Daily Flight Stories
Historic Wings is pleased to present our daily story celebrating what happened today in aviation history.
Published on September 21, 2012
Nobody knows exactly what date she first flew, though it was likely sometime around September 21, 1908, soon after her arrival in Italy. She was an unlikely candidate to be the first woman to solo in the history of heavier-than-air powered flight, as Thérèse Peltier was a French sculptress from Paris. A close friend of another popular sculpture artist and itinerant aviator named Léon Delagrange, she was first photographed posing with Delagrange’s Voison boxkite at Issy-les-Moulineaux near Paris on September 17, 1908. Thereafter, the two traveled to Italy together where Delagrange did the unthinkable — on arrival at Turin, he invited her to fly in his aeroplane. In turn, she too did the unthinkable too when she graciously accepted the offer.
First Flight as a Passenger
Earlier, on July 8, 1908, Peltier and Delagrange had flown together for the first time — also in Italy during an earlier trip two months before. Soon afterward, Delagrange offered that she could accompany him in his Voison boxkite for a record-setting endurance flight — again, she agreed, and they were aloft for 30 minutes and 28 seconds. Thereafter, she traveled again south with Delagrange as he flew in exhibitions around Italy, including a flight in Rome. During this time, she wrote about her experiences for the newspapers back in France and decided that she too would learn to fly an aeroplane solo.
At the time, it was thought that Thérèse Peltier was the first woman to fly on an aeroplane, even as a passenger. Later, it was realized that in the end of May, Henri Farman had taken up another woman first, a Belgian named Mlle. P. Van Pottelsberghe while Farman was visiting in Ghent. Yet where the Belgian woman was content with her one brush with the freedom of the air, Thérèse Peltier was captured by the magic of flight. She would go on to be the first woman to fly solo in a powered, heavy-than-air aeroplane in history.
In Italy for Exhibition Flying
After her first passenger flight, Thérèse Peltier stayed with Léon Delagrange in Italy for a time. Exactly what they were doing is unclear, though it was probably a combination of a summer break to the south with the intention for Delagrange to fly a series of exhibitions. It appears to have been a relaxed trip and the late summer Italian sun and air made for a fine vacation with inspiration in the sights, the foods and the atmosphere of La Bella Italia. Yet during this time, Peltier focused time observing each flight with Delagrange. As a passenger at each exhibition, she absorbed all aspects of aeroplane control as student pilots did in those days, learning just by sharing experiences, observing and discussing the basics of control function and how the engines and propeller worked.
The First Flight
Preparing for her first solo flight was a rather haphazard set of lessons. By modern standards the sort of instruction she received would be considered little more than the blind leading the blind. Nonetheless, in those days there were no advanced programs, no sophisticated flight schools and no well-structured ground schools or standards. Put simply, one watched it, practiced it together and then, as the learning progressed, the “instructor” simply allowed the student to fly solo. Aeroplanes were daring, dangerous and often difficult. The machines were far from reliable — even an experienced pilot would be surprised by the unexpected. As a result, many early aviators did not survive more than a few years before falling to some capricious fault of their machine, the engine or the winds.
For Thérèse Peltier, the date of her first solo took place as the weather cooled in mid-September. In the military square of Turin, the machine was made ready. She would take off and fly a straight line and land. As it happened, she flew 200 meters in a straight line, never rising more than 2.5 meters above the ground before she set the machine back down. Her aeroplane was Delagrange’s Voisin boxkite, a plane that carried no ailerons or wing warping. To turn, it skidded around flatly on the basis of rudder input alone. She had not yet conquered the art of steering.
Never Registered or Certified
A week after her first solo, the Italian magazine L’Illustrazione Italiana published news of her achievement. The magazine ran a brief story in their September 27, 1908, issue in its weekly, regular publication. How often the two flew thereafter is not clear, but it is likely that she flew only rarely during the following two years, both in Italy and then back in France.
Finally, on January 4, 1910, tragedy struck Léon Delagrange. While flying his new Blériot aeroplane, Delagrange suffered a fatal accident, crashing at Bordeaux. When news reached Thérèse Peltier, she was overcome with grief and abandoned aviation forever. Despite that she could have easily applied for formal certification by one of the Aero Clubs of Europe, she never did. Yet that does not diminish her achievement in any way — every woman pilot since has followed her high heeled ladies boots into the skies, despite the sexist attitudes and stereotypes that claimed that women couldn’t drive, much less fly.
She was a true pioneer in every respect.
At the time of his last flight, Léon Delagrange had been flying in the first Blériot aeroplane to be fitted with a 7-cylinder Gnome Rotary engine. For some reason, as he made a turn at the edge of the field, his wings simply folded back from the fuselage. The plane dropped vertically into the ground and he was killed on impact. He was just 37 years old. Two years later in 1912, Louis Blériot would discover the flaw in his wing design that had caused the crash. By then, several other crashes had taken place in the same circumstances and one other pilot, George Chavez, had also lost his life when his wings had folded in the same way. With the problem fixed, the Blériot would go on to become one of the safest aeroplanes in the world.
Why do some consider Mrs. Hart O. Berg’s flight under the tutelage of Wilbur Wright at Le Mans in October 1908 to be the first “real flight” by a woman?