Aida de AcostaText by Divan MullerAida de Acosta was born on 28 July 1884 in New Jersey in the USA. Her father and mother were of Cuban and Spanish descent respectively. In June 1903, when De Acosta was nineteen years old, she visited France with her family and friends. Whilst in Paris, she met well-known Brazilian aviation pioneer and inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont and visited his workshop. De Acosta told Santos-Dumont that she desired to fly an airship. As it happened, the Brazilian inventor wanted to prove to the world that his airships could be flown by an average person with minimal training. As a result, he agreed to teach De Acosta to fly his personal airship, known as ‘No. 9’. After three lessons, De Acosta was ready to fly solo. She took off in Paris and flew to a chateau, where a high-profile polo match was taking place. As she flew the airship, Santos-Dumont rode below on his bicycle, using hand signals to issue instructions. With that flight, De Acosta became the first woman to pilot a powered aircraft, albeit a lighter-than-air aircraft. The flight took place several months before the Wright brothers famously flew the world’s first successful heavier-than-air aircraft. Sadly, De Acosta’s achievement was never celebrated. At the time, respectable women’s names never appeared in newspapers, except for births, weddings and obituaries. Her embarrassed parents told Santos-Dumont to never reveal De Acosta’s name. Concerned that their inappropriately bold daughter might never find a husband, De Acosta’s parents ensured that her flight would remain a secret for decades.

In 1927, she married Henry Breckinridge, who became famous for serving as pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh’s attorney and as assistant secretary of war under US President Woodrow Wilson. Having suffered from glaucoma, Aida de Acosta organised fund-raising campaigns for eye institutes and later became executive director for the Eye-Bank for Sight Restoration in New York. She died there on 26 May 1962 at the age of 77.
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