History Behind The Card: The First Lady Aviator.
Card #50 of 50, W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1910
- Elise Raymonde Deroche, aka Raymonde de Laroche, August 22, 1882, in Paris, France – July 18, 1919 in Le Crotoy, France.
What can we say about the short life of Elise Deroche who used her stage name when flying as Raymonde de Laroche?
de Laroche is the first woman (in the world) to earn and receive an airplane (aeroplane) pilot’s license.
Although the Wills’s card #50 indicates that she is a “Baroness”, it is actually a nickname… and one pronounced upon her by the very early aviation periodical “Flight” magazine.
The daughter of a plumber, she had a bit of a wild tomboy side, or… maybe that’s not fair. Like most people of that era, she was fascinated with the new inventions: motorcycles, automobiles and eventually aviation.
She was also an actress, which is where the name Raymonde de Laroche came from.
When she saw Wilbur Wright demonstrate his Wright Flyer in 1908 Paris, de Laroche, who was also friends with aviator Léon Delagrange (supposedly the father of her child, André), got the urge to want to fly, too.
So, in October of 1909, she asked famed aviator Charles Voisin to teach her how to fly. On October 22, she traveled to Chalons, about 140 kilometers (90 miles) east of Paris where the brothers Voisin had their base of operations.
The main problem with learning how to fly with a Voisin biplane, is that it is a single-seat aircraft. As such, Voisin stayed on the ground to instruct, while de Laroche operated the controls herself.
That same day, de Laroche learned how to taxi the biplane across the airfield, and then lifted the plane off the ground and flew a distance of 270 meters (900 feet), becoming the first woman to ever fly a heavier-than-air vehicle.
She certainly wasn’t the first woman in the air, as there were numerous who had been in hot-air balloons, and dirigibles – even piloting such craft.
As for aeroplanes, two other women had beaten her to the aeroplane by being passengers: P. Van Pottelsberghe and Thérèse Peltier, flying in 1908 with Henri Farman and Delagrange, respectively.
As for de Laroche, she had also been aboard an aeroplane just once before her celebrated piloting accomplishment.
The thing is… Voisin had told her NOT to do anything but taxi… to just get the hang of the controls. Naughty, naughty.
Brother Gabriel Voisin wrote later that Charles: “my brother [was] entirely under her thumb”.
One week after the successful flight, Flight magazine wrote: “For some time the Baroness has been taking lessons from M. Chateau, the Voisin instructor, at Chalons, and on Friday of last week she was able to take the wheel for the first time. This initial voyage into the air was only a very short one, and terra firma was regained after 300 yards (270 m).”
The magazine also notes that on the following day of October 23, 1909, she was up in the air again and circled the airfield twice: “the turnings being made with consummate ease. During this flight of about four miles (6 km) there was a strong gusty wind blowing, but after the first two turnings the Baroness said that it did not bother her, as she had the machine completely under control.”
Again.. it was Flight magazine who like to call her the “Baroness”. Having a cool nickname light certainly added even more flair to de Laroche’s accomplishments.
As the first woman to receive her pilot’s license on March 8, 1910 (see photo of it above), de Laroche was a keen attraction at various aviation meets across Europe: at Heliopolis, Egypt; St. Petersburg, Russia; Budapest, Hungary; and Rouen, France.
At the Russian air meet, she had an audience with Tsar Nicholas II, and was introduced to him as the “Baroness.”
Preparing for the second Reims air meet in France (July 3-10, 1910), de Laroche crashed her plane on July 8, 1910 causing injuries severe enough that she did not fly again for two more years.
Again on September 26, 1912, she crashed again… this time it was an automobile accident where she was severely injured but with aviator Charles Voisin dying.
On November 25, 1913, de Laroche won the Femina Cup with a non-stop distance flight of over four hours.
The Coupe Femina (en Francais), as a trophy and FF2,000 award established first in 1910 by France’s Femina women’s magazine publisher Pierre Lafitte – an award meant to promote and honor women pilots.
It was a French-only challenge open to female pilots. The idea behind it was to award the trophy and money to the one woman who, by sunset of December 31 of the year had flown the longest flight in time and distance, without landing.
Thanks to the onset of WWI (aka The Great War) in 1914, de Laroche was the last person to win the award in 1913.
Despite her achievements, women were not allowed to be pilots during WWI… too dangerous, apparently. Instead, she was a military driver, driving officer from the front lines to the safer rear zones.
With the war ending in 1918, de Laroche was back up in the air in 1919 setting flying records for women: 4,800 meters (15,700 feet) and a distance record of 323 kilometers (201 miles).
But it all came to a crashing halt. On July 18, 1919, de Laroche went to Le Crotoy as part of her plan to become an aeroplane test pilot.
According to one source, she co-piloted an experimental aircraft (no one is sure of she was the pilot or passenger), and when it was coming in for a landing, the aeroplane went into a dive and crashed into the ground, killing de Laroche and the other flier.
Except… Flight magazine has the real scoop:
From the July 24, 1919 edition of Flight magazine:
Baroness de la Roche Killed
It appears almost ironical that the Baroness de la Roche who was the first woman pilot should have been killed while flying as a passenger. What happened is not very clear, but it would seem that the machine in which she was flying overturned during a trial flight. Baroness de la Roche was killed instantly and the pilot, Barrault, died very shortly afterwards. Baroness de la Roche, secured her pilot’s certificate in France on March 8, 1910, having qualified on a Voisin biplane, and in the following November she won a Femina Cup with a flight of 200 miles. During the War, she tried without success to join the French Air Service, A few weeks ago she took a machine up to a height of 4,900 meters (16,170 ft,) but the French Club refused to recognize “women’s records”, a decision which has caused some discussion across the Channel.
So… she was the passenger (they spelled her name as de la Roche, however, rather than de Laroche). Barrault (couldn’t find a first name) was the pilot.
A French newspaper source of the day found HERE (and poorly translated to English by Google) says:
The tragedy occurred while the two airmen were aboard an experimental apparatus of the firm Caudron, Barrault having taken the controls to realize a flight that will turn badly: indeed, while he makes a descent in spin , Barrault failed to straighten out the airplane in time to avoid the crash.
So… the second source also says she was the passenger, and provides more detail on the actual crash.
This, folks, is why you have to find multiple sources to arrive at the truth when it comes to providing a true history.
Gone, but not forgotten completely, the week that includes March 8 – when de Laroche received her pilot’s license – a Women of Aviation week is held globally. The week also includes International Women’s Day… and is is meant to bring attention to the world of aviation as an inspiration for women.
This concludes the W.D.& H.O Wills, Aviation series 1910 of 50 cards.
I will continue by examining the next 25 to 35 cards that appeared in the 75 and 85-card series issued in Australia and New Zealand in 1911, continuing the series.
Some of the cards in the multiple 75 card issues (depending on the various tobacco brands), were not the same: for example, card #74 might have had two different aircraft issued with different tobacco backs.
I’ll be back writing more in January. Until then: Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Seasons Greetings, Happy Kwanzaa or whatever you celebrate – and happy Festivus for the rest of us. Happy new year, too. Stay safe and healthy.