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Trailblazers in the Sky

Trailblazers in the Sky

The history of aviatrixes (female aviators) … their heads literally in the clouds … is astonishing.

As my research began, I suddenly realised that this would be a journey into totally new and exciting territory. Never had I imagined that women were taking to the skies as far back as the 1800’s, nor did I expect to be so intrigued by their stories. Join me as I briefly recount the lives of a few of the women who soared into the wild blue yonder nearly 100 years before Wilbur and Orville were born.

Marie Elisabeth Thible

The first woman to take to the skies was Marie Elisabeth Thible of France, courageously piloting a hot air balloon, single-handedly, in 1784, just two years after the first untethered balloon took flight.  Elisabeth, as she was known, garbed herself as the Roman goddess Minerva for this famous fight, which was witnessed by King Gustave III of Sweden. Her sole passenger was fellow aviator, Monsieur Fleurant. While aloft, the pair sang two duets from the opera La Belle Arsene. What an incredible spectacle that must have been!

Genevieve-Jeanne Labrosse-Garnerin

The next record of a woman with her head in the clouds is Genevieve-Jeanne Labrosse-Garnerin, a French balloonist and the first woman to not only pilot a balloon solo but the first woman to make a parachute jump.  She jumped from 3,000 ft (900 metres) on October 12th,1799. Together with her husband, Andre-Jacques Garnerin, they pioneered acrobatic feats, night flights and fireworks displays from their balloons. They were joined by their niece Elisa, who became a balloonist in her own right.

After the death of her husband, Genevieve toured alone and was appointed Aéronaute des Fetes Officielles by Napoleon. She met her death when a stray firework ignited the gas in her balloon and she fell to Earth in a blaze of flames. Such a tragic ending to a vibrant, exciting life. On a philosophical level, though, she died doing what she loved … that’s the way I want to go … living my dream.

Baroness Raymonde de Laroche

Baroness Raymonde de Laroche was the first woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license, the year was 1910. She set two world records in 1919 for the longest flight by a female pilot, flying 201 miles and the highest flight at an altitude of 15,700 feet (4,784 metres). Absolutely astonishing!

Born Elise Deroche in Paris on August 22, 1886, she later took the name Raymonde de Laroche—befitting the glamorous stage actress she was. Raymonde was a keen sportswoman and daredevil. She put her heart and soul into whatever she did. In 1908, the Wright brothers were conducting demonstration flights near Le Mans, France, and Raymonde volunteered for a joyride. She was immediately attracted to this exciting and challenging new sport. Later, when she was dining with Charles Voisin, a famous French aircraft builder of the time, he suggested that she take flying lessons. She was already an experienced balloonist and the prospect of learning to fly a fixed-wing machine thrilled her.

Raymonde de Laroche went on to take part in air displays at Heliopolis, Budapest, Rouen, and St Petersburg, where the Tsar himself praised her bravery and audacity. In July 1910, at the Reims Air Meet, she experienced wake turbulence and her aircraft crash landed. Then, in September 1912, she was grievously hurt in an automobile accident in which Charles Voisin, her close friend and companion (who was driving) was killed. On November 25, 1913, she won the Aero Club of France’s Femina Cup for a non-stop long-distance flight of over four hours duration. What a colorful and exciting life she had!  

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Harriet Quimby

Harriet Quimby became the first officially licensed female pilot in the United States. Then, in 1912, she became the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Harriet Quimby was also a journalist and was extremely influential to women in aviation. She was considered a radical woman in her day because she smoked, owned a car, flew an airplane, traveled the world extensively, as well as being a professional writer and photographer.  She was known as a "green-eyed beauty". She wore a satin, plum-colored outfit, then considered risqué, which soon became a fashion trend; she was often called the "Dresden Doll Aviatrix" by fans because of her dashing, yet feminine image. She was killed on July 1, 1912, at the Harvard-Boston Air Meet when she was thrown from her plane. Another fearless trailblazer whose passion for life ended tragically but again, doing what she loved most.  I am in awe of these women who boldly went where no woman had gone before.

In accomplishing the feat of flying, these women broadened the traditional boundaries that had been set for their gender, attaining a sense of freedom and achievement, contributing significantly to the progress and cause of aviation from its dawn to the present day. Smashing stereotypes and breaking social boundaries took massive courage and great tenacity. We owe them a debt of gratitude that we can only repay by striving to follow our dreams and by casting off preconceived notions of what it means to be a modern woman.

We must continue to evolve both personally and as a cohesive force of nature.

Until next time . . . .

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