BESSICA MEDLAR RAICHE
By Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer
Bessica, Bessie, was a musician among other prestigious activities. While she was in Paris studying music, she watched the Wright Brothers demonstrate their airplane. She also became intrigued with the flying of Baroness Raymonde de la Roche. That put the idea of flying in her head, and she was determined that she would fly.
Bessie was considered a ‘new’ woman, because of her typically masculine activities. She loved swimming and shooting, and she drove an automobile. These were things proper ladies would never do! In addition, she was a painter, business woman, and linguist, and she wore ‘bloomers!’ She practiced dentistry and became a physician. Born in 1875, she was quite a 20th Century Woman!
She was born to James B. and Elizabeth Medlar in April 1875. The family lived in Rockford, Illinois. There is little information available about her early life. At some point, she met and married Francois Raiche, a Frenchman. I’m not sure if that was before, during, or after her studies in France.
After returning from France, she and Francois moved to Mineola, New York. It was there that they decided to build an airplane. With some inspiration from the Wright design, and some modifications, they built the pieces of the airplane in their living room and put them together in the backyard. They used bamboo and silk to make the plane lighter, and also used piano wire instead of iron wire. Their airplane had a wing span of 33 ft, and a length of 28ft 6 inches.
Since Bessie was lighter than Francois, it was decided that she would put less strain on the engine and airframe, and would be the one to fly. They trucked the airplane to Hempstead Plains, New York, where, with no prior experience or instruction she climbed into the cockpit and took off, on September 16, 1910.
Her flight was short, and only a few feet off the ground, but she flew! She came out to the field in the morning for her first attempt at flying. Normally, on the first flight the new pilot would do what was called “grass cutting.” They would just skim over the field. It seems that is what Bessie was trying to do. She made five flights that day, and on her last flight of the day, after about a mile she flew into a depression and the airplane nosed into the ground. She was thrown out of the airplane which came down on top of her. She was able to scramble out, limping a bit, and shut off the engine which was running at high speed. She directed the men who ran to her aid to drag the airplane back to the shed, where it could be repaired. However, since she did intentionally fly the airplane, she is credited with being the first American woman to solo an airplane.
There is still some debate about which woman flew first, Blanche Stuart Scott or Bessie Raiche. Blanche flew on September 2, 1910 and Raiche on September 16. The difference is that Raiche intended to fly and Scott was lifted into the air by a gust of wind while taxiing. There is no doubt, however, that this incident by Raiche gives her the distinction of the first airplane crash by a woman!
On October 13, 1910, Bessica Raiche was awarded a diamond-studded gold medal with the inscription: “First Woman Aviator in America.” The medal was presented by Hudson Maxim, of the Aeronautical Society of America, at a dinner the society held in her honor.
Bessie graciously said of Scott: “Blanche deserved the recognition, but I got more attention because of my lifestyle. I drove an automobile, was active in sports like shooting and swimming, and I even wore riding pants and knickers. People who did not know me or understand me looked down on this behavior. I was an accomplished musician, painter, and linguist, I enjoyed life, and just wanted to be myself.” Bessie never wanted a rivalry to develop between herself and Blanche Scott.
Francois and Bessie formed the French-American Aeroplane Company. They built several airplanes, but the company was short-lived. One of the airplanes was of Bessie’s design, and she flew that one herself.
In 1912, they decided to move to California, where Bessie concentrated on her main career, which was medicine. She was one of America’s first female specialist in gynecology and obstetrics. In 1923 she chaired the Orange County Medical Association.
Raiche was truly a renaissance woman. She broke the mold of what was expected of women in the early 20th Century. She wore pants, drove a car, shot guns, practiced dentistry and medicine, was a distinguished artist and musician, a linguist, and the first American woman to solo an airplane. What a gal!
By,Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer, 20thCenturyAviationMagazine.com
Captain Aldrich is the recipient of the 2012 Golden Yoke award: the most prolific writer and author for the year of 2012…