On August 22, 1882 in Paris, one of my favorite figures from history was born: Élise Léontine LaRoche.
Élise was solidly middle class, the daughter of a plumber. This perhaps explains her interest in all things mechanical from an early age. She loved motorcycles, cars, and eventually started flying hot air balloons before taking up work on the stage as a singer and actress.
It was during this period that she changed her name to Raymonde de LaRoche,* which she thought had a better ring to it and sounded better on stage. In 1900 she married Louis Léopold Thadome, but they divorced in 1909, perhaps because she wanted a more adventurous life, and perhaps for other reasons, like Ferdinand Léon Delagrange.
She raced cars and motorcycles and hung out with the modern, bohemian set in Paris. She had a relationship with Delagrange, a sculptor and pilot, and he’s probably the father of her son André (born 1909), though de Laroche never officially revealed who his father was and the two never married.
As might be expected, it wasn’t long before she determined balloons were far too slow for her taste, and convinced pilot and friend Charles Voisin to teach her to fly his plane. The plane had only one seat, so at their first lesson she taxied around a field to learn the controls while he shouted commands at her…until, against his advice, she took off, flying a few hundred yards about 15 feet off the ground. Though there is some debate, this might have been the first instance of a woman flying a plane, ever.** When Flight & The Aircraft Engineer reported on the incident, they dubbed her “The Baroness of Flight” and the name stuck.
That was all it took for her to be completely smitten with flying. On March 8, 1910, less than five months after her first lesson, she became the first woman in the world to receive a pilot’s license, number 36 from the Aéro-Club de France.
She spent the next several months participating in air shows and meets around the world. In Russia she was introduced to Tzar Nicolas II as “Baroness,” forever sealing her title, however unofficial it might have been. But tragedy struck in July when she suffered a near fatal crash. While recovering, she was in another crash–this time an automobile accident–with friend and mentor Charles Voisin. While she escaped with minor injuries, Voisin was killed instantly.
It would be two years before she would fly again, but fly she did. In 1913 she was back in the sky and took home the Aéro-Club de France’s Women’s Cup for her four hour flight, which up to that point was the longest solo flight by a woman. She was brought to the ground due to mechanical failure (this was VERY common in early airplanes), or else she would have kept going.
In February 1915 she married, but if anyone thought this would make her settle down into a housewife, they were wrong. When France entered WWI women were prohibited from flying because it was deemed “too dangerous.” Undeterred, de Laroche became a military driver, ferrying officers to and from the front (seriously, is that less dangerous than flying???).
When the war ended she signed up to become a test pilot, planning to marry her love of flight with her mechanical and engineering knowledge. Perhaps she was inspired by the mechanical troubles that had caused her major cash and ended her Women’s Cup flight early. In June she set 2 altitude records, but in July all those dreams came to a screeching halt. While testing a plane with another pilot, the plane suddenly went into a steep dive. Both de Laroche and her partner were killed.
So let’s sum up:
- First woman to fly a plane (1909)
- First woman to receive a pilot’s license (1910)
- First female test pilot (1919)
- Set 2 distance records (1913 and 1919)
- Set 2 altitude records (both in June of 1919)
For a career spanning just shy of ten years, that is an incredible list of accomplishments, especially when you remember that for six of those years she was unable to fly at all due to injury or war.
Raymonde de Laroche was an amazing woman who opened doors for women like Bessie Coleman and Amelia Earhart. She shook down barriers of class and gender, and refused to be put in a box…unless it could fly.
*In France, “de” before a last name indicates nobility. This would lead to her later nickname, Baroness of Flight, though she was far more blue collar than blue blood.
**There are some reports that another woman beat her to the title, but other reports list her as a passenger in the plane and not the pilot, so I guess you could say it’s up in the air (pun intended).
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