Raymonde de Laroche didn’t always know she had a future in the skies. Born Elise Raymonde Deroche on August 22, 1882, this French-born aviator had a keen interest in automobiles and motorcycles from a young age. Her first career, however, was as an actress, under the stage name “Raymonde de Laroche” – which would in turn become the name used to commemorate her as a pilot.
De Laroche’s career path took a significant turn when she attended a flight exposition in Paris in 1908. When she witnessed the famed Wright brothers pilot their plane around the field, she knew she was witnessing what would soon become her passion.
The actress was introduced by Léon Delgrange – a man with whom she’d had an affair, who was also an artist-turned-aviator – to Charles Voisin. Voisin had manufactured a first airplane for Delgrange in 1907, and his flight school was where de Laroche ultimately completed her training in the art of flight.
On March 8, 1909, de Laroche was awarded her pilot’s certificate, and thus became the world’s first licensed woman pilot.
News reports in Flight, the newsletter of the Royal Aero Club, dubbed de Laroche as the “Baroness” of flight. Aviation historians at Historic Wings noted that “despite the report above, Raymonde de Laroche was anything but a baroness, of course. Somehow, Flight’s writers had labeled her with the title of nobility and, so honored in the rarefied field of aviation, she was wont to correct their error. In fact, she rather enjoyed it.”
De Laroche loved dressing the part of the Baroness, her portraits adding substance to her title.
De Laroche’s first solo flight was written up in Flight in the October 30, 1909 issue: “Yet another sphere which some had thought man would, for some time, at any rate, retain for his own has been invaded by the gentler sex. Baroness La Roche has been successfully piloting a Voisin biplane, and has thereby earned the right to be known as the first lady flyer or ‘aviatress.’
For some time the Baroness has been taking lessons … and on Friday of last week she was able to take the wheel for the first time,” Flight continued. “This initial voyage into the air was only a very short one … During this flight of about four miles 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.”
Historic Wings reported that “soon after earning her flying certificate – License #36 from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, as awarded through the Aero-Club of France – she embarked on a tour to demonstrate her skills at exhibitions around Europe and North Africa.”
The Baroness flew in Heliopolis, Egypt, and at Budapest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, “as well as at various airfields around France, including at Rouen. She was welcomed into the small, elite club of early aviators.” She befriended many of the most famous names in aviation of her time.
De Laroche often pushed the limits of her aviation skills while competing in challenges and exhibitions, and she was almost killed in her first great crash at Reims. The plane had fallen from an altitude of 50 meters. It took a few years for the pilot to recover, but when she finally returned to the skies, de Laroche competed in the Coup Femina in November of 1913 and won with her four-hour, nonstop flight.
In 1919, de Laroche affirmed that she wanted to once again make history and become the first woman test pilot, which was a field reserved for men at the time. Sadly, the Baroness never got her chance to try. On July 18, 1919, Historic Wings reported, “She was invited to commence tests at Le Crotoy Airfield, but as a copilot. This way, she would learn the trade under the tutelage of a professional male test pilot. On landing approach in a new aircraft type, the plane suddenly and inexplicably nose-dived vertically into the ground.”
The Baroness and the test pilot did not survive the crash.
Raymonde de Laroche’s courage and fearless will to push her limits were what created her space in history as the first woman to become a licensed pilot. After her death, a statue was erected in her honor. It still stands on the famed grounds of Le Bourget Airport in Paris today.
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