Thursday, April 21, 2016

R is for Bessica Raiche - Pioneer Women in Aviation: A-Z Challenge

Bessica Raiche (1875-1932)
Bessica Medlar Raiche was a woman of many talents. Professionally, she had been a dental assistant, businesswoman, and for the bulk of her life, a respected Ob-Gyn physician. She could paint, play music, and knew several languages. She was somewhat of a feminist before her time too. She studied medicine, drove an automobile, wore riding pants and knickers, and participated in outdoor sports normally reserved for men, like swimming and trap shooting.

Somewhere in this vast sea of interests, Bessica developed an interest in aviation along with her husband, and the two became biplane builders, setting up shop in their living room. 

When it came time to test fly the third plane, September 16, 1910, Bessica became the first woman in the U.S. to fly solo

As Bessie later said, ". . . I enjoyed life, and just wanted to be myself."

Bessica as a young woman.

Bessica Faith Medlar was born near Beloit, Wisconsin. She had one sister. Her father owned a photography studio that both her parents ran. Bessica was raised in a refined home. She studied ivory miniature painting in France after high school and then went to medical school, graduating in 1903. With a background in obstetrics, she opened a general practice in 1904. She was 29.

While in France, Bessica had met Francois 'Frank' Raiche, an attorney, and both were fascinated with aviation. The two married (1904?) and settled in Mineola, New York, where inspired by the Wright Brothers flight in 1903, decided to build a Curtiss type biplane in 1907 . . . in their living room. Apparently, the grand piano made a perfect carpenter's table. The final construction was completed outdoors, but to get the plane out, Frank and Bessica had to remove the front of the house. Inspired by one plane, they formed a company in 1910 to build more and offered flying lessons. 


A Curtiss biplane in 1910, the type built by the Raiches. 
Four people were needed to hold the plane in place.
(It's not clear if Frank Raiche is the pilot)
 
Bessica in the biplane that made her famous in 1910


Between 1907 and 1912, three biplanes were constructed. According to Bessica in an interview (Omaha World-Herald, March 31, 1929), the third biplane was all hers. She designed it, made all the patterns, and supervised the construction. The plane was extremely light weight for better lift, or so the thinking was back then. The frame was made with bamboo covered in silk 

"To see it shiver with every puff of wind was enough to convince the average mortal that it was a rather light craft to entrust with all of one's earthly hopes," Bessica said.

"However, when the plane was ready for flight it did not occur to me that my trip skyward might be my passport to eternity. Adventure was calling me and I readily obeyed."

Without flying lessons Bessica took the aircraft up, becoming the first woman in the U.S. to fly solo. She landed and took off four times without incident. On the fifth attempt the plane crashed, but she was unhurt. A few days later she was back at it and flew seven short flights successfully. She kept trying and got better. She made twenty-five flights in one week alone. By 1914 she could fly in circles. The plane had a 40 hp motor and could fly 35 miles an hour. Her best distance was one and a quarter miles at a height of thirty feet. Higher and longer flights followed, but after more than four years, Bessica lost interest and decided to call it quits. She had a new daughter to raise and wanted to return to her medical practice, which had ended with the plane building project.
 
A very serious shot of Bessica in her pilot outfit.  

Bessica spent the remainder of her life in California as a physician, practicing obstetrics and gynecology. (She and Frank divorced in 1925). Later, when people learned of her record as the first woman to fly solo in the U.S., many expressed surprise. Bessica was rather modest about her accomplishment. Although proud of the jewel-studded gold medal (inscribed, "First Woman Aviator in America"), given to her by the Aeronautical Society of America, she felt that Blanche Stuart Scott "deserved the recognition." 

Scott had soloed before Bessica, but a technicality barred her from the award. Scott's plane had been lifted up accidentally in the wind, resulting in an unplanned flight. Therefore, Scott's flight was "accidental" as opposed to Bessica's "intentional" flight. What do you think? Online the credit is still debated.



Sources:
[Quotes by] Bessica Raiche from Omaha World-Herald, March 31, 1929; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bessie_Raiche;
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bessica_Medlar_%281875-1932%29_Raiche_obituary_from_the_Associated_Press_in_the_New_York_Times_on_April_12,_1932.png
https://web.archive.org/web/20120423031545/http://www.nasm.si.edu/explore-and-learn/topics/women/Raiche.cfm
http://www.ctie.monash.edu.au/hargrave/raiche.html; http://earlyaviators.com/ecrout.htm
http://www.midwayvillage.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Bessica-Raiche-Research-Packet.pdf
http://www.pennula.de/american-magazine-of-aeronautics/american-magazine-of-aeronautics-1910-1911/aeronautics-1910-1911.htm;



16 comments:

  1. After spending so much time researching these inspiring women aviators, and considering that so many of your relatives are in aviation, has this lit a fire in you to want to pursue your pilot's license?

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    1. Actually it has sparked a little interest but the cost would be prohibitive and of course we don't really have a plane that would be easy for me to learn. Nice to see you again Cathy. Thanks for reading!

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  2. Hi Sharon.
    Lovely post. Personally I think an accidental flight doesn't quite cut the grade however it must have been very exciting for both women.
    As an aside, I've both flown light aircraft and sailed the seas, the two have a lot in common. Both grant one the freedom not available to those sitting on the hard. But you probably knew this :)
    Blessings from Johannesburg, sadly land locked, South Africa, Geoff.

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    1. Hello Geoff in South Africa! Nice to hear from you. My husband has also commented on the similarities between sailing and flying. I discovered that firsthand learning how to sail. Still not a pilot though :) All the best!

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  3. What an amazing woman especially that she was a doctor! I think that is also worthy of note:) I am still amazed that they went up in these flimsy contraptions. I think both of them deserved medals

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    1. Isn't she incredible? I love that there were such contrasting sides to her. Thanks Birgit! I'm pretty behind right now. I'll make it over to your blog eventually :)

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  4. I think this woman deserves the recognition. Accidental flight is interesting, but a lot of the effort and skill are in the planning of a thing. She was truly a Renaissance Woman!

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    1. What a great way to describe her. Yes indeed, a Renaissance woman :) Thanks Lee!

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  5. This was writing at it's best, Well done Sharon a wonderful read.
    Yvonne.

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    1. Thank you :) So glad you enjoyed, Yvonne. All the best!

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  6. Most truly successful people are modest about their accomplishments, interestingly.

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    1. I hadn't thought about that, but I think you may be right. Thanks for commenting and reading Stephanie!

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  7. It's kind of baffling seeing how easy it was to just decide to build an aircraft back in those days. But on a different level, it also seem so romantic and adventurous.

    @JazzFeathers
    The Old Shelter - Jazz Age Jazz

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    1. Hi Sarah. My husband built a plane in our garage and I did the upholstery and was sometimes his 2nd hand. It was hard, hard work. Reading about Bessica and Frank reminded me of how much fun it was at times too.

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  8. I've had friends staying who left last night back to the US. He used to build planes in his back yard in the 70's and 80's and flew them. It was interesting to hear ... I'm thinking to send your posts to him ... each enjoyable and amazing stories about amazing women aviators.

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    1. Oh, please forward to them. My husband built a plane too and I occasionally helped, so found this post so meaningful. There are quite a few home builders today. They have a special camaraderie when they get together and talk. There are both builders and mechanics, so the skills learned are remarkable.

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