Auriol, Jacqueline (1917—)

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Auriol, Jacqueline (1917—)

French aviator. Born Jacqueline Douet on November 5, 1917, at Challans, France; daughter of Pierre Douet (a shipbuilder and importer of Scandinavian wood); attended school in Nantes; studied art at L'École du Louvre, Paris; married Paul Auriol (son of Vincent Auriol, French diplomat and first president of the Fourth Republic [1947–1954]), in 1938; children: two sons, Jean-Claude and Jean-Paul.

The distinguished French aviator Jacqueline Auriol won the title of "fastest woman in the world" in 1951, then broke her own speed record on December 21, 1952, flying a Mistral jet fighter an average speed of 534.375 miles an hour over a measured 62.1 mile course. Though Auriol's accomplishments were remarkable by any standards, they were made even more so by the fact that she had only been flying for eight years and, in 1949, had been severely injured when a seaplane in which she was a passenger crashed into the Seine. Suffering a fractured skull and broken bones in her face, Auriol was sustained through her long and torturous recovery by her determination to fly again. While undergoing the over 20 operations necessary to re-build her face, she obtained military and commercial pilot licenses and also learned to fly a helicopter. Lawrence Bell, president of the Bell Aircraft Corporation in Buffalo, New York, where Auriol took helicopter lessons in 1951, called her "the most extraordinary woman in the world. She has met fear head-on and conquered it. She has a complete passion for flying."

The daughter of a wealthy shipbuilder, Auriol was raised and educated in Nantes, France, then studied art in Paris. Through her interest in skiing, she met and fell in love with Paul Auriol, whose father was Vincent Auriol, a prominent leader of the French Socialist Party who had served several years in the government. Since both sets of parents disapproved of the match, Auriol was whisked off to Sweden on one of her father's cargo ships, while Paul toured Italy with his mother. In February 1938, two years after their first meeting, they were finally married in a small mountain chapel. During World War II, while Paul served in the French Resistance, Auriol remained in France, living under an assumed name with the first of the couple's two sons. After the war and Vincent Auriol's election as president of the Republic, Paul became his father's press secretary, and he and Auriol took up residence at the Palace Élysee in Paris. Emerging from her wartime retirement, Auriol became her father-in-law's social emissary. A beautiful, witty, and fashionable woman, she organized and attended a variety of balls, receptions, and charity events, and became a well-known figure in social circles.

Auriol became fascinated with flying through her acquaintance with French pilot Raymond Guillaume, whom she met at a dinner party. Accepting an invitation to fly with him, she came away from the experience a changed woman. "I discovered a world," she said, "where, no matter what your name, the only things that count are merit, skill and courage." Auriol attended flying school at Villacoublay and received her pilot's license in 1948, then soloed an additional ten hours to receive a second degree license. She went on to learn stunt flying from Guillaume, although he insisted that she obtain written permission from her father-in-law before he began instruction. In July 1949, she demonstrated her new skills in an air show outside Paris, where she was the only woman among 20 famous French flyers. Just three days later, she was injured in the seaplane accident.

After a year in French hospitals, where she endured 14 operations, Auriol was still severely disfigured. An examination was arranged by the noted American plastic surgeon Dr. John Converse, who agreed to perform further surgery but only at his own hospital in the United States. Auriol made the trip to New York's Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, where she underwent eight additional operations over a six-month period. While in the United States, she was introduced to Lawrence Bell, of Bell Aircraft, who arranged for her to take helicopter lessons at his plant. After 23 hours of instruction, combined with classwork, Auriol qualified for a helicopter pilot's license on January 23, 1951.

Returning to France with a new face, Auriol was further traumatized when old friends failed to recognized her. Moving away from the social whirl she had once enjoyed, she drove daily to Villacoublay to watch construction of the Havilland Vampire jet, a fighter plane in which she would attempt a new woman's flying record. Her first solo flight in this plane was an emotional one. "That day I experienced a sense of completeness," she later recalled, "an extraordinary sense of power, … a sense of being in complete possession of myself." On May 12, 1951, after three weeks of intense preparation for her speed test, Auriol took off from Istres and flew her Vampire jet 509.245 miles an hour in a 62.1 mile closed circuit flight between Istres and Avignon, officially breaking the women's speed record for the same distance set by Jacqueline Cochran of the United States on December 10, 1947. For her achievement, Auriol was awarded the Cross of Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, and the Harmon International Trophy for an "aviatrix," which was presented to her at the White House by President Harry Truman. Auriol's return to the United States included a visit to the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital to thank trustees and doctors for restoring her face.

In 1952, Auriol received a second Harmon Trophy for beating her own speed record and went on to become one of France's top test pilots, the only woman in her country engaged in that hazardous profession. Her work included tests in more than 50 types of planes, ranging from American Constellations to tiny sports planes. In August 1953, she flew faster than the speed of sound in the new French jet interceptor, the Mystère IV. She made headlines again in September 1971 as the Concorde's first pilot and subsequently flew tours in Latin America, Africa, and the Orient to help sell the plane. Her private life remained within a circle of family and a few close friends. In a 1952 interview for Collier's magazine, Auriol claimed that flying taught her the truth about what really mattered. "Now I know that only life and death are important. When I am in the air, close to both, things finally take on their proper perspective. Nonsense becomes nonsense. The big things stand out, become alive."


Candee, Marjorie Dent, ed. Current Biography 1953. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1953.

Cowles, Fleur. Friends & Memories. NY: Reynal in association with William Morrow, 1978.

suggested reading:

Auriol, Jacqueline. I Live To Fly. Translated from the French by Pamela Swinglehurst. London: M. Joseph, 1970.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts