Air & Space Power Journal - Español Tercer Trimestre 2004

Aida de Acosta—The First Woman to Fly a Powered Airship

Bruce Ashcoft

Even before Wilbur and Orville Wright’s epochal flight in December 1903, Aida de Acosta became the first woman to pilot a gasoline-powered airship. Born in Elberton, New Jersey on July 28, 1884, de Acosta grew up in New York City, the daughter of a prominent immigrant family. Her Cuban-born father was raised in Spain, then subsequently returned to Cuba to help drive out the Spanish during the Spanish-American War of 1898. A daughter of privilege, Ms. Acosta became fascinated with Santos-Dumont’s airship while traveling in Paris in the summer of 1903. After striking up a friendship with the airman, she convinced Santos-Dumont to allow her to pilot his dirigible "IX." Because the basket was so small, she would have to fly solo. After three lessons, on June 29, 1903 de Acosta became the first woman to pilot a powered aircraft, nearly six months before the Wright brothers’ flights at Kitty Hawk. Santos-Dumont’s "handy little runabout" traveled at about 15 miles per hour, and the Brazilian tracked the dirigible while riding a bicycle. The flight lasted "considerably over a half mile." We do not know if the wealthy young woman ever flew again.

Unfortunately, de Acosta's parents made Santos-Dumont promise never to reveal the identity of their daughter as the pilot of the dirigible because they were mortified by the publicity surrounding the flight. They believed that a woman’s name should appear in newspapers only at the time of her birth, upon her marriage, and at her death. Honoring their request, Santos-Dumont did not name de Acosta in his book, My Airships. The story of de Acosta’s flight surfaced some 30 years later at a dinner party in New York City when a young U.S. Navy officer was explaining to his hostess why he wanted to fly dirigibles. De Acosta, the hostess, explained that she too had flown a dirigible and understood his interest.

Involved with social causes later in her life, de Acosta sold $2 million worth of Liberty Bonds during World War I. And after the war, she traveled to Europe to work for the American Committee for Devastated France. She was also interested in the arts. A story from a book about film maker Robert J. Flaherty, most famous for his "Nanook of the North," credited de Acosta and her husband as being moving forces behind Flaherty’s 1927 documentary about Manhattan, "Twenty-Four Dollar Island." In 1935, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia named her as chairwoman of a newly formed art committee to "stimulate the artistic life and expression of the city."

Afflicted with glaucoma, de Acosta helped countless others with sight problems. She led a multi-million dollar campaign to help establish the Wilmer Ophthalmological Institute at Johns Hopkins University. While in her sixties, she served as the first director of the Eye Bank for Sight Restoration, a position she held from 1945 until she retired in 1955.

Aida de Acosta, socialite, philanthropist, and pilot, died in Bedford, New York on May 26, 1962.

To Learn More…

de Acosta, Mercedes. Here Lies the Heart. New York: Reynal & Company, 1960.

Donovan, Frank. The Early Eagles. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1962.

Holden, Henry M. and Lori Griffith. Ladybirds II: The Continuing Story of American Women in Aviation. Mt. Freedom NJ: Black Hawk Publishing Company, 1993.

"Mrs. Aida Breckinridge Dies; Former Director of Eye Bank." New York Times. May 29, 1962.

Rotha, Paul. Robert J. Flaherty: A Biography. Ed. By Jay Ruby. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Santos-Dumont, Alberto. My Airships. New York: Dover Publications, 1973, reprint ed.

Declaración de responsabilidad:

Las ideas y opiniones expresadas en este artículo reflejan la opinión exclusiva del autor elaboradas y basadas en el ambiente académico de libertad de expresión de la Universidad del Aire. Por ningún motivo reflejan la posición oficial del Gobierno de los Estados Unidos de América o sus dependencias, el Departamento de Defensa, la Fuerza Aérea de los Estados Unidos o la Universidad del Aire. El contenido de este artículo ha sido revisado en cuanto a su seguridad y directriz y ha sido aprobado para la difusión pública según lo estipulado en la directiva AFI 35-101 de la Fuerza Aérea.

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