Aida de Acosta Root Breckinridge
(July 28, 1884 –
May 26, 1962) was an American socialite and the first female to fly
a powered aircraft solo. In 1903, while in Paris with her
mother, she caught her first glimpse of dirigibles. She then proceeded to take only three
flight lessons, before taking the sky by herself, six months before
the Wright brothers' first powered
flight at Kitty Hawk.
Later in life, after losing sight in one eye to glaucoma
, she became an advocate for improved eye
care and was founder and director of the first eye bank
born in Elberon,
NJ in 1884 to Ricardo de Acosta, a steamship executive
of Cuban descent, and Micaela Hernandez de Alba y de Alba,
reputedly a descendant of the Alba family, famous in the history of
Spain as the Dukes of
Among her seven siblings were the writers and
socialites Mercedes de Acosta
Rita de Acosta Lydig
On June 29, 1903 in Paris, at the age of nineteen, Cuban-American
Aida de Acosta charmed Brazilian pioneer aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont
into showing her
how to operate his personal dirigible, “No. 9”. Santos-Dumont was
the toast of Paris at the time, frequently flying his dirigible
downtown to his favorite restaurant and parking it on the street
while he had dinner. Acosta flew Santos-Dumont’s aircraft solo
while Santos-Dumont rode his bicycle along below, waving his arms
and shouting advice.
Acosta later recalled that upon her first landing, Santos-Dumont
asked her how she had fared. "It is very nice, M. Santos-Dumont,"
she replied. "Mademoiselle,
" he cried, "vous êtes la
première aero-chauffeuse du monde!
" ("Miss, you are the first
woman aero-driver in the world!"). She was in fact the first woman
to pilot any kind of motorized aircraft, nearly six months before
the Wright brothers
first flew in a
heavier-than-air powered aircraft.
flight ended in the polo field at Bagatelle at the northern end of the Bois de
Boulogne, during a
match between the American team and the British team.
Spectators assisted her from the basket. After watching some polo
with Santos-Dumont, Acosta climbed back into the basket and flew
the machine back to Neuilly St.
, the entire trip lasting one and a half hours.
Aida de Costa flying to a polo match in 1903
Hearing about the flight, her parents were appalled. They were
certain that no man would marry a woman who had done such a thing,
so they managed to hush it all up until many years later when in
the 1930s she recounted the story to her husband and a young naval
officer named Lieutenant George Calnan over dinner.
Biographers of Santos-Dumont have speculated about a romantic
relationship with Acosta. Acosta is the only person, other than
himself, that Santos-Dumont ever permitted to fly any of his many
aircraft. Also, Santos-Dumont, a life long bachelor with no known
romantic ties, kept a photograph of Acosta on his desk, next to a
vase of fresh flowers, for rest of his life. Nonetheless, there is
no indiction that Santos-Dumont and Acosta stayed in touch after
her flight. Upon Santos-Dumont's death Acosta was reported as
saying that she hardly knew the man.
Aida de Acosta married:
- Oren Root, nephew of American statesman and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elihu Root, in 1908; they divorced in 1922. They
had a son, Oren Root Jr. (1911 - 1995), and a daughter Alva de
Acosta Root (born 1914 and named for suffragette-heiress Alva Belmont).
- Colonel Henry S. Breckinridge, whom she married in 1927
and divorced in 1947. He was attorney to Charles A. Lindbergh during the Lindbergh
kidnapping case, and assistant secretary of war under Woodrow Wilson.
Eye care advocacy
In 1922, Aida was afflicted with glaucoma
Her ophthalmologist was famed eye specialist William H. Wilmer,
"the greatest eye surgeon the U.S. has ever had." She eventually lost
sight in one eye, but Dr. Wilmer’s care saved her other eye, and
inspired her to organize a fund-raising campaign that resulted in
$3 million to fund the establishment in 1925 of the Wilmer Eye
Institute in Johns Hopkins Hospital, the first eye institute in the U.S..
1945 she founded and became Executive Director of the Eye-Bank for
Sight Restoration in New York, the first eye
in the U.S..
She died in Bedford, New York.
- Alva Root married, in 1935, Charles Fiske Bound.
- American Women, by Gail Collins
- Air & Space Power Journal
- Hoffman, P. Wings of Madness: Alberto Santos-Dumont and the
Invention of Flight (2003) at pp 212-217