Today, the first woman pilot. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Finding the first of anything
is always a dicey business, but the first woman to
pilot an airplane seems to've been Raymonde de
Laroche. We pick up her story in 1908: The Wright
Brothers had set up camp at a race track near Le
Mans, in France. They made 120 demonstration
flights over their few weeks there.
The 22-year-old de Laroche had known of
Santos-Dumont's first airplane flight in France,
two years before. But now she not only got to see
an airplane in the sky; she was even given a ride
historian Eileen Lebow tells how de Laroche went to
pioneer airplane-builder Charles Voisin, wanting to
learn to fly. Voisin was quite smitten with the
lovely Raymonde and he gave her special attention.
They became close friends. And, on October 22,
1909, she became the first woman to pilot an
These new machines were terrifyingly dangerous. De
Laroche suffered a crash ten weeks after she'd
first flown. It was caused when the tail of her
airplane brushed a tree during a landing. She
suffered a concussion and a broken collarbone.
But she mended, and she did not lose her passion
for flight. She was soon off to an air show in
Egypt with Voisin's group. Then, on her return, she
became the first woman anywhere to receive a
pilot's license. Next she was off to fly before
Czar Nicholas in St. Petersburg. There, Russians
began referring to her as la Barrone de Laroche.
She was not an aristocrat, but the title stuck. It
fit her regal bearing, and it served her well at
An air show in Budapest, then one back in France
where she flew into the wake of another airplane.
She was knocked into a dive and crashed, breaking
several bones. She returned to flying. Then a third
near-fatal accident occurred a year later — this
time on the ground. She and Voisin had a terrible
That crash killed Voisin, and she again was
seriously injured. She recovered once more, and she
kept on flying until WW-I began. Then all women
flyers were grounded. During the war she worked as
a driver for the French army, chauffeuring officers
through artillery fire.
1919 found Raymonde de Laroche back in the
air, in far more advanced airplanes. She set two
women's altitude records — one at sixteen thousand
feet. Then a test pilot offered her a ride in a new
experimental plane. It slipped into a tailspin and
crashed. She died outright, and the pilot died on
the way to the hospital.
Flying was such a lethal business. Raymonde de
Laroche had miraculously survived three serious
crashes before the fourth one claimed her. The most
amazing thing about her amazing story is that she
was still alive, ten years after she first flew.
Few complex technologies have ever developed as
rapidly as flight did. What a terrible toll in
human life it took to bring air travel to the point
where it's about as exciting as going to the
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
E. F. Lebow, Before Amelia. Washington,
D.C.: Brassey's Inc., 2002, Chapters 1 and 2.
For more on early women fliers, see: J. H.
Lienhard, Inventing Modern: Growing up with
X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins. New York:
Oxford University Press, August, 2003, Chapter 10.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.