France’s first female test pilot, Jacqueline Auriol set a series of airspeed records in the 1950s at the controls of some of the earliest supersonic jets. For years she duelled with rival Jackie Cochran for the title of world’s fastest woman, before flying Concorde alongside André Turcat.
Fascinated by the magic of flying
Born in the Vendée in 1917, Jacqueline Douet married Paul Auriol - son of future French president Vincent Auriol - in 1938. For Jacqueline, a design student at the Louvre, Paul opened doors to the world of aviation which fascinated her. But World War Two got in the way of her piloting ambition. The couple fought with the Resistance and were forced to flee from the Gestapo with their two children using false identities.
"I felt the sky was mine"
Jacqueline Auriol finally obtained her pilot’s licence in 1948. As the daughter-in-law of a newly elected president, she soon became known as one of France’s most glamourous women. The following year, however, she was badly injured in a crash on the river Seine on board a SCAN 30 seaplane. Her injuries required extensive reconstructive surgery. Viewing convalescence as an opportunity, Auriol used the time to study for advanced pilot certification.
French aviation was all but destroyed during the Second World War but the creation of NATO saw the Allies lend aircraft while the country rebuilt. In the early 1950s, these included the British de Havilland Vampire fighter jet.
When Jackie loses to me, she can't sleep; when I lose to her, I just see another opportunity
Auriol, yet to fly a jet-powered aircraft, sensed an opportunity to challenge American aviator Jackie Cochran, holder of the record for fastest female pilot. She spent hours in the aircraft on the ground until confident enough to push such a powerful machine to its limits. “When I finally flew the Vampire, its controls were so responsive that I felt the sky was mine,” Auriol recalled.
On 12 May 1951, at the French air force base at Istres, Auriol set out to contest Cochran’s 1947 closed-circuit record of 755 km/h, achieved in a P-51 Mustang. She smashed the American’s performance outright, reaching an average speed of 818 km/h. Now she was famous in her own right.
That same year, and at Cochran’s request, Auriol received the Harmon Trophy from US president Harold Truman, awarded annually to the world’s most outstanding aviator. She was to receive the trophy three more times.
Cochran-Auriol: a rivalry for the ages
Back home, Auriol received her military pilot’s licence. Cochran, however, was not content with second place and launched her response. A 15-year rivalry was born, cheered on by millions of enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Through her influential businessman husband, Cochran coaxed the Canadian government into lending her a Canadair Sabre fighter jet. With specialist training from Chuck Yeager, her friend and the first man to break the sound barrier, Cochran reached Mach 1 in 1953.
Auriol’s record was beaten, but two years later, at the controls of a Dassault Mystère-II, she in turn broke the speed of sound at an altitude of 13,500 metres, becoming the first European woman to do so. At last, she was admitted into France’s elite flight test centre in Brétigny-sur-Orge as its first woman test pilot.
Over the following years, Auriol and Cochran duelled their way in and out of the record books. The two women were very different. “When Jackie loses to me, she can’t sleep,” Auriol said. “When I lose to her, I just see another opportunity.”
By 1955, France had broken its reliance on foreign jets and had developed the Rolls-Royce-powered Mystère-IV N night fighter, capable of flying well over the speed of sound. In May that year, Auriol flew a prototype of the jet at 1,151 km/h just 1,000 metres above the ground, snatching back the title of the world’s fastest woman.
So the game of cat and mouse continued. In 1961, Cochran won back the title. Then, in June 1963, back at Istres, Auriol flew a Dassault Mirage-3C at 1,849 km/h. The next year, in a Mirage-3R, she reached 2,030 km/h. Ultimately, though, it was Jackie Cochran who had the last word. Aged 57, Cochran flew a Lockheed F-104 at 2,097 km/h. It was her final competitive flight.
Embracing the love of flying
Jacqueline Auriol refused to trade on her fame as a woman in a male-dominated club. “I’m a pilot like any other and should be judged on my abilities alone,” she would say. Those abilities saved her from death on numerous occasions. In 1956, she managed to pull a Mystère-IV out of a terrifying tail spin just metres from the ground after its rudder jammed on a supersonic test flight. She emerged with her love of flying intact.
I feel so happy when I’m flying; perhaps it is the feeling of power, the pleasure of dominating a machine as beautiful as a thoroughbred horse. Each time I set foot on an airfield, I sense this is where I belong
“I feel so happy when I’m flying,” Auriol wrote in her memoirs. “Perhaps it is the feeling of power, the pleasure of dominating a machine as beautiful as a thoroughbred horse. Each time I set foot on an airfield, I sense this is where I belong.”
Jacqueline Auriol is remembered as one of the jet age’s great pioneers, a grande dame with sparkling blue eyes who shook up the male elite and whose daring has encouraged many women to take to the skies.
Her achievements have a symbolic value, too. They reflect France’s rebirth as a great aviation nation from the ruins of World War Two. On her death in February 2000, aged 82, president Jacques Chirac paid tribute to a remarkable life. For decades, he said, Auriol was the very incarnation of the courage and modernity of post-war France.
Airbus has named a street at its new Wings Campus in Toulouse after Jacqueline Auriol.
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