In the fall of 1908 Wilbur Wright went to France to prove to nonbelievers that he and his brother Orville had indeed conquered flight. Among those in the crowd, and lucky enough to join Wilbur for a ride, was an eccentric young woman named Raymonde de Laroche. One ride aboard the Flyer was all it took and de Laroche was hooked.
A year later the 23-year old actress and daredevil convinced French aviator Charles Voisin to teach her to fly. Since Voisin’s aircraft could only seat one person, teaching someone to fly meant shouting instructions from the ground to the pupil operating the plane. After taxiing across the airfield twice, and against Voisin’s explicit instruction not to lift off, de Laroche climbed 15 feet into the air, flying for a few hundred yards and became the first woman to pilot an aircraft and one of the women of aviation.
After further instruction, on March 8, 1910 de Laroche was issued pilot’s license No. 36 by the Aeroclub de France (the world’s first pilot licensing organization) becoming the first woman to receive a pilot’s license. It was around this time that, despite not being of noble birth, she became known as “the Baroness”.
De Laroche traveled the world attending aviation meetings, participating in demonstrations and winning competitions in which she was the sole female contender. Despite this, when World War I rolled around in 1914 halting civilian flying, de Laroche was turned down by the war effort when she offered up her piloting skills. After the war de Laroche aimed to become the first female test pilot and set two women’s altitude records as well as one for distance.
On July 18, 1919, while visiting Le Crotoy airfield in pursuit of becoming a test pilot, she was offered a ride in an experimental Caudron aircraft. Upon its landing approach the aircraft went into an uncontrolled dive and crashed to the ground. Both the pilot and 33-year-old de Laroche were killed.
In recognition of her accomplishments in aviation, a statue of “Baroness” Raymonde de Laroche stands at Paris-Le Bourget Airport. Women of Aviation Worldwide Week honors de Laroche by including March 8th, the anniversary of the issuance of her pilot’s license, during their annual event.
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