|Helene Dutrieu (1877-1961)|
Helene did well competing against other women and riding tandem with her brother. By 1897, she'd won the World Championship for Women and the Grand Prix d’Europe the following year. Adding to their income, she also performed as a stuntwoman in comedic roles on stage, doing feats with bicycles and motorcycles. Accidents were part of the profession, but Helene was never injured seriously.
In 1908, after watching the Wright brothers’ flight exhibition in France, Helene grew excited and began to see a future in aviation. "It is the only profession where courage pays off and concrete results count for success," she said. She was 31.
Meanwhile, Brazilian aircraft builder Alberto Santos-Dumont had just completed building the Demoiselle in France. This light-weight monoplane consisted of an engine mounted on a bamboo/wire frame. He needed a light weight test pilot to fly the Demoiselle and hired Helene. A news reporter, learning of Helene, had his doubts, commenting on her "guileless eyes and timid voice." But she soloed in 1909 and up she bravely went, without instruction, promptly crashing in a marshy field, destroying the plane. Helene was unharmed. The builder paid her 2,000 francs a month to fly, but after more testing and mishaps, Helene decided the plane was unsound and backed out of her contract.
|Helene: First flight in the Demoiselle, 1909|
A biplane builder (Roger Sommer) contracted Helene as a test pilot next, and this time, actually gave some instruction. Helene flew for 20 minutes (setting a record) but later confessed she didn't know how to land. She managed to bring the plane down without crashing and ten days later carried a passenger in the same plane. She crashed the next month, clipping a home’s chimney, ending the contract. Again, Helene was unharmed.
Helene flew Dick Farman's biplane next (Farman Aviation Works). He wanted her to fly without the engine, as he couldn't afford an engine if she crashed, so Helene found an engine for the plane to compensate. Farman said okay but on one condition. She had to get a pilot's license first! It was a reasonable request learning how to navigate and operate the plane's controls, not that training made the engines less obnoxious. Engines reeked of castor oil, nauseating the pilots and splattering oil on their clothing. Helene received her pilot’s license in 1910.
Later an exhibition flight in Belgium earned Helene many of the "firsts" she is known for today. First:
--Belgium woman to earn a pilot's license;
--Woman in world to make a cross-country flight
--Belgium woman to make a go/return flight nonstop
--Woman to carry a passenger cross-country (Helene took her mechanic, Beau)
In England, Holland and France, Helene wowed the crowds, winning further acclaim, among them the eCoupe Femina in 1910 for distance and time (60.8 km in 1 hr/9 min). While in England, Helene met with scandal when the press discovered she wasn’t wearing a corset. Her plane had crashed into a grandstand, injuring two spectators (both left in ambulances). Miraculously, Helene and her passenger were fine, but the press appeared more interested in her undergarments than the accident. Helene found herself the subject of public scorn. Apparently, officials later gathered in Paris to discuss the situation. Helene argued that comfort was more important than a constricting corset.
That same year Helene competed in the U.S. for the first time at Mineola, Long Island (NY). She competed against America’s then popular pilot Harriet Quimby. The press played the event up, appraising the pilots’ wardrobes. Helene was wearing a “chic brown khaki costume.” Another journalist called it a “drab brown,” while Quimby was more colorful in her “plum-colored satin.”
Meanwhile, Helene began testing a hydro aeroplane. Crashing it right off, her injuries were only slight, but a life-threatening car accident a short while later must have given her pause. She had been quite lucky up to now. Seriously injured, it took weeks to recuperate. In 1913, with the receipt of the Legion of Honor award in France for her accomplishments, Helene decided to call it quits to flying. With the outbreak of World War I, she shifted her focus to helping the wounded, driving a Red Cross ambulance to the front and later serving as Director of a military hospital.
In 1922, Helene embarked on yet another adventure. She married Frenchman Pierre Mortier, becoming a French national herself. She was 45. Pierre must have been quite a "catch" to woo the adventuresome "girl hawk," a nickname the press had long since adopted for Helene. Indeed, Pierre was a member of the French Assembly and a Publisher. In later years, Helene supported her husband's publishing activities and interest in public health, and encouraged women's involvement in aviation. She died in Paris at the age of 84.
Live footage of Helene flying
(ignore the dreary music!)
Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation by Eileen F. Lebow, 2003.