Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Trailblazer: Aida de Acosta, the First Woman Aero-driver in the World

                        Telling Herstories: Fascinating Women History Forgot 
by Carol Simon Levin
© Carol Simon Levin 2013  www.tellingherstories.wordpress.com

Aida de Acosta: the New Jersey Girl
who became the "First Woman Aero-driver in the World!"

Aida de Costa Breckinridge can be seen
at the controls of Alberto Santos -Dumont's powered
 "run-about balloon"over the skies of Paris on June 29,1903.
Image from blogdumonzinho.blogspot.com
            One hundred and ten years ago on December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers made their famous first flight -- launching their fragile airplane on a beach in Kitty Hawk and showing that controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flight was possible (at least for 59 seconds!) 
            But did you know that more than five months before the Wright Brother’s flight, a Cuban-American girl from Long Branch, New Jersey became the first woman in the world to pilot a motorized aircraft?
            During the summer of 1903, Miss Aida de Acosta was visiting Paris with some school friends when she saw a most curious contraption -- a personal dirigible being driven by its inventor, a Brazilian by the name of Alberto Santos-Dumont.  Long before the cartoon Jetsons depicted personal aero-cars, Alberto Santos-Dumont traversed city boulevards in his “Runabout IX” a steerable, motorized balloon running errands -- traveling between his cafe, his personal jeweler Louis Cartier, and his hat-shop (putting out frequent fires on the airship was hard on hats!)  Sometimes when he reached a cafe, he would tether the dirigible on a lamppost and ask the waiters to send up a cup of coffee or glass of champagne!
            Aida was fascinated by his aero-ship and asked for lessons. Mr. Santos-Dumont agreed to teach her with the dirigible tethered in the hanger.  Since the machine had only one seat, he shouted out instructions from the ground.  He showed her how to steer the rudder, shift ballast,  drop weights, and use the three speed lever to work the propellers.  After three lessons, he pronounced her ready for a real flight. 
            June 29th, 1903 dawned clear and windless and, with his typical showmanship, Alberto decided the important polo match being held that day at the Bagatelle Polo Grounds would make a perfect destination.  He would ride below the balloon on a girl’s bicycle (so as not to catch  his opera cloak on a middle bar!) and give directions with a handkerchief, signaling left and right, and waving in circles to indicate when she should rev up the motor.  After Aida climbed into the wicker basket and wedged in her full skirt, he tied a rip cord to her wrist telling her that if she flew too high and was frightened, she could let out some of the air and, if she were to faint, the cord would release the air from the gas bag and she would come down to earth.  
            He needn’t have worried. Aida flew the Runabout perfectly across Paris and through the countryside.   Alberto Santos-Dumont actually guided her into a landing  on the polo field, briefly interrupting the game and causing considerable excitement.  She loved the trip, remarking, “I stopped the petrol motor and came down like a feather.  I’ve never had so much fun in my life.”  
            Alberto greeted her, "Mademoiselle, vous êtes la première aero-chauffeuse du monde!" ("Miss, you are the first woman aero-driver in the world!")  After the game, ignoring objections from the crowds and warnings from friends, Aida flew back to Paris. 
            Aida had interrupted an important polo match and the press gathered there were both fascinated and outraged that a woman should be driving this aero-machine.  Her parents were not pleased, to say the least.   They firmly believed that a respectable woman should appear in the newspapers only three times -- when she was born, married and when she died. They threatened to ruin Santos-Dumont if he leaked her name to the press and to disinherit her if she continued flying.  Accordingly, Santos-Dumont in his memoirs described her as “the heroine, a young and very pretty Cuban,  prominent in New York Society.” 
            Aida stopped flying, but never stopped being fascinated by the men who flew.  In the late 1920’s, she became friends with Charles Lindbergh and ended up marrying his lawyer, Charles Breckenridge.  But even he didn’t know about her adventure.   The story only came to light in 1932 when the couple was hosting a dinner party and a young Naval officer started to talk about the possibilities of lighter-than-air flying vehicles. Aida astonished the guests when she remarked, “ I’ve flown dirigibles myself; they are a lot of fun!”   Her story was published in Sportsman Pilot in 1933.

            Aida de Acosta was the only person Alberto Santos-Dumont ever permitted to fly any of his aircraft.   After the flight, Aida returned to New York City.  She married and divorced twice.  Later in life, after losing the sight in one of her eyes to glaucoma,  she founded and became director of the first eye bank in America.
            Alberto never married and kept a picture of Aida on his desk next to a vase of flowers all his life -- but there is no indication that they ever spoke or wrote again.   On November 12, 1906, he made the world’s first public airplane flight (the Wright Brothers had flown in secret, fearing they’d lose their patent designs).  He flew for twenty seconds --  the first pilot to lift off and land a completely self-propelled airplane.  Accordingly, some people consider Santos-Dumont the real “father of flight” since the Wright Brothers’ plane required high winds and a rail system to launch. 
            One final piece of trivia: In 1904, after Alberto complained that he couldn’t pull out his pocket watch to check his flying time while steering, his friend Louis Cartier created the one of the world’s first wristwatches so that the flyer could keep track of his flying time.  Cartier still sells “Santos-Dumont” models to this day.

For more information, see Paul Hoffman’s Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight (2003) pp 212–217 and this article: Eugene Register-Guard Aug. 12, 1953..  For a very entertaining look at Alberto Santos-Dumont and his eccentric ways and flying machines (though lacking any mention of Aida’s flight), check out Victoria’s  Griffith’s picture book biography: The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont (2011).

Carol Simon Levin is a librarian at the Somerset County Library and a member of the New Jersey Storyteller’s Network. She impersonates forgotten women in presentations at libraries, senior centers, and other venues.   For further information, write her at cslevin59@gmail.com.  For more information about early female aviators, go to  http://nobodyownsthesky.wordpress.com/

Check out more articles by Carol Simon Levin on the Girls Succeed blog:


  1. Truly fascinating, Carol. Thank you!
    Lyn Sirota

  2. Hi Lyn, Fascinating is the perfect word to describe this article. Thanks for stopping in today!

  3. Carol, thank you so much for sharing this interesting story about Aida. I was surprised to learn about the idea for a wristwatch here too. Really appreciate your deep research and sharing the information with us.

  4. Carol, what a great story and an inspiring un-sung character. Love learning about her,
    Susie Coliver

  5. Hi Susie, thank you for stopping in.