Take Flight with Baroness Elise Raymonde de Laroche and Knitting Traditions

You can meet Baroness Elise Raymonde de Laroche in the pages of Knitting Traditions 2017: author Denise Lavoie tells the story of the first licensed female pilot and designed a sweater inspired by Elise’s career. Here, Denise provides more background on Elise’s bold approach to life and aviation.

At a Paris dinner in 1909, Elise Raymonde de Laroche had a fateful conversation with Charles Voisin, co-owner (with his brother Gabriel) of an aircraft manufacturing company. Harry Harper, one of the earliest aviation journalists working in Europe, recorded their exchange as follows.

Elise: I’ve painted portraits, done sculptures, been on stage, driven racing cars, and made flights in balloons. What more can a girl do?

Charles: How would you like to do something no woman has done before?

Elise: Nothing would appeal more, my dear Charles. What is it?

Charles: Why not be the first woman in the world to learn to fly an aeroplane?

They toasted her new ambition that evening. A few days later, Elise drove her car to the Voisin brothers’ airfield at Châlons and told Charles, “Get out one of those Voisins of yours.” She talked down his objection (“It’s no use your having second thoughts. You promised.”) and went on to fly right into the record books. Elise became the first woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale in March 1910.

Elise Raymonde de Laroche

Clockwise from left: Gabriel Voisin in 1909. A Voisin biplane from 1909—note how the pilot sits completely unprotected from the weather or other hazards. The Voisin biplane in flight, 1909. All photos courtesy of Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History. Used without changes under Creative Commons 4.0 license.

Soaring Inspiration with a Female First

Elise believed in her abilities both inside and outside of the cockpit, and her accomplishments show that her confidence was not misplaced. Even before she got her license, Elise participated an aviation meet in Cairo in February, 1910—the only woman among the flyers. Here she was one of 3 pilots to win prize money for her flight in a 50-horsepower plane called the Voisin Antoinette 50 ch. At another meet in Rheims in 1910, Elise managed to win 5,000 francs before suffering a devastating crash that caused her serious injury. Harry Harper reported that Laroche regained consciousness for a few brief minutes at the aerodrome’s hospital, telling medical officials that she believed one of her fellow competitors flew too close to her and caused the accident. That aviator was investigated and eventually cleared, but not for a minute did Laroche question her own competence as a pilot.

Elise Raymonde de Laroche

Left: Elise in 1910, in a photo printed after her crash at the Rheims meet. Right: Charles Voisin in an undated photo. Photos courtesy of Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History. Used without changes under Creative Commons 4.0 license.

Nor did Elise lose confidence during the heartbreaking events of 1912. In September, she and Charles (now living together) experienced a tragic car accident. Charles, the driver, was killed; Elise was thrown from the car. This trauma ended Elise’s relationship with Gabriel Voisin too, because he blamed Elise for the crash and his brother’s death. Elise would no longer have access to Voisin planes. She also faced down difficulties with another French airplane company, called Office d’Aviation: it was supposed to provide her with a plane as well as secure her flying engagements, but it failed to do so. Elise brought a breach of contract claim against the company. Although a lower court initially decided against her, a higher court finally decided in her favor, awarding her 10,000 francs in damages.

A Legacy Remembered

By 1913, Elise was back in the air, winning the Coupe Femina (and the lucrative prize money that went with it) while setting a record for longest nonstop flight by a female pilot. Had it not been for World War I, when all non-military flight came to halt, she would have continued to fly without a break. After the war, at a time when other European female pilots were not returning to the cockpit, Elise imagined another “first” for herself—she planned to continue her career as a test pilot. At that point, no other woman had qualified for that type of flying work. In pursuit of her new ambition, Elise went to an airfield in 1919 and accompanied another pilot on a test flight. They crashed and both aviators died. Elise was only 33 years old.

Elise’s aviation career lasted 10 years, an impressive length of time in these early days of flight. Her love of flying outweighed the danger, as she explained to reporters just after earning her pilot’s license in words that were equally haunting and inspiring: “Most of us spread the perils of a lifetime over a number of years. Others may pack them into a matter of only a few hours. In any case, whatever is to happen will happen. It may well be that I shall tempt fate once too often. Who knows? But it is to the air that I have dedicated myself, and I fly always without the slightest fear.”

(Featured Image: Elise’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, issued in March 1910.)

Further Reading

Harper, Harry. “The Brave Baroness—First Licensed Ladybird.” Air Trails 1953, 19–21, 56–58.
———”The Intrepid First Lady of Flight.” Flying March 1957, 34, 84–85.
Marck, Bernard. Women Aviators: From Amelia Earhart to Sally Ride, Making History in Air and Space. Paris: Flammarion, 2009.
Lebow, Eileen F. Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation. Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, Inc., 2002.
Voisin, Gabriel. Men, Women, and 10,000 Kites. London: Putnam, 1963.

Get the full story on Elise Raymonde de Laroche in Knitting Traditions 2017!

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