Daily Flight Stories
Historic Wings is pleased to present our daily story celebrating what happened today in aviation history.
Published on December 21, 2012
Hélène Dutrieu was a professional bicycle racer from Belgium. Known as “La Flèche Humaine” (“The Human Arrow”), she was famous throughout Europe for her speed and stamina, having won the women’s speed track world championship in both 1897 and 1898 and then also the Grand Prix d’Europe in 1898. By the early part of the 20th Century, she had given up on racing and instead had become a stunt cyclist. She would ride fast enough to hold to the track of a vertical loop, a show she put on in Marseille. Gaining great popularity, she moved in motorcycle and automobile stunts as well as becoming a race car driver — racing professionally from 1904 to 1907 for the French company Clément-Bayard de Levallois.
Who better than Hélène Dutrieu to become the first pilot of the Santos-Dumont No.19 Demoiselle monoplane? At least that is what her racing sponsor, the Clément-Bayard company, thought when they considered who should represent their new aeroplane. Likewise, Hélène Dutrieu had herself decided to fly, having witnessed the Wright’s first flying expositions in France. As well, since the word Demoiselle is a French word for a young lady, it seemed natural that the woman daredevil and race car driver should take to the air. Above all, Hélène Dutrieu had one advantage over all others — being a petite woman, she weighed less than any of the others, a critical consideration in addressing the underpowered aeroplanes of the day. Thus, in 1908, Hélène Dutrieu began her long and beautiful relationship with the world of flight and aeroplanes.
First Flight and First Crash
In 1908, times were very different than they are today. Women were not deemed to have the right to vote, nor to be suitable for most types of work. They were “the weaker sex” and were caregivers at home. For a woman to fly was a dramatic thing. The Clément-Bayard company thought quite rightly that if a woman could fly their Demoiselle, which sported a heavy 50 hp engine, then men would come to understand that flight was not something out of reach, difficult or trying — after all, the thinking went, even a woman could fly. In addition, the company recruited Mdlle. Aboukaia as a second pilot and the two soon were learning the technical details of the Demoiselle.
Hélène Dutrieu’s first flight, however, was a disaster — a crash right from the start. To truly learn to fly, she applied under Roger Sommer and went to school at the Henry Farman aviation school — both former cyclists like her. A fast learner, she was soon in the air. In 1910, she made a notable first, taking her mechanic up in an aeroplane and thus becoming the first woman pilot to carry a passenger on board an aeroplane.
Flying Without a Corset!
Indeed, “la Flèche Humaine” had earned herself a new nickname and became known as “the Lady Hawk” (“la femme épervier”). Though she carried a youthful appearance, she was actually 31 years old when she first took to the skies. This reflected her years cycling. That youthful look only furthered the impression of the ease with which men (and women) could fly.
Though it wasn’t instantly apparent from her thin waist and appearance, the press discovered that Hélène Dutrieu had chosen to fly without a corset. Aghast, they published the revelation. In the public eye, even if a woman could fly, that was no reason to abandon herself to immodesty! Hélène Dutrieu persevered and continued to fly, even as officials gathered for meetings in Paris to discuss her flying practices.
In the midst of the corset outrage, she suffered yet another crash. As Flight reported in its January 29, 1910, issue:
“On the 21st inst. (January), while Mdlle. Hélène Dutrieux was practising on her Santos-Dumont machine at Issy, she had a somewhat exciting experience, which fortunately ended without injury to herself. The ground was very muddy and heavy, and in her endeavours to get the machine to rise, Mdlle. Dutrieux pushed the elevating-lever right over, with the result that the machine shot up very suddenly to a height of ten metres. It flew along for a few minutes, and then as suddenly fell forward, and after striking the earth remained standing perpendicularly. Much to the relief of the terror-stricken onlookers, Mdlle. crawled out from her seat quite unhurt by the fall.”
Hélène Dutrieu chose to continue her stunt and exhibition work, using aeroplanes as a continuation of her former racing shows. She decided also to enter into competitions as a way to advance her popularity. This meant that finally she had to get certified as a pilot. Thus, on November 25, 1910, she received her flying license — Aéro-Club de Belgique License #27 — only the fourth woman in history to do so and the first from Belgium.
The Coupe Femina
The publisher of one of France’s most popular women’s magazines, Femina, was a man named Pierre Lafitte. To express his interest in aviation — and for the marketing impact — he announced in 1910 a prize of 2,000 francs to the woman who each year set the record for the longest flight, based on distance flown and time aloft, in an aeroplane. The competition was decided to be less a head-to-head affair, as other endurance races usually were, and instead relied on validated reports from officials who could attest to the times aloft achieved at any time during the year. Thus, many of the new aviatrices submitted their flights whenever they flew them, throughout the year. It was hard fought and many would make claim of an unbeaten, new longer distance, only to be surpassed by another a month later, and so forth.
The prize money was attractive, but even more so was the glory and public recognition that would come to the aviatrice who won the competition. For Hélène Dutrieu, this was an ideal way to gain the fame needed to start her new career flying exhibitions. Incredibly, she not only succeeded, but handily won with her flight that began at Étampes and flew 167 kilometers in 2.6 hours. In a Farman Biplane, she set the record on this date in aviation history in 1910. The prize was announced just ten days later on December 31, 1910.
For the next three years, she flew the airshow circuit of Europe, defended her Coupe Femina victory with yet another in 1911, and retired from flying in late 1913, having also been awarded the Légion d’honneur for her extraordinary flights. In practice and in spirit, she wrote her name into the history of women aviation pioneers for all time to come. It is from women like Hélène Dutrieu that the 99′s and others would draw their inspiration with the confidence that women can fly — even without a corset!
The closest finisher to Hélène Dutrieu’s 1910 record in the Coupe Femina was Marie Marvingt who flew 42 km in 53 minutes with a flight that started at Mourmelon, France. Interestingly, both Hélène Dutrieu and Marie Marvingt became ambulance drivers during World War I. Marie Marvingt, however, also flew in combat — in fact, she may have been the first woman to fly in combat in history by performing the first bombing mission flown by a woman, which she achieved in 1915 with an attack on Metz. She was later awarded the Croix de Guerre for her exploits in the air serving France against Germany. Marie Marvingt’s crowning achievement, however, was to create the world’s first air ambulance service.
Marie Marvingt was the first woman to fly a bomber in combat. Who was the first woman to fly a fighter plane in combat?