Aida de Acosta (1884 - 1962)

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About Aida de Acosta

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 in America.

Aida was born in Elberon, New Jersey 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 Alba.

Among her seven siblings were the writers and socialites Mercedes de Acosta and Rita de Acosta Lydig.

On June 27, 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.

The first 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. James, 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 indication 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 II, nephew of American statesman and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elihu Root, in 1908; they divorced in 1922. They had a son, Oren Root III (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, whom Time magazine called "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.. In 1945 she founded and became Executive Director of the Eye-Bank for Sight Restoration in New York, the first eye bank in the U.S.

She died in Bedford, New York, at the age of 77.