Aida de Acosta kept her secret for 29 years. She was the first woman to fly a powered air ship in 1903. It belonged to then famed aeronaut and bon vivant of Paris society, Alberto Santos-Dumont. The ship was his beloved No. 9 Runabout. Even better, Aida de Acosta made her virgin flight six months before the Wright Brothers set their world record in a heavier-than-air craft.
Aida de Acosta, then nineteen years old and just out of school, became fascinated by the exploits of Santos-Dumont who was known for travelling above Paris in his dirigible. He would run errands, visit his favorite cafes and drop in on friends. Sometimes he would tether his No. 9 dirigible to a lamppost and ask waiters to send up a glass of champagne or an espresso.
In his book, My Airships, Santos-Dumont wrote that Aida de Acosta “was a very beautiful young Cuban lady, well known in New York society…having visited my station with her friends on several occasions, (she) confessed an extraordinary desire to navigate the air-ship.”
Santos-Dumont wanted to prove to the world that the average person with minimal training could learn to fly. Over the course of three lessons, he taught her the basics: steering the rudder, shifting ballast, dropping weights and how to use his three-speed lever to work the propellers.
According to an article by Richard Kleiner in the in the Eugene Register Guard, August 12, 1953, Santos-Dumont rode his bicycle below No. 9 as de Acosta piloted the air ship solo. He devised a system of signals with his handkerchief to keep her heading in the right direction. “If I wave it with my right hand, you will turn toward the right, and so, on the left. If I wave it around in circles, you will make the motor go as fast as it can.”
On the clear, windless morning of June 29, 1903, Santos-Dumont decided she was ready. He tied a cord to her wrist as a safety precaution. He instructed her to pull the ripcord if No. 9 gained too much altitude. The cord would rip a panel in the gasbag and take her quickly back to earth. If she fainted with the cord on her wrist, the same result would be achieved.
Aida de Acosta wedged her long full skirts into the small wicker basket and cried, “Let go all!”
With his usual flair for promotion, Santos-Dumont had chosen a high-profile destination. They would fly to an important polo match between the American and British team at the Bagatelle Polo Grounds at the northern end of Bois de Boulogne. As planned, he rode his bicycle, calling out instructions to his pupil above him.
“I will not say that no one ran along beside the dragging guide rope, but, certainly, no one touched it until the termination of the cruise at Bagatelle, when the moment had arrived to pull down the intrepid girl navigator.” (My Airships by Santos-Dumont)
De Acosta had interrupted an important polo match as spectators helped her from the basket. She and Santo’s-Dumont watched the match for a short time and then she flew back to Neuilly St. James. The entire trip lasted about one and a half hours.
The press gathered at the polo match had mixed opinions about a woman driving an airship. De Acosta faced the same criticism Nellie Bly encountered by having front page bylines on her articles in Pulitzer’s New York World Newspaper. Some reporters were fascinated and others, like Nellie Bly’s rival, Elizabeth Bisland, were outraged.
According to the social mores of the Victorian Era, the name of a respectable woman only appeared in newspapers when she was born, when she was married and when she died.
Mortified by their daughter’s bold flight and the publicity it brought her, they made Santos-Dumont promise never to reveal the identity of their daughter as the pilot of his dirigible No. 9. Honoring their wishes, he did not use her name in his book, only her description.
To escape the media frenzy, her parents whisked her back to New York.
The story of the historic flight surfaced some 30 years later at a dinner party in New York City when a young U.S. Navy officer told his hostess, Aida de Acosta, about his dream of flying a dirigible. She revealed that it was she who had flown Santos-Dumont’s famous No. 9 so many years before.
Although at the time she told Santos-Dumont it was the most fun she ever had, she never flew again.
In 1925, Aida de Acosta raised $3 million to establish the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In 1945 she founded the first eye bank in the United Sates, the Eye Bank for Sight Restoration in New York.
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