Hilsz, Maryse (1903–1946)

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Hilsz, Maryse (1903–1946)

French aviator, one of the most admired women flyers, who made a series of spectacular flights to the Far East and Africa in the 1930s and held the women's world altitude record. Name variations: name often misspelled as Hiltz, Hilz. Born in Levallois-Perret, France, in 1903; died in an airplane accident at Moulin-des-Ponts, on January 31, 1946.

Was the recipient of the Harmon International Aviation Trophy for women fliers for 1933 (April 21,1934).

Born in Levallois-Perret, France, in 1903, Maryse Hilsz grew up determined to become a pilot. Because she was excluded from admittance to the French Air Force as a woman, and thus denied years of free flying experience, she had to find a way to finance private flying lessons. To this end, Hilsz became a parachute jumper. Starting in 1922, she appeared at numerous air shows, displaying her courage in the then-novel skill of parachuting. With her earnings, she was able to pay for flying lessons and in 1930 finally obtained her pilot's license. Already enjoying an established reputation for tenacity and coolheadedness under pressure, she inaugurated her flying career with a voyage on the grand scale—a round trip from France to Saigon.

On November 12, 1930, Hilsz departed Villacoublay, France, for Saigon, French Indo-China (modern-day Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam), in her Morane airplane. After short hops across the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region, including stops at Belgrade, Istanbul and Baghdad, she arrived at Karachi, India (now Pakistan) on November 23. Her flight continued with stops at Allahabad and Calcutta until Hilsz arrived safely in Saigon a week later. As the first woman to fly from Paris to Saigon, she was hailed as a hero. Her flight was front-page news in the local press, and she received an invitation to meet the colonial governor. By December 12, Hilsz had embarked on her return flight, retracing her steps across India and the Persian Gulf. In early January, encountering severe weather conditions, she was forced to make an emergency landing in the Greek village of Kakosalessi. She emerged unscathed, but her plane was slightly damaged and had to be transported by train to the nearby Tatoï airport. After her arrival in Athens, Hilsz decided to begin the final leg of her trip by ship, docking with her plane at Marseilles on January 26,1931. She made the final stage of her journey once again by air, arriving at her final destination of Paris on February 3, 1931.

In early 1932, Hilsz undertook another ambitious flight to the French colony of Madagascar (modern-day Malagasy Republic). She departed from Le Bourget airport on January 31, and her route took her to a number of remote airports in the numerous French-possessed African colonies before she arrived at Tananarive, the capital of Madagascar, on March 31. Her return flight was uneventful, and she was back in France by early June 1932. Later the same year, Hilsz provided the French press with excellent copy (and brought her friends and family to the point of despair) when her plane disappeared in the vast desert of French West Africa. When the Count and Countess Jacques de Sibour went in search of her, they too vanished. A triple tragedy was feared, but, after two weeks' absence, all three returned safely in their own planes.

Determined not to be seen as just a long-distance aviator, Hilsz set altitude records. On August 19, 1932, she topped the existing women's world altitude record of 28,744 feet with 33,456 feet (9,791 meters). But Hilsz was convinced that she could make her mark in further long-distance aviation achievements in which both speed and distance played roles. Piloting a Farman 190 airplane with a 300-horsepower Gnome-Rhône engine, Hilsz departed from Le Bourget field, Paris, on April 1, 1933, with an ultimate destination of Tokyo. Among the more dramatic aspects of this, her second flight to Asia, was her nonstop hop from Karachi across the Indian subcontinent to Dum Dum aerodrome in Calcutta. She arrived

safely in Hanoi on April 7, after having spent time in a small Indochinese village rather than at her scheduled stop of Bangkok. By April 15, she was in Seoul, Korea, and arrived in Tokyo the next day. The warm reception Hilsz received there included extensive press coverage, a luncheon invitation from the French ambassador, a visit to a Kabuki theater, and a medal from the Japanese Imperial Aeronautics Association. On April 23, she began her return flight, arriving in Paris on May 14, 1933, to an enthusiastic reception. A representative of the French Air Ministry praised her not only for having covered 40,000 kilometers (25,000 miles), but also for having successfully served France as an ambassador of good will in Asia.

Hilsz began her second flight to Tokyo on January 26, 1934. Although accompanied by a mechanic, she was the plane's sole pilot and navigator. Her plane, loaned to Hilsz by the French Air Ministry, was an all-metal Breguet with a 650-horsepower Hispano-Suiza engine, a distinct improvement over her previous one. Except for an emergency landing in Tsingtao, China, where the Breguet was forced down by a storm, the flight was uneventful, and Hilsz landed at Tokyo's Haneda airport on March 6, 1934.

After departing from Tokyo on March 21, Hilsz soon encountered serious problems, but she made a safe emergency landing 48 miles east of Seoul, Korea. The rest of the flight back to Europe went smoothly, and she exhibited remarkable stamina on the next-to-last day of her trip by flying one of the longest legs of her voyage, from Syria to Brindisi, Italy, without difficulty. On the day of her arrival, April 28, she flew from Brindisi to Marseilles, where after only a brief interruption she continued on to Paris, landing at Le Bourget field late that afternoon. A large group of officials and personal friends greeted her on the tarmac. With Hilsz's second Paris-to-Tokyo flight, a total of about 18,750 air miles, she beat her earlier round-trip flight record (6 days, 23 hours, 23 minutes) by completing the journey in 5 days, 9 hours, 5 minutes. That April, Hilsz was awarded the Harmon International Aviation Trophy in the women fliers category for the previous year.

Having supplied sufficient evidence that she had mastered the art of long-distance flying, in 1935 Hilsz returned to the challenge of higher altitudes. Flying a Morane-Saulnier 225 pursuit plane powered by a 750-horsepower Gnome-Rhône K.9 engine, on June 17, 1935, she broke the existing women's world altitude record (set by herself in August 1932) with a height of 37,704 feet (11,800 meters). By the end of 1935, however, Hilsz's accomplishment was bested by the Italian aviator Marchesa Carina Negrone , who reached a height of 39,510 feet. Hilsz reclaimed the record on June 23, 1936, by flying a Potez aircraft to a height of 46,947 feet (14,310 meters). The Aero Club of France verified her achievement, which not only broke the women's world altitude record but also the altitude record for French male aviators.

The dangers of Hilsz's field of pursuit were made dramatically apparent in two incidents during 1936. On May 23, she and her mechanic were on their way to Stockholm to attend the opening of a new flying field when they were forced to make an emergency landing near Varberg. Although neither suffered significant injuries, Hilsz was hospitalized for several days with deep cuts on her scalp and face. A much more serious episode took place on December 19, when Hilsz survived a freak accident while flying near Marseilles. Attempting to break the women's world speed record, she had reached a speed of over 400 kilometers an hour when she was suddenly tossed from the plane. Amazingly, Hilsz was thrown clear of the machine, and her parachute somehow opened on its own. She made a slow descent, landing in Lake Estence near Istres, while witnesses launched a boat to rescue her. Considering the nature of the incident, she was incredibly lucky, suffering only from shock and several broken ribs.

By December 1937, Hilsz was in the air again, flying to Saigon to break her own records. In a new Caudron-Renault Simoun machine lent her by the French Air Ministry, she landed in Saigon on December 23, 1937, having flown there from Paris in the record time of 3 days, 20 hours, 21 minutes—10 hours and 37 minutes less than the previous record. In early January 1938, while on her return flight from Saigon to Paris, Hilsz again alarmed the French nation. On January 1, while she was flying the Karachi-to-Basra leg of the trip, her plane was reported missing. It was last seen flying over Jask on the Persian Gulf, and many feared the worst. Ground parties began searching for signs of her plane over the Jask-Bushire section of her route; the scheduled Air France plane also looked for signs of life. Ships in the Persian Gulf were alerted. In Paris, a headline in Le Figaro reported the complete lack of news from Hilsz for 48 hours as well as searches for her "in the mountains of Iran, on the Persian Gulf, and in the Arabian Desert." Once again, however, Hilsz cheated death, having made a safe emergency landing about 20 miles from Jask on the Gulf of Oman. Severe thunderstorms during the night had stalled her engine, but she was able to bring her plane down with only a minimum of damage. Found by natives, she arrived in Jask tired but safe after a journey of two days by camel and boat.

By the late 1930s, with war on the horizon, the heroic age of lone aviation pioneers like Hilsz was coming to an end. In 1939, Hilsz began serving with the French Air Force in an advisory capacity. After the liberation of France in 1944–45, she was assigned to working in liaison flights and was enthusiastic about the challenges facing postwar aviation, including jet planes. This was not to be. On January 31, 1946, Maryse Hilsz was killed in the crash of a military plane at Moulin-des-Ponts, near Bourg in the Ain départment. Three other aviators, all of them male, died with her. On June 10, 1972, Maryse Hilsz was honored by France, along with another French female aviation pioneer, Helene Boucher (1908–1934), when she was depicted on a 10 franc airmail stamp.


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John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia