Being down to earth was not for her. Born in 1886, French aviator Raymonde de Laroche was fearless, technically gifted and ambitious. In 1909, she made the world’s first solo flight by a woman, taking off in a biplane. A year later, she became the first woman in the world to receive a pilot’s licence.
Challenging social conventions
The idea of a woman alone in the cockpit was unthinkable at a time when women didn’t have the right to vote or gain professional qualifications. With a title and a memorable name it might just be possible, thought Elise Deroche, the daughter of a plumber from Paris, and so she decided to call herself 'Baroness Raymonde de Laroche'.
At first she played the Parisian variety theatres as a singer and actress. As a sideline de Laroche painted, sculpted and took to the air with captive balloons. But that was not enough: she was determined to fly.
Learning from a pioneer
Her dream was to come true when the 23-year-old de Laroche met the aviation pioneer Charles Voisin. He could refuse her nothing and promised to teach her to fly. On 22 October 1909, he let her try to operate the controls of the 50-horsepower single-seater built by his brother Gabriel – a fragile flying vehicle for daredevil pilots, made of wooden slats, wire and canvas with an open seat in the middle.
She took up her position in an ankle-length skirt and a knitted cap. As was usual in those days, Voisin gave instructions from the runway. He explained all the aircraft’s controls, yelling orders to her. Although he had told her not to take off, the Baroness couldn't resist the temptation. Voisin and some curious spectators held their breath as she taxied around the airfield a couple of times, then suddenly turned the biplane into the wind, accelerated and lifted off.
A first flight for the ages
They say she rose “10 or 15 feet” into the air, handled the controls with “cool, quick precision” and landed safely after 300 yards. Whatever the details, it was the first solo flight by a woman anywhere in the world. A newspaper entitled its story 'The first woman to fly'.
A few days later, Raymonde de Laroche flew four miles in a strong, gusty wind. Delighted by his student’s talent, Charles Voisin gave her all the encouragement he could. “My brother was entirely under her thumb,” his brother Gabriel complained.
Flying is the best thing women can do!
In 1910, the Baroness passed the flight test of the Aero Club of France, six years after the first flights of the brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright. She didn’t remain the world’s only woman pilot for long, though: four other intrepid women passed their flying test shortly afterwards.
The first German aviatrix was Melli Beese, from Dresden. Three flying instructors had turned her down before the fourth accepted her. But not because he believed women could make an important contribution to aviation; he simply thought “something of that kind” might appeal to the public. By the outbreak of the First World War, 41 women had acquired a pilot’s licence.
After passing her test, Raymonde de Laroche took part in air shows and competitions in Charles Voisin’s team. In 1910, she was the only woman to fly in the Aviation Week at Heliopolis, where she achieved sixth place in the Egyptian Grand Prix. At the aviation meeting in Saint Petersburg she came fourth. However, at the Grande Semaine d’Aviation de Champagne in Reims she was caught in the wake vortex of another aircraft, crashed the plane and was severely injured.
Scarcely had she recovered from head injuries and a number of broken bones when de Laroche started flying again. She won a competition flight of four hours’ duration in which she also set a distance record of 201 miles.
In 1912, she barely survived the car crash which killed Charles Voisin, but continued flying, winning the women’s cup of the Aero Club of France and the Coupe Femina. After trying in vain to enter the French air force, she was forced to interrupt her flying during the First World War and spent the time chauffeuring officers to the front by car instead.
After the war, de Laroche became the first woman to reach an altitude of 12,869 feet and later flew to 15,700 feet (4,785 metres), breaking the world altitude record for women set by the American Ruth Law.
In the summer of 1919, she volunteered as a co-pilot for the test flight of a new aircraft at Le Crotoy in Picardy, northern France. The aircraft crashed and both the pilot and Raymonde de Laroche were killed. She was only 32.
At Le Bourget airport in Paris, there is a statue in memory of this fearless aviation pioneer. “Maybe I have tempted fate too often, but I can’t help it. Flying is my life,” she once said, and encouraged other women to follow her example: “Flying is the best thing women can do!”
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