- Julia Clark: December 21, 1880 in London, England, Great Britain – June 17, 1912 in Springfield, Illinois, United States of America.
The one true thing I can state about Julia Clark, is that she was a pioneer pilot.
The second true thing I can say about her, is that she was the third woman to gain a pilot’s license from the Aero Club of America – No. 133, gaining it on May 19, 1912.
If you glance up at Julia’s date of death, you’ll notice she had her pilot’s license for just over one month.
What’s worse, is that Julia Clark was married to a man the newspapers only referred to as Mr. Clark… so we don’t even know what her maiden name was.
Sigh… dead these past 106 years, Julia Clark has become a footnote in the annals of aviation history.
While she was indeed the third American woman to earn her pilot’s license, and subsequently become the third woman in the world to perish in an aviation accident – both good and crappy footnotes, what is galling is that there appears to be some confusion as to just where the poor person was born.
Wikipedia boldly states that Julia was born in Bangor, Michigan on December 21, 1880, which would have made her 31 years old when she died. Uh… no.
Everywhere else says she was born in London, England on that date, while some sites calls her a Chicago girl or from Denver.
The truth, as always, falls in between.
Julia Clark was born in London, her family emigrated to the U.S., lived in Bangor Michigan, moved to Denver Colorado where she was a stenographer for an undisclosed aviation company, and where she might have been married. Or, Denver is simply where her parents were living.
From there, she traveled to San Diego, California to take flying lessons, which may have lead to her estrangement from her husband (Mr. Clark).
As stated, Clark appears to be her married name…. so what the heck was her maiden name?
A newspaper seems to verify this, saying she arrived in the U.S. from London, England and shortly thereafter married an American – last name Clark. When and where, however, was not stated. See below:
According to the Webster City freeman newspaper of Webster City, Iowa, June 18, 1912 edition, “Miss Clark was a native of London and was married soon after her arrival in America, friends here made known last night. She had not been living with Mr. Clark for some time, they averred.”
If she was married, why was she called Miss Clark in the above newspaper article. And… don’t they usually give the full male name in a newspaper… or was it because she and her husband had been separated, that decorum suggest they not identify that man?
I understand that she was only flying for one month, but she was the third-ever female pilot in the U.S.! Surely someone knows more about her!
I have looked at over 40 American newspaper articles of the day that mention Julia Clark. Only one newspaper provides information of Julia Clark BEFORE her death, with the remainder providing a write-up on her accident-causing death.
Just Give Me A Chance!
Here’s what we do know about her based on the newspaper data:
She first became interested in aviation after hearing about Harriet Quimby gaining her license on August 1, 1911 becoming the first U.S. woman to earn an Aero Club of America aviator’s certificate.
Then, after attending the 1911 Chicago International Aviation Meet held August 12 to August 20, 1911 at Grant Park in Chicago, Clark wanted to become a pilot.
From her stenographer’s job for an undisclosed aviation company in Denver (I think), she saved her money and traveled to the Curtiss Flying School at North Island in San Diego, California in late 1911, or January 1912. I’d go with the later.
She asked instructor McCaskey to let her join the school, but because owner Glenn Curtiss was a sexist pig (apparently) and was against women learning how to be aviators, Curtiss told McCaskey to refuse.
Clarke wouldn’t give up, however, and befriended the wife of Glenn Curtiss, Lena Pearl Neff (married from 1898-1930), who convinced her husband to stop being a jackass and to let Julia Clark into his flying school.
You can see Julia in the Curtiss Flying School class of 1912 below:
The Curtiss school not only taught students how to fly HIS plane, but Curtiss would sell them HIS plane as well. A perfect storm for Glenn Curtiss.
The San Francisco call. newspaper wrote in the Tuesday, February 13, 1912 edition:
WOMAN HURT IN FALL WITH HER AEROPLANE
SAN DIEGO, Feb. 12.—Mrs. Julia Clarke of Chicago, a pupil at the Curtiss Aviation school, lost control of her machine this afternoon when it was caught in a gust of wind and overturned. She fell 20 feet to the ground. The machine was wrecked and Mrs. Clark was injured. She will recover and says she will not abandon her determination to learn to fly.
Obviously not, as she graduated. Then on May 19, 1912 Clark received her pilot’s license from the Aero Club of America, becoming the third American woman to earn her aviator’s certificate.
She flew her test using a 1911 Curtiss Model D aircraft, flying in a 15 miles per hour (24.14 kilometers per hour) wind at 800 – 1,000 feet (243.84 – 304.8 meters).
Thankful to Curtiss, or perhaps fulfilling her end of the agreement to let her into his flying school, Clark purchased a Curtiss Model D.
I am unsure just where the heck she got her money from.
She was a stenographer – estranged from her husband – had traveled to San Diego by train, I assume, paid for her lessons and for accommodations and food et al… and THEN purchased an aeroplane?
Perhaps it was purchased with a down-payment, with Clark having to pay Curtiss back quickly… which may have been why she was only too glad to join William Pickens’ Wright-Curtiss (or Curtiss-Wright) flying circus – to earn money… which she earned as long as she was flying… but more on that later.
The 1911 Curtiss Model D
The Curtiss Model D pusher (motor and propeller are behind the pilot) bi-plane was built mostly of spruce, some ash for parts of the engine bearers and undercarriage beams with doped linen over it, and bamboo outrigger beams. The aircraft also used a wheeled tricycle undercarriage.
Depending on who you ask, the origin of the aileron is a sticky subject.
He chose not to use wing-warping per the Wright Brothers and their patents, but used the between-the-wing-panels “inter-plane” ailerons – which is what he used on several earlier aeroplanes of his, such as the Curtiss No. 1 and Curtiss No. 2.
To work the ailerons, the pilot had to “lean-into” the turn to make them work, using a shoulder cradle attached to the pilot and aileron control cabeling.
Historically, the Curtiss Model D was flown by Eugene Ely on November 14, 1910 to take off from the USS Birmingham – the first time an aeroplane had taken off from a ship. On January 18, 1911, Ely landed a Model D aboard the USS Pennsylvania and became the first to land an aeroplane on a ship.
Specifications of Curtis Model D (Type IV)
- Crew: one;
- Length: 29 feet 3 inches (8.92 meters);
- Wingspan: 38 feet 3 inches (11.66 meters);
- Height: 7 feet 10 inches (2.39 meters);
- Empty weight: 700 pounds (318 kilograms);
- Loaded weight: 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms);
- Powerplant: 1 × Curtiss E-4, with 40 horsepower;
- Maximum speed: 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour);
- Endurance: 2.5 hours.
After purchasing a Curtiss Model D, Clarke joined the Curtiss-Wright Aviators exhibition team, who billed her as “The Daring Bird-Girl” and contracted for several exhibitions in the Midwest of the United States of America.
I should point out that one newspaper article
The Curtiss-Wright grouping was the forerunner to the Curtiss-Wright Corporation – which is currently an American-based, global diversified product manufacturer and service provider for the commercial, industrial, defense, and energy markets.
Formed in 1929 with the consolidation of Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, (founded January 1916 by Glenn Curtiss), Wright Aeronautical (founded by Glenn L. Martin and the Wright brothers as Wright-Martin), and various supplier companies.
By the time WWII ended, it was the largest aircraft manufacturer in the United States, supplying whole aircraft in large numbers to the U.S. Armed Forces.
Nowadays, it is a component manufacturer specializing in actuators, aircraft controls, valves, and surface treatment services, and also supplies to commercial nuclear power, nuclear navy systems, industrial vehicles and to the oil and gas industries.
When The Bough Breaks
After one month of flying, we now come to the tragic death of Julia Clark on June 17, 1912.
Four weeks earlier in Milwaukee, Clark was not allowed to fly because someone felt her aircraft was unsafe… but it was overhauled since then and considered sound.
This implies that Clark…. a relatively inexperienced pilot, had been forced to sit for four weeks without flying.
According to the Rock Island Argus newspaper, June 18, 1912 (of Rock Island Illinois), “She had intended to make several flights throughout the week.”
That article also notes that in conversation with friends, she said it was her desire to “master the right-hand turn”, saying that no woman had mastered the feat… and it is believed that while attempting to do a right hand turn, the accident occurred.
Almost every newspaper article says Clark had taken her aeroplane up into the dusk of June 17, 1912, noting that visibility was poor. Heck, Wikipedia says that, too.
Some newspapers say that Clark was trying to enter as many state fairs as possible to earn enough money for a trip to Europe – I assume that was to take her plane there and fly and make more money. Anyhow… that may be why she was anxious to take the aeroplane up to get some practice time in.
According to the Webster City freeman of Webster City, Iowa, June 18, 1912 edition, “Miss Clark was a native of London and was married soon after her arrival in America, friends here made known last night. She had not been living with Mr. Clark for some time, they averred. She was arranging for a two weeks’ course at the Chicago field, having no practice for a month after getting her license, when the engagement at Springfield was made and she felt she would be able to keep it in spite of her little recent flying practice.”
The article below from the June 18, 1912 edition of The Daily News newspaper of Chattanooga, Tennessee, says the accident occurred in the afternoon, every other article says the accident occurred after 6:30PM or as late as 7PM.
“Mrs. Julia Clark, one of the three licensed woman aviators in the United States, was killed in a fall here this afternoon, when a tip of a wing on her biplane struck a tree and the machine crashed to the ground. Admittedly unprepared for exhibition flights, she had contracted to make here Friday and Saturday, the young woman was trying out her machine in the race track enclosure at the fair grounds. But few persons watched her as she guided the machine from the ground and started her spin at low altitude. Whether she lost control or whether it was a case of mistaken judgement which caused the machine to go close to the tree has not been explained. The end of a wing struck the tree, the machine toppled and crashed to the ground. The young woman’s skull was fractured, and she died soon after reaching a hospital, to which she was rushed in an automobile.
Decisions of Milwaukee authorities were partly responsible for Mrs. Clark not having any recent practice. She had intended to make a flight there two weeks ago, but they refused to allow her to go up because it was deemed her machine was unsafe. It had been a month since she had made a flight, but she nevertheless felt confidence in her ability to fill her contract here. She had arranged for a two weeks practice at the Chicago field after her proposed flights here Friday and Saturday.
Mrs. Clark was a native of London, and, it is said, married Mr. Clark soon after arriving in America. It is said she had not been living with her husband for some time. She resided for some time in Chicago, but recently had been making her headquarters in Denver, to which city the body will be shipped.
Mrs. Clark is the second woman to be killed in aeroplane accidents. The other was Miss Susanne Bernard, who lost her life at the Farman school at Pau, France, about two months ago.”
The account is decent enough, but I found errors or inconsistencies.
The newspaper did get a few things incorrect… for one, Miss Deniz Moore in July of 1911 is supposed to be the first woman to die in an aeroplane accident, Susanne Bernard is the second, making Julia Clark the third.
While it is true that she was refused permission to fly one month earlier in Milwaukee, the above article does NOT make it clear that the aeroplane was overhauled and deemed safe for flight.
Other newspaper accounts say that Clark had been previously warned about the clump of trees within the enclosure of the inner race track where pilots would be flying.
And, when the plane hit the bough of a tree, her aeroplane “turned turtle”. While not stated otherwise, I wanted to clarify that Clark did not fall out of the plane, but the plane did hit the ground upside down.
Whether she fell 40 feet, 50 -feet or 100-feet (depending on the newspaper source), the few eyewitness accounts to the crash were never sure.
Part of that problem, was that it was supposed to be dusk.
However… I question that… it was July – sometime between 6:30PM and 7PM… it ain’t dusk. That sun is up – especially in Illinois for at least another hour. At least. It could be two more hours… but dusk it ain’t.
Perhaps the skies were overcast… but dusk had nothing to do with it.
Some newspaper reports say the left side of her skull was fractured, she had internal bleeding, and a broken left leg, and was quickly attended to after the crash, but was unconscious then, never regaining consciousness.
While some newspapers state she died en rout to the hospital, others say she died one hour after arriving at Springfield Hospital about one mile away from the fair grounds.
According to a Washington Times June 18, 1912 article: “In a note which she left in anticipation of an accident she asked that her body be sent to Denver for cremation.”
Her body was indeed sent back to Denver, according to Wikipedia, but I can find newspaper evidence of any funeral for Julia Clark in any Colorado newspaper from that time period.
As for historical posterity, Clark was indeed the third female pilot to die in an aeroplane crash, but she was the very first American woman to die, and the very first licensed female pilot to die, as the two French women were unlicensed. Clark predeceased her hero Harriet Quimby by two weeks, who died on July 1, 1912.
If you have data on Julia Clark and can help straighten up any mistakes or guesses I have made here, please share.
In the meantime, the above information is correct based on the multiple newspaper reports I went though. Of course, sometimes it depends on what the subject tells you is true.