In the year after Charles Lindbergh completed the world’s first solo trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris in May 1927, more than 50 aviators attempted similarly precedent-breaking crossings. Each vied for a first of their own—the first to fly east to west against the wind; the first to fly from London, Ontario, to London, England; the first to fly from Philadelphia to Europe. Glory wasn’t the only reward at stake: Prize money and international celebrity were also on the line.

One aviation first was considered so risky that some viewed it as virtually impossible. Members of the public held their breath, watching and waiting for the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. She didn’t even have to pilot the plane; just riding along as a passenger would bring the aviatrix global fame.

During the 1920s, however, most women were wives and mothers, financially dependent on their husbands and male relatives. Just securing a seat in the cockpit—let alone learning to fly—was a nearly insurmountable challenge. “Women were barred from many pursuits,” says Susan Butler, author of East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart. They were “discouraged from being lawyers, doctors, engineers, even discouraged in many instances from going to college.”

Aviation pioneer Harriet Quimby
Aviation pioneer Harriet Quimby Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Individuals like Harriet Quimby, who in 1911 became the first woman to earn a pilot’s license, were able to buck society’s expectations and reach the sky because they had close relationships with early aviation families, or enough money and status to forge their own path.

At the time, “nobody was actively looking for women pilots, and there were no jobs for women pilots,” says Dorothy Cochrane, an aeronautics curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. The first aviatrixes had to be daring, maybe even a bit reckless. Aviation, especially flying long distances, was extremely dangerous in the 1920s. So they “had to be recognized as someone who was different [than other women],” Cochrane adds. Butler echoes this sentiment, saying, “Becoming a pilot took guts and perseverance.”

Female flyers had to be willing to die to feel the wind under their wings—and some did. Three of the first five women who attempted to fly across the Atlantic (an English aristocrat, an English socialite-turned-princess and a niece of President Woodrow Wilson) disappeared midflight. They were never seen again.

L to R: Charles Levine, Mabel Boll and aviator Bert Acosta
L to R: Charles Levine, Mabel Boll and aviator Bert Acosta George Rinhart / Corbis via Getty Images

But Mabel Boll, a New York socialite dubbed the “Queen of Diamonds” for the combined 110 carats of precious gems that adorned her fingers, wasn’t discouraged. With one aviation record already under her belt—Boll was the first woman to fly the 1,400 miles from New York to Havana as a passenger—she set her sights on the trans-Atlantic prize. Only Amelia Earhart stood in her way.

The “Queen of Diamonds” and the “Queen of the Air”

Born to a Rochester bartender in 1893, Boll had a modest upbringing. She was vivacious and beautiful, a petite blonde with dark eyes and exceptional courage. In 1909, she wed American businessman Robert Scott, a match that lifted her out of the lower-middle class and dropped her squarely on society’s upper rungs. But it was Boll’s second marriage, to Colombian coffee magnate Hernando Rocha in 1922, that skyrocketed her into the American imagination as the “Queen of Diamonds.”

Throughout the 1920s, the national press closely followed Boll’s escapades. She flitted around New York frosted in jewels. At one party, she wore so many diamond bracelets—33 altogether—that they covered her arm from wrist to shoulder. Her gems even caught the attention of famed jeweler Harry Winston, who eventually purchased her namesake 46.57-carat, emerald-cut diamond for himself.

By 1928, however, Boll had grown tired of her nickname. “It’s such an absurd title,” she told the Buffalo Times. Like much of the country in the aftermath of Lindbergh’s successful trans-Atlantic flight, she’d become enamored with aviation—and she had the freedom and means to pursue it as a hobby. “Queen of the Air,” she said, was a moniker she’d be “very proud to deserve.”

An October 1927 newspaper article about Boll
An October 1927 newspaper article about Boll The Times via

A few months before Boll made this statement, she’d offered plane owner and aviation enthusiast Charles A. Levine $50,000—the equivalent of nearly $900,000 today—to join him on his prototype aircraft, the Columbia, on his next attempt to cross the Atlantic. (He’d already successfully flown from New York to Germany as a passenger on the Columbia.) Levine was reluctant at first but eventually agreed. At 11:36 p.m. on March 5, 1928, the plane took off in New York. Just under 14 hours later, it landed safely in Havana. Boll had become the first woman to cross a portion of the Atlantic Ocean and live to tell the tale.

Buoyed by her success, Boll began preparing for her next feat: a trans-Atlantic crossing from North America to Europe. She believed that Wilmer Stultz, the pilot who had flown her to Cuba, was willing to once again team up in the Columbia. When she learned in June that Stultz had not only quietly accepted an offer to fly newcomer Earhart across the ocean but was also currently en route to Canada to make the flight, she was gobsmacked. “I depended on him,” Boll told the New York Times, “and now he has taken off with another woman.”

Pilot or not, Boll refused to give up so easily. As Earhart and Stultz made their way in the Friendship to Newfoundland, the closest North American landmass to Europe, Boll hastily arranged for a new pilot and sprinted north in the Columbia. The race to become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean was on.

Charles A. Levine, Mabel Boll and Bert Acosta at the Le Bourget airport in 1928
Charles A. Levine, Mabel Boll and Bert Acosta at the Le Bourget Airport in 1928 Austrian Archives / Imagno / Getty Images

Mabel Boll versus Amelia Earhart

Earhart and her team landed at Trepassey, the only harbor on Newfoundland’s remote Avalon Coast, on June 5, 1928. Almost immediately, they knew they’d made a mistake by planning to launch their trip from what mariners called the “fatal ironbound coast,” writes Butler in East to the Dawn. Trepassey was frequently a deep canyon of fog, even in June.

“We get a lot of fog and rain in the spring,” says Patrick J. Collins, chair of the board of directors of the Conception Bay Museum in eastern Newfoundland. “We have a lot of ice and northeasterly winds that carry in these ice flows and create this whole weather system.” Lacking radar, the Friendship couldn’t take off without clear skies and favorable wind conditions. Trepassey had neither.

June 6 dawned sunny and bright, but with heavy rain and dense fog off the English coast, it was too dangerous for the Friendship to make a crossing attempt. Several days passed, and still the weather refused to cooperate. Meanwhile, Boll and the Columbia crew were finalizing preparations. Like Earhart, they would launch their expedition from Newfoundland, choosing the sizable town of Harbor Grace, whose modest airstrip had served many early aviators, as their point of takeoff. With the Friendship grounded, Boll still had a chance to make history.

An April 1928 newspaper article about Boll
An April 1928 newspaper article about Boll The Buffalo Times via

Finally, on June 12, the Columbia was ready. When the aircraft touched down in Harbor Grace, the town could barely contain its excitement, especially for the sophisticated aviatrix. “[Boll] just captured the hearts of people in Harbor Grace,” says aviation archaeologist Lisa M. Daly, author of a forthcoming book on the history of aviation in Newfoundland and Labrador. “She’s celebrated in some of the local newspapers as the first woman to land in Harbor Grace, and people came from all over to see her.”

While Boll and the Columbia team received a hero’s welcome, the situation in Trepassey was growing increasingly dire. Still grounded by weather reports, Stultz was drinking heavily to ease the boredom of waiting, pushing Earhart’s patience to its limits. “The days grow worse,” she wrote in the flight log on June 13. “I think each time we have reached the low but find we haven’t. … We are on the ragged edge.”

Four more days passed. Sixty-five miles apart, the planes remained at a standstill. While Boll made social calls in Harbor Grace, Earhart, isolated in Trepassey, grew increasingly miserable—and increasingly desperate to take off. So, when the Newfoundland dawn broke clear and brisk on June 17, and the day’s weather reports predicted somewhat clear conditions over the Atlantic, Earhart insisted they take off, against the wishes of her pilot, who was in the throes of a brutal hangover. After almost two weeks of waiting, the Friendship was airborne.

The crew of the Friendship arrives in England in 1928.
The crew of the Friendship arrives in England in 1928. L to R: Amy Guest, mechanic Lewis Gordon, Amelia Earhart, pilot Wilmer Stultz and the local mayor National Portrait Gallery

But while the Friendship took a chance with the borderline weather, the pilot of the Columbia refused to do the same. Boll could do nothing but wait for news in Harbor Grace as Earhart barreled toward the United Kingdom. Frustrated and angry, she accused Earhart’s team of receiving an unfair advantage, claiming the Friendship had been given a less ominous weather report than the one sent to the Columbia—a charge the local weather reporter fiercely denied. By then, it didn’t matter. Just under 21 hours after takeoff, the Friendship landed safely in Burry Port, Wales. Earhart had bested Boll to become the first woman passenger to successfully fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Boll abandoned her plans to continue east, unimpressed by the prospect of finishing second.

Boll’s legacy

Though she was disappointed by how events had played out in Newfoundland, Boll wasn’t done with aviation—at least not yet. But bad luck continued to dog the “Queen of Diamonds.” She was scheduled to ride along on a flight from Paris to New York in September 1928, but after it was unexpectedly canceled, she struggled to find a pilot and plane willing to welcome her into the cockpit.

Amelia Earhart greets an adoring crowd in July 1928.
Amelia Earhart greets an adoring crowd in July 1928. National Portrait Gallery

“She was known for being temperamental,” says Daly, citing an instance when Boll was rumored to have pummeled a pilot with her alligator handbag when he abruptly landed the plane in bad weather. “So I don’t know if it was that, if they just didn’t want this [specific] woman to be involved,” or if they were reluctant to fly with women in general. Daly adds, “There was this view of aviation being a man’s world.”

Indeed, even nearly a century later, the perception that women aren’t cut out for aviation persists. “Up until the early 1970s, there were no options for women in general aviation,” says Cochrane. “It wasn’t until the early ’70s that the military began allowing women into their training programs and academies.” But while more women entered the industry beginning in the 1990s, a massive gender imbalance remains. In 2022, the Pilot Institute reported that just 8.5 percent of certified commercial pilots were women.

Whether due to her personality or her gender, Boll never had the opportunity to claim another aviation first. Eventually, she gave up her dream of trans-Atlantic flight altogether, saying in 1936 that she’d been “mentally cured” of her desire to fly.

Boll continued to make headlines throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In one particularly salacious episode, her young lover shot and severely wounded himself in the garden of her French estate after she rejected his advances. But Boll never gained the level of fame achieved by her onetime rival, Earhart, who became the first woman to successfully fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932, then vanished during an attempt to fly around the world in 1937.

Boll with her son, Robert Scott (left), in 1941
Boll with her son, Robert Scott (left), in 1941 Bettmann via Getty Images

Boll divorced and married twice more—first to a Polish count in 1931, then to a harpist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1940—and gradually drifted from public view. In April 1949, she died of a stroke at a hospital for the mentally ill, where she’d been committed a month before.

“Mabel gets a little dismissed,” says Daly. “I saw an article talking about those first women trying to fly the Atlantic, and I think she’s referred to as a floozy or something along those lines. But we’re looking at a woman who built herself up out of almost nothing.”

The archaeologist adds, “There’s got to be something said about women who tried to get into early aviation. I don’t think it’s something we can really understand, how difficult it would have been for women to break into this field and to have their names remembered.”

While the wider world may have forgotten Boll, Harbor Grace never has. Despite her heartbreak at losing out to Earhart, by the time Boll was ready to return to New York, she had graciously accepted her defeat. Before leaving town, she gave a generous donation to maintain Harbor Grace’s airstrip. Almost a century later, says Collins, the airstrip is preserved “just as it was back in 1927. It hasn’t changed a bit.”

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