WHO WAS FIRST?
“POTTELSBERGHE, PELTIER, OR BERG”
By, Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer
It seems they all have some claim to being the first woman to fly in a heavier-than-air aeroplane. All three do have legitimate claims to being the ‘first,’ but let’s examine the claims.
If you have been reading my articles you know that Elizabeth Thible flew as a passenger in a balloon in 1784; as did Citoyenne Henri and Jeanne La Brosse, in 1798. Balloons are lighter-than-air. However, Aida de Acosta flew a powered aircraft in 1903, but this was a dirigible, also lighter-than-air.
That brings us to aeroplanes. They were becoming quite “the thing” in Paris in 1907, and several men were quite captivated by them. Ferdinand Leon Delagrange was a sculptor in Paris, and loved the idea of flying. He was one of the first to buy an airplane when he ordered a boxkite, a small bi-plane from Gabriel Voison, in1907. He received a pilot’s license from the Aero-Club de France, on January 7, 1909, one of the first eight licenses issued. He set a distance record in September of 1909 when he flew 15.2 miles in 29 minutes and 53 seconds!
Delagrange was friends with Therese Peltier, another Parisian sculptor. They enjoyed traveling around France and Italy together. On July 8, 1908, he did something very unusual, actually unthinkable at the time, and asked Therese if she would like to fly in the aeroplane with him. She graciously accepted the offer, and flew with him. Later, he ask if she would like to fly with him while he attempted to set another record. She agreed, and they flew for 30 minutes and 28 seconds.
Therese seemed to take to flying and traveled with him as he flew exhibitions around Italy, including a flight in Rome. While participating in this new and exciting activity, she wrote articles about her experiences and sent them to newspapers back in France. She began to pay close attention to his techniques while flying, and observed him carefully. It was around this time that she decided she wanted to learn to fly the airplane herself.
At this point Therese Peltier thought that she was the first woman to fly in an airplane. However, later she found that Henri Farman had taken a Belgium woman, Mlle. P. Van Pottelsberghe, for a brief flight, around the end of May. Little is know of this flight, but Mlle. Pottelsberghe seems to have been content with her one ride in the aeroplane and nothing else is known about her. It is doubtful if she ever flew again.
Delagrange agreed to teach Therese what he knew about flying. There was little to teach, he barely knew how to fly himself. There were no instruction manuals, no syllabus, no ground schools. The student would just watch, then practice along with the pilot, until the pilot felt ready to let the student give it a try. It was a very haphazard way of learning. The aeroplanes were very dangerous, unreliable machines, and difficult to fly. Very little was known about how wind and temperature affected the aircraft. It truly was the ‘blind leading the blind.’
In mid-September, while in Turin, Therese was ready for her first flight. The Voisin Boxkite Aeroplane did not have ailerons or wing warping. Because of that, the only way to turn the airplane was by using the rudder. This was not an easy maneuver, and required ‘skidding’ the airplane around the turn, a very uncomfortable procedure. It was decided that Therese would not make any turns, simply fly in a straight line. She took off and flew 200 meters (660 feet), and never got more than 2.5 meters (8 feet) above the ground! Looking back, that does not seem like much of a flight, but she was actually in the air, flying! The Italian weekly magazine L’Illustrazione Italiana ran a story about her first flight in their September 27, 1908 issue.
Then in October, 1908 Wilbur Wright was on a demonstration tour in France. While in LeMans, he was approached by Mrs. Hart O. Berg, about allowing her to fly with him. I do not know what arrangements were made, whether he was paid or not, but he agreed. Mrs. Berg was an American visiting in France. As he was making ready for the flight, Mrs. Berg became concerned about her skirt flying up. She was given a piece of rope which she tied around her ankles to keep her skirt in place. The flight lasted 2 minutes and 7 seconds. As she left the airplane, her skirt was still tied around her ankles, and she ‘hobbled’ away. A Parisian fashion designer, Paul Poiret, was in the crowd. As he watched her hobbling walk he had an idea. Upon returning to Paris, he designed the “Hobble Skirt,” which became a big fashion trend in 1910 and 11!
So it seems that Mlle. Pottelsberghe was actually the first woman to fly in an airplane. She only flew once and did not pursue any further aviation activities. Therese Peltier was the second to actually fly, she continued to fly as a passenger and then to solo the airplane. Mrs. Hart O. Berg seems to be the first American woman to fly in an airplane. So they all have their legitimate claims to fame.
Therese continued to fly with Delagrange. It is not known if she soloed again, or only flew with him. However, they continued to travel together until 1910. Delagrange had purchased a new Bleriot aeroplane, and on January 4, 1910 suffered a fatal crash. He was flying the first Bleriot fitted with a 7 cylinder Gnome Rotary engine. As he began a turn at the end of the airfield, the wings simply folded back. The plane dropped to the ground and he was killed instantly. He was 37 years old. For two years the Bleriot aeroplane had a problem with the wings folding during flight. Then, in 1912, Louis Bleriot discovered the flaw in the wing design and corrected it. Once that problem was solved, the Bleriot became one of the safest aeroplanes in the world.
Upon hearing of the crash and the death of her friend, Therese Peltier was overcome with grief. She stopped all aviation activities. She could have applied for a formal license from one of the Aviation Clubs, but she never did. Despite never being licensed, she was the first woman to pilot a true heavier-than-air airplane. This was at a time when women were told they could not drive a car, let alone fly an airplane.
Every woman who has flown since owes respect to Therese Peltier for her determination and bravery in being the first. She was a true pioneer of aviation!
Captain Nancy W. Aldrich aviation writer