maintain airspeed just prior to landing. An additional consideration is also in order, however, as the tail heavy Bleriot XI employed a lifting horizontal tail surface. If speed is builtup during an approach, the machine will have a tendency to nose over requiring more aft control to effect a landing flare. Consider that Matilde Moisant would have been taught the steep landing approach method - during her career as an exhibition pilot, Matilde had more than one hard landing such as the one depicted in this painting. Her last hard landing in Wichita Falls not only ended her flying career, it could have easily killed her, as noted below.
The next place after Shreveport was Dallas, Texas. The aviators named were Matilde Moisant, Andre Houpert, Harold Kantner and F. Alvarez; Richmond Pease was the manager. On the handsome souvenir program the cover showed the smiling face of Miss Moisant, who was mentioned as the first woman in America to operate an airplane.
The publicity department wasn't above a little fibbing for dramatic effect and public draw!
Intense public interest was shown in her first flight on the first day of the meet. As her plane rushed across the field and rose smoothly into the air a hush fell upon the crowd, but when she rounded the turn and headed north the spectators cheered mightily. She flew around at a height of about 3000 feet a goodly length of time, and glided down gracefully to the landing place to receive the plaudits of the assembly. In reply to questioners she answered, "No, I was not afraid; when I am I'll quit flying. Mr. Houpert told me he thought it was too windy, but I didn't want to disappoint the people. Tomorrow I think I can go higher than I did today."
On March 23rd, 1912, she sailed into the clouds above Dallas in the initial flight of the international meet, attaining distinction as the first woman aviator to fly in Texas. ....In that idle time waiting for good weather I learned from her many details of her adventurous career. "I do not believe in stunts in the air," she told me. "There is no sense in dips and dives when a person must know that the time must come when a crash must end it all. I think I first became interested in flying the day my brother came from France bringing his monoplane. I became very enthusiastic, but after his death I grew to hate the word aviation. When the school opened the old love came back, and it was a race between Miss Quimby and myself .... I believe in 13 most seriously; I was born on September 13; took my first flying lesson July 13; got my pilot's license on my birthday, September 13; and weighed 113 pounds the day I made my first professional ascent in the air.
"Shall I ever give up flying? Yes, certainly, in about two months. It's terribly fascinating, but my sister" - who was in the room bending over her embroidery while this conversation was going on - "becomes almost a physical wreck every time I go up. Then I shall learn to drive an automobile. Queer, isn't it, that I should never have driven a motor car on the ground before I tried it in the sky? Except for rowing or horse-back riding I never attacked athletics strenuously. It doesn't take much strength for sky motoring - more nerve than anything else."
In five short months, comprising her rapid spectacular career, she gained international fame as an aviatrix. ...
The next city on our itinerary was Tyler, Texas. ....We had a large tent we used for a hangar, to which we charged an admission fee.
For the Tyler meet there were ticket boxes at every approach to the flying field, and any person found on the field without a ticket was treated as a trespasser and liable to pay court costs much greater than the price of admission. There were officers on foot and horseback to protect the approaches and also the machines on the field. Oh, they took aviation seriously in those days. Of course, the supreme attraction was the fair Matilde, who gave successful performances both days of the meet. The time for her final expeditions into the sky was drawing near. Yielding to the entreaties of Louise and the express wishes of her brother, she decided that her next exhibition, which had been arranged for Wichita Falls, Texas, should be her last venture into the cloudland.
As fate ordained it, this excursion narrowly missed being her farewell to the world from whose surface she so often had soared lightly and slipped safely back.
The Moisant company had a standing offer of $5,000 to any one of its flyers who should wrest from the famous Frenchman, Roland Garros, his record of the highest altitude.
Miss Moisant, holding the prize for the highest altitude for women, was anxious to gain the Garros trophy, and it was thought she might make the effort at Wichita Falls.
Late in the evening of April 14th, 1912, at Wichita Falls, Miss Moisant took off for her final flight. The engagement had been most unsatisfactory. For four successive days the high winds prevented flights. During the fifth day the winds continued sweeping great clouds of dust across the ball park, but the crowd patiently lingered, hoping the gale would die down toward night. it was nearly sunset when Houpert managed to get into the air and made a splendid showing lasting about fifteen minutes, in which he ascended about 4000 feet and traveled about fifteen miles.
Miss Matilde then appeared. It was nearly seven o'clock and growing dark when she came out in attractive costume and took her seat for what she had announced as her last flight. Approaching darkness had caused most of the spectators to leave. The thirty mile gale had died down to a gentle breeze, almost a calm. Matilde decided to reward the patience of those who had waited so long. In a sweeping evolution she mounted to about 2500 feet, flew around for several minutes and finished amid the hearty cheers of the people. Enthused with the purpose of giving those who had waited so long in the wind and dust storm their moneys worth; disregarding the protests of her sister, her instructor, and her manager, she sent her monoplane whirling up from the shadows into the sunlight, where it flashed silver-bright, soaring like a bird. In about ten minutes she came down, looking for her starting point but coming swiftly from the bright light into the gloom she seems to have miscalculated the distance. The plane struck the ground with great force and bounded high upward. Several spectators had rushed forward expecting the craft to remain on the ground. To avoid crashing down among them she started the motor, but it failed to carry the machine upward. Shooting forward about a hundred feet it struck heavily and again bounding up, pitched forward, the propeller blades splintering as they struck the earth. One piece tore a hole in the gasoline tank and the liquid burst into flames that covered the machine almost instantly.
The girl had attempted to jump before the crash, but her feet caught and held her. Spectators shuddered and turned away from the awful tragedy that looked inevitable. Luckily, owing to our precaution of keeping close watch over her landings, I was near and so was Houpert and an elevator boy from the hotel, named Roy Condon. Just as the flames reached her Houpert seized her and dragged her out. The three of us worked swiftly. I pressed her face down into the sand so her features should not be marred from her burning clothing; the others beat out the fire with their hands and she was saved. Her leggings were scorched and her curls where they peeped from beneath her cap, were singed. No other harm was done. The machine, the same one with which she had had her mishap at Shreveport, was a total loss. An instant's delay on the part of her rescuers would have been fatal to the daring young woman.
The following day Miss Matilde and her sister, in obedience to a telegram from A.J. Moisant, left for Califomia. Never again was she to tempt fate in the upper air.....Her brother, to tempt her out of the desire, offered her a plantation in San Salvador if she would go there and live. She accepted, and thus her flying career was ended (End of Raymond Pease's article).
Following on the heals of Matilde's withdrawal from the exhibition circuit, the Moisant International Aviators performed at an air show at Bryan, Texas (Texas A & M) at the Dellwood Park site on May 20-22, 1912. The photo below shows the Moisant-Bleriot at that meet - powered by a 70 h.p. Gnome rotary engine. Standing with the Bleriot is Harold Kantner, the "speed demon of the air."
Note that the "AERO" biography of Matilde had been printed in the April 6, 1912 issue. The April 13, 1912 issue of "AERO", page 61, stated that "Miss Mathilde Moisant, Andre Houpert and Harold Kantner flew their opening exhibition at Dallas, Tex., March 24." One day after the "AERO" issue date, following her accident, she gave up flying for the rest of her life. I can find no mention of Matilde in any contemporary flight magazine in the next few years after that date except for the August 23, 1913 note presented below! Matilde was at the El Salvador ranch (Santa Emilia) in July 1912 when her good friend Harriet Quimby was killed.
The Moisant Aviators booked their show far in advance. Obviously they didn't anticipate the retirement of Mathilde, as the following blurb from the August 24, 1912 issue of Aero and Hydro would suggest. In the "Aero Dates Ahead" column:
Harriet Quimby made headlines on April 16, 1912 (just two days following matilde's final flight) as she became the first woman pilot to fly the English Channel. In a Bleriot, loaned by Louis Bleriot, Harriet took off in the early morning hours from Dover to cross the channel. She encountered fog over the channel but flew on, somewhat missing her destination at Calais, before setting down on a French beach. In her description of the flight, Harriet wrote, "The sky seemed clear, but patches of cloud and masses of fog here and there obscured the blue. The French coast was wholly invisible.....It was five-thirty A.M. when my machine got off the ground....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 quickening fog obscured my view. Calais was out of sight. I could not see ahead of me or at all below. There was only one thing for me to do and that was to keep my eyes fixed on my compass." The painting below depicts Harriet's flight soon after crossing the cliffs of Dover. The tug was visible for a short time as she began to encounter a fog bank. Note the flotation device in the fuselage which Bleriot required. This painting was completed in 2008; the original was done with alkyd on stretched canvas, 18" x 36". This painting was accepted for the 2011 American Society of Aviation Artists art exhibition held at the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola; the exhibition may be viewed at www.asaa-avart.org.
Harriet Quimby flew at Hempstead Plains about a week or so before she died on July 1st in Boston's Dorchester Bay after she and her passenger, William A.P. Willard, were ejected from her new Bleriot - a tragedy witnessed by thousands attending the Boston aero meet. Quimby had taken delivery of the craft on May 25th - she had ordered the special 70 h.p. machine from Mr. Bleriot when she was in Paris.
The July 6, 1912 issue of "Aero and Hydro," in the "Activity at the Flying Fields" section, mentions for Long Island that, Last week on Long Island has been notable for the crowds that came to see the flying. The aeroplane performance, with rare exceptions, were not very stirring. Walter Bonner, a Moisant pupil, recently of the gun crew on the U.S.S. Washington, on Saturday at Mineola provided an interesting incident while flying with Miss Quimby. About 1,000 feet up Miss Quimby's silk duster blew out of the aeroplane car. It flattened against the tail of the craft. Bonner gingerly crawled out two or three feet, disentangled the garment and crawled back into his seat again. Coincidentally, the same issue of "Aero and Hydro" carries the news of Quimby's death with the headline, "Miss Quimby and Passenger Killed," with a dateline of July 1.
The Aero and Hydro magazine of September 28, 1912 stated that, "Miss Matilda Moisant, who gave up flying after her trip to Mexico last winter, arrived here yesterday from her home in San Salvador, with her sister, Miss Louise Moisant."
Alfred Moisant's Hempstead Plains Aviation Company and his attempt to manufacture airplanes came to an end sometime in 1914 although the date hasn't been firmly established. The magazine, Aero and Hydro carried the article shown below in its April 25, 1914 edition which would indicate that the Moisant factory was still delivering airplanes in 1914. The exact model isn't described so it may have been the later "Blue Bird" version. While Moisant was selling their Bleriot models to the Mexican rebels, the Mexican government was purchasing twenty 2-seater Bleriot machines from the Bleriot factory as reported in the July 5, 1913 Aero and Hydo.
The fluctuating situation in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution results in a rather confusing scenario for the Moisant story. Matilde Moisant, during her Mexican tour in the fall of 1911, flew over the palace of President Madero. Madero was later assassinated by his own federal army. Moisant was providing Bleriots to the federal army in 1912 during its fight against the rebels; J. Hector Worden, a Moisant pilot, demonstrated scouting work to the "Mexican Government" in the fall of 1912 in the area of Chihuahua, later taken by General Villa of the Mexican Revolutionary Army. The Moisant factory then provided machines to Villa in 1914 as noted in the news item above.
The Aero and Hydro magazine of September 28, 1912 had a short paragraph on the Moisant school's Mexican flight training program. Five Mexican officers are in training on the Hempstead Plain. Joining them was Francisco Alverez, . . ."a Moisant graduate, who has been acting as an aviation instructor for the Mexican government. John H. Worden, another Moisant monoplane flyer, who went to Mexico with Alvarez early in the summer, the latter said, was in active service with the federal army in its recent operations against the insurgents."
The July 26, 1913 Aero and Hydro magazine carried an ad which promoted the combined "Young's High Flyers and Moisant International Aviators" with "20 aviators." Young's High Flyers were based in Kansas City at 308 E. 15th Street.
Matilde died in Glendale in 1964 at the age of 85. She was born in Indiana in 1878. She was living in Los Angeles with her sister Eunice in the 1920s and was residing at 2540 Olive Road, La Crescenta, California in 1930. She and her brother John are buried at "The Portal of the Folded Wings" near the Burbank Airport in the Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetary in North Hollywood. Giacinta Bradley Koontz was the Director of the Portal and Gia has advised that Matilde and her sister Louise are buried together (cremated) and that brother John is in an adjacent plot. Matilde's plaque at the Portal is pictured below, courtesy of Ralph Cooper.
I hope you find this Matilde Moisant story to be a refreshing break from the intense concentration on WWII subjects. Besides Doris Rich's excellent Moisant book and "The First to Fly" by Harris, the now defunct "Aviation Quarterly" had a delightful article on Matilde, written by Frank Potter, titled "Swan Song Flight of Miss Mathilde", in the 1979 Second Quarter issue. Also, the 1980 First Quarter issue mentions Matilde in a piece on Harriet Quimby by Weston George, "Beauty and the Bleriot." The book, "Takeoff! - How Long Island Inspired America to Fly," also presents some interesting material concerning early flying. Another excellent book concerning Long Island is "Roosevelt Field - World's Premier Airport" by Joshua Stoff and William Camp and published by SunShine House, Inc. in 1992 in soft cover. Roosevelt Field closed on May 31, 1951. Matilde became a member of the "The Early Birds," an organization of pilots who piloted a glider, airplane, gas balloon or airship prior to December 17, 1916. All of her training was solo; she had a total of 32 minutes of flight time when she took her test for the license! Matilde described her training in her Oral History interview as follows:
"We were always alone. I tell you, nobody ever sat in a machine with me until 1932, when one of Roscoe Turners fliers took me over San Francisco Bay and Oakland to see some old friends of mine in Alameda."
Matilde Moisant was 82 years old at the time of this interview.
Page 25 to 30, following discussion of her brother John's death in New Orleans:
Q: Your brother Fred took over the International Aviators?
Moisant: Well, he had them then, but after that he gave them up. He gave it up because he was doing it just for my brother, John, and he had lost all heart and everything. That's why I hardly thought that he would ever let me fly - because I took it up six months after my brother was killed. Of course, Fred kept up his school. He had the school and he had the factory for the planes and everything, he kept that up. But I don't remember just how long he kept it after that, but I know that it was long enough that I could learn. I told him I wanted to fly and he said, "Well all right, if you want to do that, it's all right."
The meets I went to - the one that stands out most in my mind is Mexico, because I knew Mexico. I had known President Diaz - he was a friend of my brother - but he wasn't there at the time. He had been sent out of the country and Madero was there, President Madero, at the time when I went over the palace, as I told you.
From the November 25, 1911 Aero magazine:
Q: Was a prize involved at this Mexico meet?
Moisant: Oh yes. I don't know what the prizes were. To be frank, I think that at that Mexico meet there were not any prizes. I think it was just to prove to the Mexican government that airplanes were practical.
Q: Were there others there besides the Moisant International?
Moisant: No, just that group.
Q: What kind of stunts did they do?
Moisant: Well, they didn't really do stunts. They just did straight flying. It wasn't a circus, you see. As I said, it was just to advance the science of flying.
Q: What was the Mexican reaction?
Moisant: Oh my, they just thought it was wonderful. If I had known you wanted this, I could have had an outline... In Mexico, I flew in Leon - I was going to fly in Torreon, but the Mexican revolution started, and we just got out. They burned the bridges after we left. So I didn't fly there, but I flew in Leon, in Guadalajara, in Mexico City.
Q: When did you set the altitude record?
Moisant: I set the altitude record before I went on these trips, after I learned to fly. We had Mlle (Helene Dutrieu)from France, who came from France to fly - she was the famous woman flier - and Harriet Quimby was at the meet, and so was I. This was a general meet that they had, it wasn't my brother's, but we fliers flew. Harriet Quimby flew and Mlle (Dutrieu). See, she was going to fly for altitude and cross country, and Harriet was going to fly for one against her and I was going to fly for the other. I said to Harriet, "Now, which one do you want? To me it doesn't make a bit of difference, which one do you want?"
"I would rather go cross country, if it's all the same to you."
"It's all the same," I said. "I can only go so high, or I could go so far, and that's all. As you're doing it professionally, you take your choice."
So she took the cross country. Well, I took the altitude. We went up. Mlle D went up something like two or three hundred feet now, I guess she went up 500 feet - and I went up 5000 feet. That was the world's record for women; I established the world's record for a woman. I don't know what the record was before that. (The actual record set by Matilde for the Rodman Wanamaker trophy was 1,200 feet).
Q: What was the difference, why did she fly so low?
Moisant: Well, she didn't want to fly high. She didn't think I would fly high, to begin with. So I was told. Now, I don't know. I met her, but I never knew her till...
Q: Then you didn't both know it was for an altitude record?
Moisant: Oh yes, we both knew it was for an altitude record.
Q: Then why did she only go up 500 feet?
Moisant: Well, as I say - she had a biplane, and someone told me that she didn't think I could go very high with my little monoplane. I only had a 50 Gnome motor in it. She didn't think I could go very high with it.
Q: Did you go at the same time, or did she go first?
Moisant: We started just about together, but she came down long before I did. (Doris Rich's book indicates that Mlle Dutrieu's Farman wasn't put together so she couldn't fly for the trophy).
Q: What did you have to do?
Moisant: Well, I didn't know that I had broken the record until afterwards, but I could see that she had gone down before I did, and I knew I was always above her. So I thought: well no matter if I come down now, I know I have the record over her.
But - now I'm going to frankly tell you - I did it just for the sport. I didn't do it for glory, I didn't do it for anything - that never entered my mind. All I wanted to do - my brother John had flown, and I wanted to fly. Now that's the Gospel truth, so help me, St. Jacob's oil.
Q: Was there a big newspaper reaction?
Moisant: Oh Lord - I'll show you if you want to see some of it - records and everything.
After that, one of my most exciting - the most exciting flight I had, and I did enjoy that so much - was this. You see, the Church people at Nassau didn't want flights on Sunday. There was that meet, as I told you, when Mlle. (Dutrieu) came, and I flew (the altitude record). We'd already flown that. One Sunday, Mr. Renee Simone his father was one of the richest bankers in Paris and he wasn't even as big as I was I don't think, maybe taller but didn't weight as much,I weighed 112 pounds - he was at our house for dinner. That's after my brother had called off the meet, after my brother John died. He said, "Mlle. Moisant, you say that you flew the Moisant monoplane with a 50 Gnome motor. I said, "Yes."
He said, in his half French, half English, "Pardon me, but really, I don't believe it."
I said, "That's your privilege. But why don't you believe me?" He was at our house in N.Y. for dinner that Sunday. He said, "Well, I don't think a woman can. I've never seen a woman fly a plane with a Gnome motor, and I don't think she can."
We left the table. The church people had called the meet off. See, we were to fly on Sunday, but they had a warrant out for the arrest of anybody that took up their plane on Sunday. So Fred said, "Tild if Mr. Simone doubts your word - if I get your plane on the field, will you fly it?" I said, "Sure."
He said, "All right, when we get through dinner, we'll get in the car and go." You see, he was leaving for home on Wednesday or Thursday and that was the only day he had that he could spare. So we got in the car and we went where our planes were, and Sopwith was there - he's the one that flies these yachts, you know - he was there, and quite a few people. My brother had big locks on all the hangar doors. They were all lined up there, and. the field was over here. So Fred said, "Now, listen, I don't want you to make a fool of yourself, nor of me. If you want to back out now's the time, but don't back out after I get that door open."
I said, "I won't," so he went to open the door. He had his mechanics there. An officer came up and said, "You can't take out your machine."
"Why not? "
"We have an order that nobody is to fly on Sunday."
Fred said, "I can't see why. This is my property."
"Well," he said, "I'm sorry, but I can't open the door."
"All right," said Fred, "if you won't open the door, I'll have my mechanics break the locks, that's all. It's my property and I have a right to go in there, and I have a right to do what I want with my property." Well, anyhow, he said to my brother, "I'll tell you something - if you promise your sister won't fly, I'll let you take It out."
He said, "I promise nothing. Either you open that peaceably or I will see that it's opened."
Anyway, they opened the door and the mechanic took the plane out of the driveway and went out to the field. Sopwith had his plane out but they wouldn't let him fly. So my brother said, "Are you going to fly it?"
"Yes, I'm going to fly it."
So I got in, and I said to Mr. Houpert, "Now listen, Mr. Houpert, I won't give this usual signal, but you watch my head, and when I go like that, you give word to the men at the tail to let her go." I said, "I'm not going to land here," because that wasn't our field, it was the field that we'd intended to use for the meet. "I won't land here, but I'll circle twice, then I'm going to dip, just as if I were going to land, but I'm going up again, God willing, and I'm going to go and land on our own field. Then you get in the car and take Mr. Simone over to the field."
There were four officers on motorcycles, there. I got in the machine and one of the officers came up and said, "Listen, young lady, don't forget, if you fly that plane I'll arrest you when you come down."
I said, "Well, I haven't flown it yet, have I?"
He said, "No, but if you do,..."
But,of course, we had this all arranged that I was to fly to the other field, and that was my brother's field so that was all right. So I circled twice, and came down about ten feet off the ground, and then away I went. They told me afterwards that when I dipped the officers said, "Now, get ready to catch her when she gets out of the machine as we're taking her to headquarters." Of course they didn't know that the fun was going to be at the other field.
So I dipped, and then away I went. Mr. Simone knew what I was going to do. He said, "Say, Officer, if you want to arrest her, you'd better get wings on your motorcycle."
We all went to the other field. Fred started over there too. You know, to me, I was just so happy that I was flying that I never thought about the officers on the field any more, never thought that I was making a scene of any kind. I went and landed on our field, and I made a nice landing. Fred, my brother, came running up to me, and so did Mr. Houpert and they said, "Jump out, quick, the officers are here, they want to arrest you."
Then it all came back to me. Fred had one of his friends in a Fiat car, and he said, "Get your sister in this. First put her in your car, and then we'll cover her, and pass her right to your car, and we'll take her to New York."
Fred said, "All right." They got me under cover in there, and we started down for New York. My brother was coming back in his car. I said to this man, a friend of my brother's, "Where are you taking me, and what am I running away for?"
"Well, you know, they want to arrest you for flying on Sunday."
I said, "I haven't done anything that I shouldn't do. That's my property, I'm not flying for money, I'm not flying commercially, I'm flying for fun."
He said, "They have a warrant to arrest anybody that flies on Sunday."
I said, "I'm not going to run away. Stop the car. I never ran away from anything and I'm not going to run away from this." So he said, "Well, it's up to you."
It had a parkway in the middle, and the officers were on one side and we were on the other. We stopped. Four officers got off their motorcycles, crossed over and came to me, and they said, "Well, Miss Moisant, first we want to congratulate you."
"What, on your wanting to arrest me?"
"No, for having enough nerve to take your machine up." See, they were softsoaping me, and I wasn't being softsoaped at all.
I said, "That's all right, I know, never mind."
"But," he said, "let me tell you something - you just come out of the car and come on with us, and it'll be all right."
I said, "I don't get out of this car."
"Well," he said, "we'll take you out."
Just then my brother came up. He got there just in time. They were just ready to pull me out of the car, and Fred came up - "Now," he said, "listen here." He pushed his way through - there was quite a little crowd already - and he said, "Now listen, anyone who lays a hand on her, it's as much as his life is worth."
There were two or three who said, "Yes, Mr. Moisant, we have some clubs here, we'll fix them if they touch her."
Fred said, "But I'll tell you what we'll do."
They said, "We don't want to make any fuss, Mr. Moisant. Come on, let's all go to town and see the sheriff and everything."
He said, "I'll tell you what I'll do. We can all go back to my field and then we'll talk it over."
So when we all got back on his property, he turned around and said, "Now, listen here, if you officers don't get off of my property I'm going to have you arrested for trespassing."
That was that. That's the only time that my sister didn't go (with me) when I was flying. That Sunday she said, "No,I'm staying home."
When we came back, and she heard about it, she was mortified. "Now Your picture will be in the paper," she said. "You've disgraced the family."
"Well," I said, "You know I always was a tomboy. Maybe I might as well start now and continue."
First Fred had said, "Where's your warrant for her arrest?" They said, "We haven't got a written one, but we were told to arrest anybody who flew on Sunday."
That's when Fred told them to get off. The next day they went to the sheriff, and he said, "What did Miss Moisant do?"
"She flew on Sunday."
"Did she fly for money?" he said.
"Were there any prizes?" "No, she just did some flying."
The sheriff said, "I'm going to tell you something. Instead of wanting to arrest her, you'd better go and beg her pardon for annoying her, because she's got just as much right to fly her airplane as you have to ride a motorcycle or anybody to drive an automobile."
The next day - I think I have the newspaper picture - a picture of the cutest little witch You ever saw, sitting on a broom, and waving to the officers.
"Now," I said to my sister, "Lou, I didn't disgrace you too much, did I?"
From the New York Times of October 9, 1911; pg. 1:
You can read the original New York Times article by clicking here. Use the back arrow to return.
Note: By May 10, 1913, the Sunday flying rule at Hemstead Plains was adjusted, according to Aero and Hydro magazine: "The legal difficulties attending Sunday flying have been cleared up as the authorities only object to scheduled exhibition flights with paid admittance on that day, but will permit all regular and passenger work."
Matilde was active in the Early Bird organization in the Los Angeles area. The Early Birds newsletter, "Chirp," of 1946 mentions, "There's Matilde Moisant at 2545 Rockdell Road, La Crescenta, resting up from war work."
The "Chirp" of April 1, 1950 carried the following note about MM:
"For Matilde Moisant has been named a new Girl Scout Troop - 'The Moisant Missiles.' Scarcely need to recall to readers that Miss Moisant flew for her FAI certificate #44 back August 13, 1911, the second certificated woman pilot in this country. After brother John flew that first Paris-London journey and starred in the Belmont meet the fall of 1910, the Moisants launched their school, their manufacturing and the Moisant International Aviators - who toured the States and Central America. Miss Moisant, Miss Quimby and Mlle. Dutrieu participated in the Nassau Boulevard meet in 1911, along with Lieut. H.H. Arnold, Liet. T. DeW. Milling, T.O.M. Sopwith, Earle Ovington, C.G. White, Eugene Ely, Lieut. Paul W. Beck, George Beatty, Lieut. T.G. Ellyson of Navy, Lee Hammond, H.N. Atwood, H.W. Walden, George Dyott, and J.A.D. McCurdy (Aeronautics, Sept., Oct., 1910; Jan., 1911; Oct., 1911)."
"Chirp", July 31, 1949: "First Wimmen Pilots". Of the first five FAI licensed women pilots, three were taught and licensed at the Moisant school: Harriet Quimby, License #37 dated August 2, 1911; Matilde Moisant, flies for her certificate on August 13, 1911 and the FAI license #44 is dated August 17, 1911; and the fifth licensed pilot was Bernette A. Miller who flew on September 14, 1911 and whose FAI license #173 is dated September 25.
In her 1960 interview, Matilde was adamant that Harriet Quimby had flown earlier than Blanche Scott who has always been given credit as the first American woman pilot. Matilde used solo flight as the criterion for flying (reasonable and no different today).
From Interview, Page 4-6:
I do want to say something here. Have you contacted Blanche Scott yet? (Blanche Scott lived to 1970) She claims to be the first woman that soloed, but as far as I know, Harriet Quimby was the first woman to solo, for the simple reason that we didn't have a dual machine. our instructor never sat in the machine with us. From the first time we sat in the machine, till we were ready to qualify for our licenses, we were alone. That was the method by which they taught you to fly.
...When I learned, we were on our own from the first time. And I'm going to tell you something about Blanche Scott. I have no ill feelings, no hard feelings, but I don't like to see a person that isn't here to defend her title have it taken away from her. And I have made inquiries all over, and as far as I know, Harriet Quimby was the first woman ever to sit in a plane by herself.
Then, I was on the field when Captain Baldwin asked my brother - they called him A.J. - he said, "A.J., would you mind if I used your field?"
Mr brother said, "Why?"
He said, "There's a young lady here who wants me to teach her to fly. The Wright brothers wouldn't do it. Their sister wouldn't let them teach a girl." Then, I am told that Mr. Curtiss refused her too, so then she went to Captain Baldwin.
My brother Fred said, "It's all right with me."
He (Baldwin) said, "I see that you have Miss Quimby and your sister, and I thought if you thought it was safe for them, it might be all right for me."
I was on the field when she sat in the machine with Captain Baldwin. That was 1911. I am writing to the Aero Club of America and I'm writing to several people, to see if they can give me any definite time of Blanche Scott. (End of Interview Portion)
The "Chirp" article goes on to say, "Barring new discoveries, the first American woman pilot is Blanche Stuart Scott, who solos September 2, 1910, over the Keuka Lake-front field of the Curtiss company, Hammondsport. She had but recently returned from a westbound transcontinental auto trip and had been signed up by Jerome Fanciulli, Curtiss New York representative, her interest having been aroused by seeing the flying at the Wright school on her way across the country for the Willys-Overland company. "GH" himself gives her the instruction. She joins the Curtiss team and does her first exhibition at Fort Wayne, Ind., Oct. 22-23, the first such by a woman in this country.
"In October (1910) Mrs. Bessica Raiche hops her husbands Curtiss type at Mineola but does not continue. Neither Miss Scott nor Mrs. Raiche fly for the Aero Club F.A.I. certificate."
From the March 16, 1912 issue of Aero magazine: "Mrs. Bessica Raiche, who was awarded the Aeronautical Society's medal for being the first woman in America to fly, is in charge of a new department for women inaugurated by the Standard School of Aviation, Chicago. Ground has been broken for two new hangars at the school field, Clearing, Ill."
Also in the same Aero: "Miss Blanche Scott has done some good work in motion picture plays, but her best acting recently has been on windy days, when, for the benefit of the newspaper men, she has insisted that her manager allow her to fly."
Now why, you might ask, does Matilde have such strong feelings about Scott's solo date? Modern biographical sketches of Blanche Scott, including material from NASM, Young Eagles, Ralph Cooper's "Summit City History Notes", etc. all give Scott credit for a brief, but possibly accidental, solo in a Curtiss machine in 1910, some even questioning whether the accident should be credited as a solo flight and suggesting that Bessica Raiche should be given credit for the first solo at Mineola (a fact that Matilde doesn't mention). However, looking back at actual 1912 published material, it is not difficult to see Matilde's point. The "AERO", April 6, 1912 "Terse Biography.." of Matilde that was mentioned above carried the following biography immediatley after Matilde's section (page 17):
"MISS BLANCHE STEWART SCOTT, during the year of 1910, entered into an agreement with the Overland Automobile Company to drive one of its cars across the continent without the aid of masculine assistance for the trip - a severe task for a woman. After untold hardships the trip was made according to the agreement. Following this, Miss Scott entered the Curtiss training school and distinguished her ability to learn, but after a short time, on account of domestic persuasion, she gave up the work. She again commenced to take flying lessons last summer (that would be 1911)at Nassau Boulevard, under Captain Thomas Scott Baldwin, designer of the famous Red Devil biplane. She was an apt pupil, and Baldwin seriously considered sending her out to fill contracts, but owing to a scarcity of machines, the training machine was pressed into use, and Miss Scott was compelled to give up the school for the time being. Her best work has been done in California, this year (1912). The Management of the Los Angeles Meet advanced her expenses from the East, without a machine. On arriving at Los Angeles, she met Glenn L. Martin who loaned her one of his biplanes for the meet. Martin soon discovered that Miss Scott needed considerable training, but before the meet opened, succeded in getting her in shape to enter some of the most trying contests...."
The Nassau County Museum Reference Library has a photo which is reported to be Scott pictured taking off in a Curtiss Pusher at the Washington Avenue field, Garden City, on July 27, 1911. That should settle the question!
Also! Consider this item from the "AERO" magazine of November 25, 1911: Nassau Boulevard Aerodrome, Long Island, November 18 - The indefatigable Miss Blanch Stuart Scott is flying again. Miss Scott was almost ready to try for her pilot's license early last summer when Capt. Baldwin, whose biplane she was using, suddenly came to the conclusion that he did not approve of women flying, anyway. Miss Scott was very indignant with the captain and expressed her determination to become an aviatress. A month ago Howard Dietz consented to build Miss Scott a Curtiss-type machine fitted with a 60-horsepower Kirkham motor. On Friday Miss Scott took out her new biplane for the first time, and at once proved that she had forgotten nothing, and was a girl of nerve, by making four circuits of the field. Not much question that Scott was actively flying in 1911 on Long Island's Hempstead Plains.
Blanche Stuart Scott joined the Early Bird organization in 1938 and, at that time, her address was listed as 163 Hobart St., Rochester, New York. The Early Birds newsletter, the Chirp, also mentioned that Scotts occupation was a "radio columnist."
The controversy surrounding Scott's first flight will have to remain just that, a controversy. And Matilde's opinion of the matter will remain just that, her opinion.
Aline "Pat" Rhonie created a magnificent work of public art in the form of a 106 foot long mural which celebrated the early days of aviation on Long Island, particularly the Mineola area. The fresco was on the south wall of Hangar F at Roosevelt Field; she worked on this piece from 1935 to 1938. In the second Early Birds panel of her work, many of the Long Island aviators are pictured, including one scene with Matilde Moisant, Harriet Quimby and Blanche Scott. In keeping with the rather unfriendly attitude of Matilde concerning Blanche, the artist, probably unknowingly, pictured Blanche with her back toward Matilde! The fresco was of course in color, but the photo below is from an article on the Rhonie fresco written by historian Carroll Gray for WW1 Aero magazine.
I would enjoy hearing from you concerning this Early Bird article. Use the Feedback Link or call my cell 408 828-2810 to let me know what your thoughts are. If you have anything to add to the content, or if you have corrections, I welcome your input. The Early Bird organization folded a few years ago as the last of the pioneer aviators passed away, so there is no membership organization which recognizes and honors those fliers who brought aviation to the public in those early years of the twentieth century. I need to know how much interest there is in the Early Birds to help gauge whether more of this material should be published in this website; I don't want to waste my effort. There are other websites devoted to Early Birds and some museums and individuals who are trying to carry the historic message of pioneer fliers; I'll try to keep a list of links to websites below for your convenience. Please advise me of any that you are familiar with. With the centennial year of the Wright Brothers first flight having past, the publicity and memorializing of the Wrights really hasn't carried over to the Early Birds that followed the Wrights.
Some interesting photos and information concerning the early days on the Hempstead Plains are in the Dover book, Picture History of Aviation on Long Island 1908-1938, by George Dade and Frank Strnad.
The early days of aviation witnessed many airplane crashes, some fatal and many just structure bending. Most of the vintage airplanes were rebuilt many times. The advertisement below is from the May 27, 1911 edition of Town & Country magazine and perhaps (tongue in cheek) explains some of the crashes. Nothing like a shot of Old Everholt prior to jumping in that Wright Flyer.
All of these early aviation links also have additional links to similar sites.
The Harriet Quimby Research Conference - Giacinta Bradley Koontz Contact also by email, firstname.lastname@example.org.