Tuesday, April 5, 2016

D is for Helene Dutrieu - Pioneer Women in Aviation: A-Z Challenge


Helene Dutrieu (1877-1961)
Helene Dutrieu was born in Tournai, Belgium. At fourteen, she left home and school to take a cycling course to supplement her family's income. Her parents were struggling. Most girls her age might have tried lace making or embroidery work, but Helene thought she could make money as a professional speed track cyclist like her older brother. Speed track racing on indoor wooden tracks was quite popular in Europe, and with Helene's petite frame, she was perfect for the sport. 

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!) 

 




Sources:
http://fly.historicwings.com/2012/12/helene-dutrieux-and-the-coupe-femina/
Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation by Eileen F. Lebow, 2003.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%C3%A9l%C3%A8ne_Dutrieu
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santos-Dumont_Demoiselle

30 comments:

  1. So much research must have gone into your most interesting and wonderful theme. Yet another good one. We learn something new every day.
    Yvonne.

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  2. An absolutely fascinating story of a brave young woman who I had not heard of before.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed. New to all of us I think :)

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  3. This is the first woman in your series that didn't die for an accident. Actually, she was quite lucky... though what strange chance that she would be wounded more seriously for a car accident.

    Great post as alwaays!

    @JazzFeathers
    The Old Shelter - Jazz Age Jazz

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    1. Yes, that was rather pleasant. I'm glad she quit when she did!

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  4. Another story of amazing courage. What spirit these women had!

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  5. What a wildly adventurous and accomplished woman. And as it is now, then, they focused more on a woman's looks and apparel than anything else. Some things never change.

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  6. Wow, Helene had all kinds of moxy! Can't believe they were more concerned about her wearing a corset than her flying exploits. Dur.

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    1. Well, you know the media..some things never change!

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  7. Wow, she was certainly lucky. Never really see the name Helene. I went to high school with one.

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    1. I don't think I've ever met anyone with that name!

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  8. This is a pretty unique story. I love that "Not knowing how to land. On a much smaller scale I can roller skate and ice skate but I don't know how to stop at either one. I have to run into something. When I take youth groups on such outings they love this about me.

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    1. Oh, that's funny. But hope you don't hurt yourself much. I had a similar episode with roller skates!

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  9. It's amazing how many women were out there, going after their dreams even that long ago. We have them to thank for the freedoms women enjoy today.

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  10. Oh good! One that didn't die too young and lived a long life! She was wise to get out of it I do believe! Interesting career though, varied with the different things she ended up doing :)

    betty
    http://viewsfrombenches.blogspot.com/

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    1. Yay for Helene's long life. She quit just in time I think.

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  11. Glad she lived past the 1920's. So many did die at that time. What a go-getter. She did so much and I'm glad you're doing this since I'm learning a lot. By the way, I love that piece of music...hahahaaaa. I'm trying to remember who composed that piece of music.

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    1. Thank you. OH, but wasn't the song truly, truly dreary? what a downer!

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  12. What an interesting life. I'm amazed she kept flying as long as she did with so many accidents and crashes. Great post with lots of fun information.

    @WeekendsInMaine
    Weekends in Maine

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    1. I think she needed the money. thanks for visiting!

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  13. Great posts. Thanks for all the information

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  14. Hah! She crashed a number of times, but at least didn't die in a crash?... :D I admire her resolve to keep flying!

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    The Multicolored Diary
    MopDog

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    1. a cat with more than 9 lives I think and she knew when to stop!

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  15. Another wonderful story. How sad that reporters feel the need to comment on what women wear. When I was in public office, the local paper sent a reporter to our meeting to cover what the four women on the board were wearing to a meeting. It rated a full-page story. What rubbish.

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    1. Yeah, I know what you mean...but it is what is. Some things never change!!

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