Although she may have disappointed her parents by not going into the family trade of toilet de-clogging, this Paris-born daughter of a plumber went on to change history in 1910 as the first woman to receive a pilot’s license. Under the tutelage of aviation expert Charles Voisin, the feisty actress-turned-aviatrix took to the sky numerous times and, despite her decidedly plebian lineage, earned herself the title of baroness in the process.
De Laroche, also an accomplished balloonist and engineer, cheated death on more than one occasion. In 1910, de Laroche’s aircraft crashed at an air show in Reims, France, and she suffered injuries so severe that she was grounded for two years. In 1912, she was once again injured in a car crash that claimed the life of her mentor, Voisin. After serving as a military chauffeur during World War I, de Laroche was reunited with her true love: aviation.
In 1919, while attempting to become the first professional female test pilot, de Laroche’s experimental aircraft crashed during approach at an airfield in the seaside village of Le Crotoy. De Laroche, 36, and her co-pilot were both killed on impact. There is a statue erected in her honor at Paris’s Le Bourget Airport, and Women of Aviation Worldwide Week falls on the date, March 8, that de Laroche earned her wings.