18 July 1919: Élise Léontine Deroche was at Le Crotoy in northern France, co-piloting an experimental airplane, a civil variant of the Caudron G.3. The aircraft suddenly pitched down and crashed, killing Deroche and the pilot, M. Barrault. Mme Deroche was 36 years old.
After four months of training under M. Chateu, an instructor for Voison, at Chalons, she made her first solo flight on Friday, 22 October 1909. On 8 March 1910, Élisa Léontine Deroche was the first woman to become a licensed pilot when she was issued Pilot License #36 by the Aéro-Club de France.
Élisa Léontine Deroche was born 22 August 1882 at nº 61, Rue de la Verrerie, in the 4earrondissement, Paris, France. She was the daughter of a plumber, who in her early life hoped to be a singer, dancer and actress. She used the stage name, “Raymonde de Laroche.” She had a romantic relationship with sculptor Ferdinand Léon Delagrange, who was also one of the earliest aviators, and it was he who inspired her to become a pilot herself. They had a son, André, born in 1909. Delagrange was killed in an airplane accident in 1910. They never married.
In a 30 October 1909 article about her solo flight, Flight referred to Mme Deroche as “Baroness de la Roche.” This erroneous title of nobility stayed with her in the public consciousness. Deroche participated in various air meets, and on 25 November 1913, made a non-stop, long-distance flight of four hours duration, for which she was awarded the Coupe Femina by the French magazine, Femina.
During World War I she was not allowed to fly so she served as a military driver.
Many sources report that Mme Deroche set two altitude records at Issy-les Moulineaux in June 1919, just weeks before her death. One, for example, is said to have been 5,150 meters (16,896 feet), 12 June 1919. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), however, did not recognize records set by women until 28 June 1929.
Élisa Léontine Deroche was buried at the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Paris, France.
8 March 1910: The Aéro-Club de France issued license # 36 of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale to Elise Raymonde Deroche (also known as Raymonde de Laroche, and Baroness de Laroche) making her the first woman to become licensed as a airplane pilot.
13 January 1908: Henry Farman flew a circular one kilometer course at Issy-les-Moulineaux, France, in 1 minute, 28 seconds to win the Grand Prix de l’aviation, a prize of 50,000 francs, which had been offered by Henri Deutsch de la Meurthe in 1904.
Henri Deutsch de le Muerthe (1846–1919) was a wealthy French businessman with a strong interest in aviation. He was one of the founders of the Aéro-Club de France. Along with Ernest Archdeacon, he sponsored a series of prizes to promote advances in flight.
The single-place single-engine biplane was built by brothers Charles and Gabriel Voisin, and was very similar to the Voisin-Delagrange I which they had built several months earlier. Henry Farman had requested some slight modifications. He first flew the airplane 30 September 1907.
Farman had previously won the Coupe d’Aviation Ernest Archdeacon (Ernest Archdeacon Cup) when he flew his Voisin-Farman I a distance of approximately 771 meters (2,530 feet) in 52 seconds, 26 October 1907.
The Voisin-Farman I was 44 feet, 2 inches (13.462 meters) long, with a wingspan of 35 feet, 5 inches (10.795 meters) and weighed 705 pounds (319.8 kilograms). The airplane was powered by a steam-cooled, direct-injected, 487.14 cubic-inch-displacement (7.983 liter) Société Antoinette 8V 90° V-8 direct-drive engine producing 53 horsepower at 1,100 r.p.m. The engine turned a two-bladed pusher propeller. It was designed by Léon Levavasseur. The engine was 1.120 meters (3 feet, 8 inches) long, 0.630 meters (2 feet, 1 inch) wide and (0.540 meters (1 foot, 9 inches) high. It weighed 95 kilograms (209 pounds).
31 December 1908: At Camp d’Auvours, 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) east of Le Mans, France, Wilbur Wright flew a 1907 Wright Flyer a distance of 124.7 kilometers (77.48 miles) over a triangular course in 2 hours, 20 minutes, 23 seconds, setting a record for duration and distance. He won the first Michelin Trophy and a ₣20,000 prize.
The International Michelin Trophy was a prize given over eight years by Michelin et Cie, the French tire company, to the Aéro-Club de France, to award on behalf of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. The winner would be the pilot who by sunset, 31 December of each year, held the record which had been established by the Aéro-Club. The actual trophy would be given the aeronautical club whose members had won the most times during the eight year period. ₣160,000 was to be divided and presented to each winning pilot.
The Wright Model A, produced from 1907 to 1909, was the world’s first series production airplane. It was slightly larger and heavier than the Wright Flyer III which had preceded it. A new system of controls allowed the pilot to sit upright rather than lying prone on the lower wing. The biplane was 31 feet (9.449 meters) long with a wingspan of 41 feet (12.497 meters). The airplane had an empty weight of approximately 800 pounds (363 kilograms). An inline four-cylinder engine produced 31 horsepower at 1,425 r.p.m. Two counter-rotating propellers were behind the wings in a pusher configuration. They had a diameter of 8½ feet (2.591 meters) and were driven through a chain mechanism. They turned 445 r.p.m.
29 December 1935: Early in the morning, Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger comte de Saint Exupéry took off from Aéroport de Paris – Le Bourget enroute to Saïgon, Cochin-China, as a participant in the long distance Paris-to-Saïgon “raid,” or air race.
The race was sponsored by the Aéro-Club de France, which had offered a prize of ₣1,200,000 (franc français), approximately £16,000 or $70,000, to the winner, providing the finishing time was less than 90 hours. The distance was estimated at 13,800 miles (22,209 kilometers). Any airplane type could be entered in the race as long as it had an official airworthiness certificate and a flight crew of two, or a single pilot with an autopilot.
Antoine de Saint Exupéry was accompanied by André Prévot as the navigator and flight engineer. The airplane was a red and white Caudron C.630 Simoun, c/n 7042.20, which was registered to Saint Exupéry on 9 April 1935 and given civil registration F-ANRY, a representation of his name (“ANtoine de Saint ExupéRY”). He had flown the Simoun 8,000 miles (12,875 kilometers) in the eight months he had owned it, “. . .and her engine had not skipped a beat; not a bolt in her had loosened.”
The Société des Avions Caudron C.630 Simoun was a four-place, single-engine, low-wing monoplane with fixed landing gear. It was built of wood, with the surface of the wings and fuselage covered in plywood sheet then covered with doped fabric. Carefully curved aluminum sheet metal covered the top and bottom of the fuselage. The C.630 was 8,70 meters (28 feet, 6½ inches) long with a wingspan of 10,40 meters (34 feet, 1½ inches) and height of 2,25 meters (7 feet, 4½ inches). The airplane’s gross weight was 1,230 kilograms (2,712 pounds).
The engine was an air-cooled, normally-aspirated 9.500 liter (579.736 cubic-inch-displacement) Renault Bengali 6Pri inverted inline six-cylinder overhead-valve (OHV) engine rated at 180 cheval vapeur (177.5 horsepower). The left-hand-tractor, direct-drive engine turned a two-bladed, metal Ratier variable-pitch propeller. The propeller could be set to coarse pitch by a mechanic prior to takeoff, then an air bladder mechanism could change it to fine pitch for cruise flight.
The C.630 had a maximum speed of 310 kilometers per hour (193 miles per hour). The service ceiling was 7,500 meters (24,606 feet) and normal range was 1,260 kilometers (783 miles). Twenty C.630s were built before production changed to the slightly improved C.631.
After taking off at Paris, Saint Exupéry followed the Seine to the valley of the Loire and continued south, crossing the southern coast of France near Marseilles. The fliers had been over the Mediterranean Sea for a short while when they saw fuel leaking from the left wing. Prévot calculated that they had lost 20 gallons (76 liters) of fuel. They turned back and landed at Marignane to repair the leak and refuel before continuing. Saint Exupéry wrote, “I drank a cup of coffee while the time lost hurt like an open wound.”
Once again heading across the Mediterranean toward Tunis, they encountered low clouds and heavy rain which forced them down to just 60 feet (18 meters) over the water. They flew along the coast of Sardinia as the weather improved.
F-ANRY crossed the coast of Africa at Bizerte, Tunisia, and about fifteen minutes later landed to refuel. With two hours of daylight remaining, Saint Exupéry and Prévot took off again, now heading toward Benghazi, Libya. They landed there at 11:00 p.m., local time, and in just twenty minutes the airplane had been refueled and once more, they were airborne.
Flying east after moonset, Saint Exupéry and Prévot were in total darkness. After three hours a faint glow of his navigation lights on the airplane’s wingtips told Saint Exupéry that he had flown into clouds, with visibility measured in just feet.
At a time when there were no navigation aids, pilots had to navigate by their compass, airspeed indicator and clock. Though Saint Exupéry had met with meteorologists to plan his flight, there was no way to update the weather information after takeoff. He had no way of knowing whether an expected tailwind had held, or if it had changed; was his speed across the ground faster or slower than planned? Had the wind blown him right or left of course? Had the atmospheric pressure changed, causing his altimeter to read higher or lower than the airplane actually was? Flying across the emptiness of the Sahara Desert with no landmarks, in total darkness and now just a few feet of visibility, he and Prévot could only guess at their position.
4 hours, 15 minutes after taking off from Benghazi, the C.630 crashed into gently rising terrain at 170 miles per hour (274 kilometers per hour).
The airplane had slid 250 yards across the surface of the plateau and was heavily damaged, but Saint Exupéry and Prévot were unhurt. However, their water was lost. They were left with “. . . a pint of coffee in a battered thermos flask and half a pint of white wine. . . There were some grapes, too, and a single orange.”
Without food or water, Antoine de Saint Exupéry and Andre Prévot wandered across the desert searching for help. They followed mirages, and frequently recrossed their own tracks. They always returned to the wreck of the Simoun. They experienced delusions.
After four days, they were rescued by Bedouin tribesmen.
The location of the crash is uncertain, but is believed to be near Wadi el-Natrun in Egypt, west of the Nile delta.
Saint Exupéry wrote about the experience in Wind, Sand and Stars, published in 1939. It was the basis for his famous novella, The Little Prince.
TDiA’s Highest Recommendation: Wind, Sand and Stars, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, translated from the French by Lewis Galantière, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, New York 10016.