You Fly, Girl

"All those who see me, and all who believe in me, share in the freedom I feel when I fly."

Hilda Hewlett

February 17, 1864
Louisa Herbert, wife of the wealthy Reverend George W. Herbert, gives birth to a daughter they name Hilda Beatrice. She is the second child born in a family which will eventually number six daughters and one son.

Herbert had inherited his fortune from his father, who had oiwned a building and carpentry firm in London, England.

Raised and educated by governesses in the nature of the day, the teen-aged Hilda attended the South Kensington Art School, where she learned to do wood carving, metal work, and sewing.

She would then spend a year in Germany, studying to be a nurse.

Upon her return to England, Hilda married Maurice Henry Hewlett, a young lawyer who worked in his family firm. Hilda is 24, Maurice is 27.

Maurice Hewlett succeeds his father as His Majesty's Keeper of Land Revenue Records. Because of this position, he has to do a great deal of travelling around the country, and doubtless his adventurous wife accompanied him on his travels.

The Hewletts take up residence at 7 Northwick Terrace, London. The automobile comes into use and Hilda learns to drive. This stage is called the "red flag era" - each motorist had to hire someone to walk in front of them with a red flag - to prevent collisions with pedestrians or oother vehicles.

A race is held from Land's End to John o' Groats, called the Land's End to John o' Groats Trial. (Land's End is the extreme southwest part of England, John o' Groats is the extreme northern point of Scotland.)

There is one female driver in the Trial, a Miss Hind, driving a Singer Tricar, and Hilda acts as her passenger/mechanic. At this point in time, Hilda has two children. Hewlett has become a successful romantic novelist, and soon buys a home in the country .

At a car meet, Hilda meets Gustave Blondeau, a French engineer who had worked for the Farman brothers on their airplanes.

The two become fast friends, and in October, will go to an aviation meeting, where Hilda will be inspired by the flight of Hubert Latham in an Antoinette monoplane. Blondeau also decides to devote himself to aviation, rather than other forms of engineering.

Within a few months, Hilda saves up enough money to purchase a Farman airplane, and she accompanies Blondeau to Camp de Chalons in France to learn how to fly and repair it. Hilda uses the pseudonym Mrs. Grace Bird at this point.

Hilda, fluent in French, works alongside the men in the shops while building their new airplane. Photos exist of her clad in long-sleeved blouses and skirts that extend down to the ankle while working on the plane - this is 1909, after all.

Blondeau takes the test and receives his license from the Aero Club in France on June 10, 1910.

In July, Blondeau and Hilda return to England with the plane, named The Blue Bird. They set up a school called the Hewlett-Blondeau Flying School, at Brooklands (a motor-racing circuit), England.

Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith will have his first pilot's lesson here (and the rest there is history!).

The school is a success, the first in England to "graduate a full-fledged pilot and the first to graduate an army-officer pilot."

August 18, 1911
Hilda, at the age of 47, passes the test and becomes the first Englishwoman to earn a pilot's license, No. 122, which is issued on August 29.

According to Lebow in her book Before Amelia, female pilots in France "were treated with respect as members of the flying community. In England there was mistrust and even open hostility."

October, 1911
Hilda is invited, and speaks at a meeting of the Women's Aerial League. She points out there that England is two years behind France in aeronautics.

Hilda and Blondeau also begin building airplanes (in particular the Hanriot, which they license to do so from its inventor), which sell. They relocate to a larger place of business, in Battersea, and form Omnia Works.

Initially, the pair have trouble from the British labor unions, who wish all employees, regardless of their skill level or jobs, to be paid the same, and of course they can't be fired regardless of how incompetent they are. However, this problem is eventually sorted out.

In 1912 the company is awarded a contract to build BE2cs - small biplanes designed by the Royal Aircraft Factory for reconnaissance work. Hilda and co. will relocate to a larger factory in the Leagrace countryside. During the 1914-1918 war, the company trains women to build the planes.

October 27, 1920
During a war, production of practically everything is soon as a war is over, production ceases overnight. There were plenty of planes left over from the war, and the need for new ones was over. Hilda's company was officially liquidated on this day. She is 56 years old.

Seven years later, "the property was sold to Electrolux, and for the first time, Hilda and Blondeau benefitted from their investment and years of hard work. By this time, Hilda's husband had died.

Hilda's son - whom she had taught to fly herself, had fought during the war. Her daughter, in 1927, moves with her family to New Zealand, and Hilda accompanies her. (Hilda had visited New Zealand in 1919 and liked it.)

1929.... or 1930
Hilda purchases an interest with H. T. Morris in a start-up airline, Southern Cross Airways, Ltd., a New Zealand company, which has a single plane, a Blackburn Bluebird III. However, this company folds and the plane is sold.

Hilda journeys between England and New Zealand several times. In 1932, she becomes the first woman passenger to make a "through flight" from London to New Zealand via Jakarta, Indonesia (called Batavia at the time). The trip took eleven days, in a Fokker FVIIb/3m, a KLM airliner.

Hilda spends a term as president of the Tauranga Aero Club. Also during the 1930s, Hilda's son retires and also moves to New Zealand.

As the years of her retirement went by, Hilda "was an enthusiastic gardener, loved camping, fly fishing and deep-sea fishing." She became almost blind with glaucoma, but coped well.

August 21, 1943
Hilda dies at age 79 in Tauranga, New Zealand. She had requested to be buried at sea, and two days later, after a funeral service, her wish was granted.

Bibliography and Webography
Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation, Eileen F. Lebow, Brassey's Inc., 2002

Brooklands Museum
Hargrave: The Pioneers

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