Your complete source for everything buzzing in YOUR area

Ladies First

“Flying does not rely so much on strength, as on physical and mental co-ordination”  Baroness Raymonde de LaRoche

Two French women who made a name for themselves: one for travelling 270 metres and the other for making a real spectacle of herself!  What did they have in common?  A love of flying…

Baroness Raymonde de Laroche

A bit of a daredevil with a penchant for motorbikes and cars, Elise Raymonde Deroche was born in Paris in 1882.  As an actress she was known as Raymonde de Laroche and had heard tales of escapades in the skies from several aviator friends including artist-turned-pilot Léon Delagrange who had already flown Thérèse Pelter, the first woman airplane passenger.

Inspired by Wilbur Wright’s powered flight exhibitions in 1908, Raymonde begged her friend, pilot and aeroplane builder, Charles Voisin, to teach her to fly.  He agreed but, as his aircraft only had one seat, she operated the plane herself whilst he stood on the ground, shouting instructions!

Determined and head strong, she first mastered taxiing around the airfield and then took off, some say on the same day, flying just 300 yards (270m).  Flight magazine, nicknaming her the Baroness, reported that she circled the airfield twice the next day, “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.”

It was a gutsy performance and she not only became the first woman to gain a pilot’s licence but went on to fly at aviation meetings throughout Europe.

Undeterred by severe, life-threatening injuries sustained in a crash in Reims in 1910, she was flying again two years later and won the Aero-Club of France’s Femma Cup for a non-stop long-distance flight of over four hours in 1913.  Flying was considered to be too dangerous for women during WWI so she served as a military driver instead, chauffeuring officers to the front line!

Here is another “ladies first”:

Setting the women’s distance record at 201 miles (323 km) and an altitude record at 15,700 feet (4.8 km) in 1919, she turned her attention to becoming the first female test pilot.  Sadly it was not to be as, on 18 July at Le Crotoy airfield, the experimental aircraft she was co-piloting went into a dive on approach and crashed, leaving no survivors.

This pioneering, courageous and talented “femme du ciel” has not been forgotten with a statue at Paris Le Bourget Airport and the Women of Aviation Worldwide Week being held every year during the week of 8 March, the date Raymond obtained her pilot’s licence.

ladies first

Sophie Blanchard

The honour of being the first woman to fly in an untethered hot air balloon went to Elisabeth Thible who had flown alongside a M. Fleurant as a passenger in the montgolfier, La Gustave, on 4 June 1784.  She was credited with feeding the balloon’s fire box en route.   A “ladies first” for sure!

Sophie’s story is a very different one.  Nervous on the ground but always comfortable in the air, she became the first professional female balloonist and what a show she put on!

Her ballooning history started with her marriage to Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a balloon manufacturer and showman himself who had fallen on hard times.  He had decided that a woman “on-board” would attract the crowds and Sophie, who was said to be terrified of riding in a horse-drawn carriage, took to it like a duck to water.  Tiny, nervous and with “sharp bird-like features” as one reporter wrote, she found it to be incomparable and made her first solo balloon flight in 1805, earning her licence.

These balloons were far different from those we see today and had small, low gondola style “baskets” in which stood a resplendent Sophie in flowing gown and feathered hat.  All went fairly well for several years until Jean-Pierre had a heart attack standing next to Sophie whilst flying over the Hague and fell to his death.  He left many debts so she continued to fly, paying off creditors and making sure she put on a spectacular display by launching fireworks from beneath the hydrogen balloon!   Such was her performance that she became Napoleon’s “aeronaut of the official festivals” and made a celebration flight for his 1810 wedding to Marie Louise.  She was also made chief air minister of ballooning, working on what turned out to be impossible plans for an aerial invasion of England, with French troops in balloons.  Later King Louis XVIII kept her on as official aeronaut of the restoration.

Nowadays, balloons tend to land at dusk and take off at dawn but Sophie preferred to fly at night, staying airborne until dawn and even sleeping in her hydrogen balloon.  Apparently she once ascended to avoid a hailstorm and passed out, nearly freezing to death at altitude and, on another occasion, nearly drowned after landing in a swamp.

Her exploits with fireworks brought her showmanship to an end on 6 July in 1819 when her “Bengal Fire” demonstration went horribly wrong and flames leapt from the top of her balloon.  She tried to slow her descent by losing ballast and almost made it but, instead, she landed on the roof of a house and Sophie tipped out, falling to her death on the street below.

A sorry end for an incredible lady.

ladies first
ladies first

First published in the May/June 2021 issue of The Local Buzz