Every field of innovation has its trailblazers, the brave individuals who step forward and dare to attempt what has never been done before. Those that succeed earn a place in history. Sometimes they become famous for what they do; sometimes who they are is a part of their notoriety. In the case of celebrated female pilot Raymonde de Laroche, both factors play into her well-earned reputation.
Elise Deroche was born in Paris in 1882. She was an able-bodied and athletic girl, and as she grew older she developed a fascination with cars and motorcycles. Her humble origins limited her career options – she was the daughter of a plumber – and she started off into her adult life as an actress. She took to the stage under the name Raymonde de Laroche, the same title that would accompany her later career in aviation.
Everything changed for de Laroche in 1908. Wilbur Wright brought his flying machine to Paris and demonstrated incontrovertibly that he and his brother had opened up the age of flight. Captivated by both the new airplanes and the skill of piloting, de Laroche started cultivating acquaintances with the region’s pioneering innovators.
Learning To Fly
Over the course of a year, de Laroche got to know and appreciate early airplane magnate Charles Voisin. Although the friendship between the two was undoubtedly genuine, de Laroche also had a definite ulterior motive. By October 22nd, 1909, she had achieved her goal and went to the Voisin aerodrome at Chalon to take her first flying lesson.
Voisin’s primitive aircraft were all single-seaters, so Raymonde fearlessly took the controls while Voisin shouted instructions to her from the ground. After familiarizing herself with the plane by taxiing around the field, de Laroche took the machine up for a breathless 300-yard hop. She became the third woman to fly in a powered airplane and the very first to do so alone.
Triumphs And Tragedies
De Laroche’s story was immediately captivating to the aviation world and the public as a whole. The early French air magazine Flight covered her first flights in breathless detail and began referring to her as the Baroness de Laroche. While de Laroche never earned a real title in her life, she recognized the value of publicity and happily started using the appellation herself.
The skilled pilot earned another coup in early 1910 when she received an official pilot’s license from the FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale). It was the thirty-sixth license ever issued by the international body and the first which went to a woman.
Just a few months later, de Laroche was participating in an air show at Reims when she suffered a serious crash from altitude. Her injuries were significant enough to make her survival initially doubtful. While she recovered fully and eventually returned to flying, it would take her two years to do so. 1912 was another hard year, as she was involved in a car accident while riding with Charles Voisin. The airplane maker died and de Laroche received further injuries.
The story of another female famed for her aviation skills can be found here.