Raymonde de Laroche: the first female pilot and a lesson in resilience

Okay, get excited, y’all. Today I’m bringing you my bread and butter, my specialty, my favorite area of women’s history: early aviation.

I love this topic for a multitude of reasons. The first is I grew up learning from my dad about the country’s First Aero Squadron and so I found myself in museum after museum on aviation history. Naturally, I loved it. I loved looking up at all the planes and feeling so wonderfully tiny underneath them.

Image Credit: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

The next reason is that, around the advent of the aeroplane, women were not seen, as was the case in most things, by most men as capable to take to the sky because of their supposed frailty. But many said, “screw you” and literally took their own life into their hands to prove them wrong. And, oh, how they did.

Going off of this fascination, I have been working on a book for the last year in between classes about a certain couple of aviatrixes that I have grown quite endeared to. In the process of tracking down their story, I came across a wonderful book by Eileen F. LeBow called “Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation.” I began reading the stories of dozens of awesome, crazy cool flying ladies and suddenly I was a little kid again marveling at the pretty aeroplanes above me. But I realized that nearly none of those planes told the stories of the women who risked both their lives and reputations to conquer them and I didn’t think that was fair to the next little girl who would stand where I stood.

So my obsession only grew.

I would just like it to be acknowledged, however, that I waited until my seventh post on this website to whip out one of these fantastic stories. Don’t say that I’ve got no self control.

Anyhoo, I thought that the most appropriate place to commence what will become a long, lovely series on women in aviation throughout the lifetime of this blog, would be with the very first female to become a pilot, Raymonde de Laroche.

She was born Élise Deroche in Paris on August 22, 1886. She lived the fairly average childhood of the daughter of a plumber and devoted her childhood to grade school success and a love of sports. She rode horses, played tennis, rowed, ice-skated, skied and biked. This created a natural progression to the automobile when it emerged onto the scene and, as soon as she mastered the basics of driving, she began racing.

Now Élise became Raymonde when she was twenty and discovered that the world of theater, art and fashion seemed to take to her natural beauty and stylish sensibilities in clothes and performance. She added a fancy “la” in front of her last name as well to emphasize that she was a real classy lady.

Image Credit: Verbinina

In another era, she might have grown up to succeed as an actress and style icon. However, this was the era of adventure and rising to new heights. The majority of French people did not believe in the Wrights’ invention until Wilbur flew a biplane at a racetrack near Le Mans in August 1908. The French government was impressed and signed a contract with the Wright Company, allowing Wilbur to establish the first military aviation school at Pau.

The demonstration made Raymonde say, “Oui, S’il vous plait!” and she called upon Gabriel and Charles Voisin, well-established aeroplane constructors, to teach her how to fly.

While the Voisins were teaching her, other aeroplane builders were teaching interested students with whatever machinery they saw fit on whatever amount of land they could find, creating drastically different methods of instruction. This led to, as you can imagine, a whole string of accidents and carnage, deemed “anarchy” by the Aero Club of France, which quickly established the standard of a brevet (license) in January 1909. Tests of capability were used to help mold training into something more proper and serious. Suddenly Raymonde had a more tangible goal than learning to fly—she wanted to be the first woman to be awarded a brevet.

Working with M. Cháteau, a company engineer at the Voisin camp at Châlons, Raymonde received on-the-ground instruction about the basics of flight, and soon began to get a feel of the aeroplane by driving it across the camp. Soon she could drive it in a straight line, and then make short hops off the ground. The first of these hops happened on October 22, 1909, the day of the first female flight.

Image Credit: Wikimedia

Soon, her hops lengthened and transformed into short flights that built up Raymonde’s confidence and prepared her to attempt for a brevet on January 4, 1910. It was a windy, windy day and the field was filled with poplars. It was immensely difficult in such conditions to judge both the shifting air current and the height of objects on the ground.

The tail of Raymonde’s aeroplane grazed a tree branch as she flew over before she could pull up. This caused a twenty foot drop that flung her from her seat. Which sounds awful but it’s a good thing it did, otherwise she would have been shattered along with her plane. Instead, she hit the ground, initially unconscious, sustaining only a couple of bruises and a broken collarbone.

As she recovered in the following weeks, she became aware of other women—Hélène Dutrieu, Marie Marvingt, Marthe Niel and Jeanne Herveux, to name a few—who were training to fly as well and she worried that she would no longer be the first woman to earn a pilot’s license.

As soon as she was cleared to hop back into a plane, she performed in the Heliopolis in Egypt with eleven other aviators, allowing her enough practice to reattempt the brevet tests.

And so, lo and behold, on March 8, 1910, Brevet No. 36 was issued to Raymonde de Laroche. She was quickly nicknamed la femme-oiseau, female bird, or Ladybird, as I like to think of her. She became an advocate for women to fly. Many people questioned her about the sport’s risk, to which she replied that she would rather pack danger into a matter of only minutes or hours instead of spreading it out over a lifetime.

Image Credit: Musee de L’air et de L’espace

Pretty soon, as was common for many aviators of the age, she embarked on a spring tour, flying all over Europe. One stop was in St. Petersburg, where she was congratulated by Czar Nicholas II and presented as “la Baronne de Laroche.”

As part of the tour, she appeared at The Second Grande Semaine at Rhiems as the only female competing among as many as thirty pilots. The large number of participants proved problematic for the small field. There were collisions and collapses of multiple aeroplanes, and many machines fell from the sky, described by the London Times as if “they had been poisoned.”

On the competition’s sixth day, Raymonde took to the air in seven to 11 mph wind and passed around the grandstand when suddenly something went wrong. Some say that an aeroplane cut across her, causing the plane to side-slip. Another account said a machine passed over her and created a draft. Yet another account said that two pilots passed her on either side. The differing accounts only agree that Raymonde’s plane had dipped towards the ground and collided with the earth forcefully.

Many hurried to the carnage to see her bloodied body laying among the splinters of her machine. Several men, who had seen a pilot called Lindpaintner flying close to her, threatened and attacked him.

It was going to take more than that to bring Raymonde down for good, however. She sustained multiple fractures in her arms and legs and some internal injuries but she certainly was not, as one Paris newspaper reported, dead, and she began to scream that whoever had flown his aeroplane into her path ought to be severely punished.

The unfortunate thing about Raymonde’s position at the forefront of female flight is that, while her successes were ones for women everywhere, all of her incidents also brought about criticism on women’s capabilities in general. Many aviation writers at the time argued that Raymonde was indicative of the fact that women were not suited to fly in an emergency and that they should not be allowed to endanger themselves in competitions. Instead, they should simply keep to the “polite” and “ladylike” activity of exhibition flying.

André Beaumont was one such writer, who included in his 1912 memoir the necessities for a competent aviator: a grown man, alertness, strength, sturdiness, good health and endurance. He even had the audacity to say, “Such qualities are not often to be found in women, and it is a pity, for the few bold ‘aviatresses’ who are regular visitors to the aerodromes bring with them a charm and brightness not to be despised; and we men are always ready to applaud their womanly bravery, for though we may be man-birds we remain none the less men.”

AAAAUUUUUUGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!

However, in the immortal words of Chumbawamba, Raymonde got knocked down, but she got up again and said basically “go to hell all you doubters who use the phrase ‘we men’ colloquially. Just watch me.”

Image Credit: Women in Aerospace History

After long months of recuperation, she was back in the air again in 1912 training for the Coupe Fémina, a female-only flying competition that awarded two thousand francs to the woman who covered the longest distance, solo and without stopping, before the end of the year.

Charles Voisin had been instrumental in helping her to recover. The two had become incredibly close since she first asked his help in training. They became almost inseparable and appeared everywhere together.

On September 25, the two were driving to visit Charles’ parents near Lyons when another vehicle hit their automobile at an intersection. Raymonde was “desperately injured” again but Charles was instantly killed.

This time, she faced both physical and mental recovery, but neither dampened her spirits. She learned to fly a Sommer biplane and then a Farman biplane, which proved more compatible, by the next spring. By the summer, she was flying for over an hour. Sidelined briefly by another car crash, she gave demonstrations until she felt well enough to attempt a go at the Coupe. She flew 323.5 kilometers in four hours, stopping only because of a gas-line problem. No one else outdid her and the award was finally hers.

Come 1914, World War I halted civilian flying and saw many women rejected from serving their country as pilots, Raymonde among them. Instead, she, like many others, provided transportation, by way of automobile, between the battle zones.

Image Credit: Verbinina

After the war’s end, Raymonde grew excited to try out the new advanced machines brought about by the war. She broke the altitude record for women by flying a new Caudron G3 to 3,900 meters. Ruth Law broke that record three days later in America. So Raymonde set out two days later and broke the record again. Don’t test her.

While she was looking at some new models at the Le Crotoy airport, M. Barrault, a test pilot, offered to take her up in a new machine as he explored some of the new features. The feel of it was immensely different from the prewar models and Raymonde found herself flying higher than she ever had. As M. Barrault lowered the plane for a landing, it swerved to one side, lost speed, entered into a spiraling dive and crashed. When the ground crew raced out to what was left of the plane, they found the Ladybird dead.

Throughout her life, she was a deep believer in the “que sera sera” mentality and took each rebounding success gratefully. However, after rebounding so many times, many thought her to be indestructible and the loss hit them hard. In particular, many of the female pilots to have followed in her footsteps found the nature of her death troubling, but used it as fuel to fight against the men who still believed women should be nowhere near an aeroplane.

Those jackasses didn’t know what was coming their way.

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