In 1910, less than a decade after the Wright brothers soared into the skies at Kitty Hawk (1903), the members of the Aéro-Club de France granted a pilot's license, the first awarded to a woman, to Elise Deroche. Deroche, also known as the Baroness Raymonde de la Roche, also carried the distinction of being the first woman to fly solo. She had only a brief time in the spotlight, for she was tragically killed in 1919 when the experimental plane she was riding in as a passenger went down over the River Somme.
A plumber's daughter, Elise Deroche was born in 1889. By 1909 she had dabbled in sculpture, the theater, ballooning, and car racing and was looking for the next great thrill. She found it in the airplane when she asked Charles Voisin (1882-1912) to teach her to fly the plane he had designed and named for himself.
The Voisin plane was a precarious one-seater that looked as if two box kites had been strapped together. Deroche's lessons began in October 1909 at Châlons airfield. Her worried flight instructor, Charles Voisin, had forbidden Deroche to do any independent starting attempts, but after a few "dry tests" of taxiing on the runway and around the aerodrome, she became tired of the waiting and announced energetically that she was ready to start.
The surprised Voisin, as well as an English reporter and several mechanics, watched speechlessly as Deroche brought the 50-horse-power engine up to speed, rolled down the air strip and became airborne to an altitude of 15 feet (4.6 m)—becoming the first woman to solo. It was October 22, 1909. The reporter praised her in his comment: "The airplane was gliding through the air completely level for several hundred meters before it came down gently and taxied back."
On March 8, 1910, Deroche passed her qualifying test and was issued pilot's license number 36 by the Aéro-Club de France. A fearless flyer, she commented that "Most of us spread the hazards of a lifetime over a number of years. Others pack them into minutes or hours. In any case, what is to happen, will happen. It may be that I shall tempt Fate once too often, but it is to the air that I have dedicated myself and I fly always without the slightest fear." No surprise, then, that a horrific crash in July 1910, which left her with internal injuries, head wounds, a broken arm, and two broken legs, did not deter her from continued flights after her recovery.
Within two years, Deroche was fearlessly racing again. In 1913 she won the Coupe Femina, an award established for female pilots, first won in November 1910 by Marie Marvingt (1875-1963). Later that year Deroche survived another near-fatal crash, again recovering and taking to the skies until the government banned private flying at the onset of World War I.
Immediately after the war, Deroche resumed flying, and in June 1919 she set an altitude record for women pilots by climbing to 15,300 feet (4,663 m). In an ironic twist of fate that same year, she agreed to ride as a passenger in a test flight of a new experimental plane. The pilot lost control and the plane went down over the Somme, a river in northern France. Deroche died in the crash, extinguishing her pioneering career as an aviator.
ANN T. MARSDEN