The First Licensed Woman Pilot – Raymonde de Laroche
Today, on March 8th we celebrate the International Woman’s Day, celebrating the strength, resilience and beauty of every single woman around the world.
However, coincidentally, 109 years ago one woman defied all odds and became the first licensed pilot ever. Her name – Raymonde de Laroche.
To illustrate, this was a time when women could not legally vote in the United States. That changed in 1920.
Women in Canada could not be in the Senate, as they were not regarded as “persons”. The British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council allowed women to be in the Senate only in 1929. The world was a dark and grim place for women on earth. To some extent, it still is.
Nevertheless, no matter the difficult circumstances, Raymonde de Laroche gained her pilot’s license on March 8th, 1910.
From an actress to a pilot
She was born in 1882, in Paris, France. She had a fairly humble family – her father was a plumber by trade. As a child, Elise (her full birth name is Elise Raymonde Deroche, Raymonde de Laroche was her stage name.) had a keen eye for sports. When she grew older, motorcycles and automobiles attracted her attention as well.
As an adult, Elise became an actress and adopted the stage name of Raymonde de Laroche. When she became an actress, she started meeting various aviators and became very fascinated by aviation. The demonstrational flights in Paris by the Wright brothers in 1908 also had a lot of influence.
She approached Charles Voisin, a pilot and an airplane builder, and asked him to teach her how to fly. Raymonde de Laroche began her journey of becoming an aircraft pilot.
She started her flight training in October of 1909, in Chalons, some 140 kilometers east of Paris.
Because the Voisin‘s aircraft could seat only one person, Raymonde learned the controls while she was on the ground. She showed excellent progress and after she successfully taxied the aircraft around the airfield, she took off for her first flight. The distance of her first flight was not very long. She landed after 270 meters.
The calendar showed the date to be October 22nd, 1909. Subsequently, she became the first woman to pilot an aircraft. Although, that fact is widely debatable by aviation historians around the world. Some believe the first woman to pilot an aircraft is actually Therese Peltier, when she performed a solo flight in Turin, Italy in 1908.
The following day she returned to the airfield and completed another flight. This time it was a much longer flight, measuring 6 kilometers.
Raymonde de Laroche is officially a pilot
As she continued her flight training, great news followed.
On March 8th, 1910, the French Aero-Club officially issued an F.A.I. approved pilots license no. 36 to Raymonde de Laroche. She became the first woman with an official pilots license.
The same year, she attended several airshows, called aviation meetings at the time.
The first one was Heliopolis, which happened just a month before Raymonde gained her pilot’s license. The Egyptian Aero Club organized the event and it was certified by F.A.I. Many sporting events were included in the 6-day meeting, namely rewards for highest speed, altitude and distance. Raymonde de Laroche won a prize, however, no sources are clear what for. She received 1.000 francs for first place in something for flying. (Nobody seems to know for what)
Meeting the Czar
Afterward, she attended an aviation meeting in St. Petersburg. The airshow in the at-the-time czarist russia presented a unique opportunity for Raymonde to meet the Czar, Nicholas II. Raymond de Laroche impressed Czar Nicholas II. She later remembered their encounter in Colliers Magazine:
“The Czar, who was present at this meeting, wished to congratulate me. He asked what my feelings had been, and I was able to assure him that his presence in the first place, and the houses and the landing ground, which was only 30 meters wide, in the second, had brought my heart into my mouth.”
Later on, she attended another aviation meeting, this time in Budapest. Nothing eventful happened at the event.
However, Raymonde had a pretty scary moment in the next airshow, this time in Rouen. Heavy winds have forced the French pilot to land near the barriers that separated the airfield from the crowd. Elise later said, that if she were to stop the engine, “I should, without doubt, have fallen on the crowd. Happily, I had a little presence of mind left.”
Finally, Raymonde de Laroche attended the Reims airshow in a Voisin aircraft. She entered the competition for a women’s prize and unfortunately, suffered an almost fatal accident. The accident would leave her unable to fly for two years.
Sadly enough, another accident followed her. She and Charles Voisin, the man who taught her how to fly, were driving near Lyon when their car crashed. Charles was killed on the spot, while Raymonde survived the crash.
Continuing her career
After recovering from the car and aircraft crashes, she began flying again in 1913. Arguably, this was the best year in her aviation career – she won Coupe Femina, a French award for female pilots. She won it with a then record-breaking flight of 323 kilometers, which unfortunately ended in mechanical failure. Fortunately, Elise was safe. She then went on to break another record, this time for the highest flight altitude. Raymonde de Laroche flew 4500 meters above the ground.
But her career came to a halt as a result of World War 1. All commercial aviation was stopped to focus on the war effort. Because of the dangers of war, the French Air Force prohibited women pilots from participating in the war.
Nevertheless, as her history tells us, she never shied away from any danger. She became a military driver, driving army officers from the back to the front trenches.
As The Great War ended, she resumed her flying career.
In early 1919, the broke another record – this time flying at a record altitude 4800 meters.
Death and legacy of Laroche
Unfortunately, her career had a very early ending.
On the 18th of July, 1919, Raymonde de Laroche went to an airfield at Le Crotoy. As she was a talented engineer as well, she wanted to become a test pilot and help aircraft manufacturers build better planes. She, together with one more pilot was testing an experimental aircraft.
As they were about to land, the aircraft went into a very steep dive and crashed into the ground. The crash resulted in two deaths – both the pilot and Raymonde de Laroche had passed away. Elise Raymonde Deroche passed away being 36 years old.
Nevertheless, even 100 years after her death, everyone, including people outside of aviation, celebrates her legacy. During the same week as March 8th, the whole world celebrates the Women of Aviation Worldwide Week. To commemorate Elise, there is a statue outside of Paris-Le Bourget Airport.
Raymonde de Laroche pawed the way for many women around the world to never forget one thing:
If you dream to fly, no one or nothing can stop you from your dream. No matter your circumstances, you can become a pilot.