Illustration by: August Kay
“Flying is the best possible thing for women”
- Raymonde de Laroche
From plumber’s daughter, to actress, to pilot, to engineer, this often overlooked #GIRLBOSS forged past early 20th century gender roles and class barriers, becoming the world’s first licensed female pilot.
Born in Paris, France in 1882, Elise Raymonde Deroche forewent becoming a plumber (the family business) in favour of pursuing a career as an actress. In pursuit of acting, she adopted the stage name ‘Raymonde de Laroche.
Unfortunately, not much more is known about her early years but at the age of 26, she attended an exhibition in Paris where she saw the Wright brothers fly their plane. A year later, her then lover (an artist-turned-aviator) introduced her to the French aviator Charles Voisin. In October of 1909, as a passenger of Voisin, Raymonde rode in her first plane. When Voisin offered to teach her to fly, she immediately agreed. Because of the size of the plane, Voisin had to shout instructions to her from the ground whilst she drove around. Though previously advised against it, after a few taxi runs, she knew she was ready for takeoff. Opening up the throttle, Raymond raced down the airstrip, rising approximately fifteen feet before landing again. Her first flight was written up in the newsletter of the Royal Aero Club, and for reasons unknown, she was dubbed “Baroness.”
On March 8, 1910, less than six months after the first time she had ridden in a plane, Raymonde de Laroche was issued a pilot’s license by the Aéro-Club de France, becoming the first woman to earn a pilot’s license, and the 36th certified pilot.
In July of 1910, while competing for the Women’s Prize at Reims, her plane stalled, falling from a height of nearly 50ft, almost killing her. She was prevented from flying for over a year and a half, yet by autumn of 1911, her arm barely out of its cast, she was flying at at an aviation show for Tsar Nicholas II in Saint Petersburg. While there, he addressed her with the title of “baroness” and it was from that moment forward that she officially adopted the title. Without the aid of an influential husband or political scheming, Raymonde had elevated herself to the ranks of nobility, breaking through the confines of a rigid class structure. But really, if royalty thought of her as a baroness, who was she to disagree?
Raymonde continued traveling to aero-shows but in Autumn of 1912, she was once again seriously injured when out for a drive, her car collided with another. True to form, she refused to let a couple of broken bones stop her, and a year later Raymonde was back competing.
In 1914, the Great War began, placing her piloting career on hold. After her application to be a pilot in the war effort was denied, Raymonde volunteered as a chauffeur, shuttling senior French military officers to and from the front lines.
With the conclusion of the Great War, Raymonde further established herself in the (still) male-dominated field, beginning work as an aeronautical engineer. Simultaneously, she decided that she would become the world’s first woman test pilot. Tragically however, on July 18 of 1919, while co piloting a test flight Raymonde’s plane suddenly and inexplicably nosedived into the ground during landing, killing both her and the pilot instantaneously.
Raymonde’s tale is a classic story of rags to riches. She reminds us that it is valid to be passionate about the arts as well as sciences, that believing in yourself will take you a long way, and if there aren’t many (or any) women in the career or program that inspires you… you should remember that somebody has to pave the way.