Elise Raymonde Deroche was the daughter of a Parisian plumber. After becoming an actress she adopted the stage name Raymonde de Laroche. Having been introduced to aviator Charles Voisin in 1909, she convinced him to teach her how to fly. Although initially reluctant, Voisin invited her to his airfield at Chalons.
It was there, on 22 October 1909, that de Laroche flew for the first time. The aircraft she trained in had been designed for stunt displays and could only seat one person, so the instructor was obliged to run alongside the aircraft. Having mastered taxiing de Laroche later took off, flying around 300 yards (270m) before touching down again. There are conflicting accounts of this flight, with aviation journalist Harry Harper claiming in 1953 that it took place after little training whereas contemporary reports suggest that de Laroche had already had a number of lessons before going airborne.
De Laroche was awarded her pilot’s license five months later on 8 March 1910. Issued by the Aero-Club of France, her license was the first to be awarded to a woman and led to her being invited to take part in numerous international aeronautical meetings and displays where she flew as part of Voisin’s team. At the Egyptian Grand Prix later that year she came sixth, a position that she improved on when she flew again in St Petersburg.
De Laroche was never a member of the nobility. However, in an October 1909 report the contemporary British aviation magazine Flight captioned a photograph of her as ‘Baroness de la Roche’. She was even addressed as ‘baroness’ in an audience with the Russian Tsar Nicholas II after her flight in St Petersburg.
The German Empire established its first air force, the Fliegertruppe, in 1910 which saw extensive action in the First World War. Following Germany’s defeat and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was banned from possessing an air force and the Fliegertruppe was dissolved.
Despite the ban, the German military established a secret flight school at Lipetsk in the Soviet Union that began training fighter pilots and ground crew from 1926. This meant that there were already up to 120 trained pilots by the time Hitler came to power in January 1933. Senior Nazi, and former First World War pilot Hermann Goering, was named Reich Commissioner of Aviation.
On 15 May 1933 the Reich Ministry of Aviation took control of all military flying operations. Although often considered by many to be the ‘birth’ of the Luftwaffe the development of military aircraft continued in secret. Having formally approved its position as a third military service alongside the army and navy on 26 February 1935, Hitler and Goering began to reveal the Luftwaffe.
Germany’s expansion of its air force was protested by both France and Britain, the latter of which had begun to strengthen the Royal Air Force in March. However, neither country nor the League of Nations attempted to sanction this blatant defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. Consequently the Luftwaffe continued to grow, and the following year the Condor Legion saw action for the first time as part of the Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War. As a result, up to 20,000 members of the Luftwaffe gained valuable combat experience.
On the 9th February 1969, the first test flight of the Boeing 747 ‘Jumbo Jet’ took place. The 747 went on to hold the record for the largest passenger capacity for 37 years before being surpassed by the Airbus A380.
The 1960s saw an enormous increase in the use of air transportation. However, existing planes such as the Boeing 707 were relatively small. The first person to approach Boeing with the idea of developing a larger passenger aircraft was Juan Trippe, president of Pan Am, but the company had already produced initial large airframe designs for a failed bid to build a cargo plane for the United States Air Force.
By 1966 the design was still far from complete but, in April, Pan Am committed to buying twenty-five 747s. Boeing agreed to deliver the first one by the end of 1969. However a suitable engine still hadn’t been created, and the company didn’t even own a facility large enough to assemble the completed aircraft.
These issues were eventually overcome to allow the first test flight to take place on the 9th February 1969, piloted by Jack Waddell with co-pilot Brien Wygle and flight engineer Jess Wallick. The plane, named the City of Everett, left the Paine Field near Everett in Washington State – about 30 miles north of Seattle – and performed a number of tests before landing again at 12.50pm. Over 1,000 more test flights were conducted before the plane was certified by the Federal Aviation Authority on the 30th December. The first passenger flight took place on the 22nd January 1970, on Pan Am’s New York to London route.
The 3rd February 1959 was the Day The Music Died, when rock and roll pioneers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. The disaster gained its name twelve years later as a result of Don McLean’s hit song American Pie.
On the 23rd January 1959, Buddy Holly began the headline Winter Dance Party Tour of 24 cities in the American Midwest with support from Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper and Dion and the Belmonts. Touring was a very profitable activity for musicians and Holly – recently married and with a pregnant wife at home – was keen to pack in as many performances as possible.
However, the tour involved covering gruelling distances in a bus that soon developed a fault with its heating system. The situation was so bad that Holly’s drummer Carl Bunch was hospitalised with frostbitten feet. The bus was promptly replaced, but with less than half the dates already covered the musicians were frustrated and tired.
After playing a concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, on the 2nd February Holly opted to charter a plane to get him to the next venue. The plane, contrary to popular opinion, was not called American Pie and was only identified by the serial number N3794N. In addition to Holly and the pilot, 21 year-old Roger Peterson, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper took the remaining seats following some negotiation and a coin toss. They took off at 12:55am on the 3rd February, but flew only 6 miles before crashing amidst deteriorating weather.
The first aerial crossing of the English Channel was conducted by Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries in a gas-filled balloon.
Born to a peasant family in Normandy, Blanchard fled to Paris as a teenager. Here he developed an interest in science and, following the Montgolfier brothers’ successful flight of a hot air balloon in 1783, turned his attention to the new craze. On 2 March the following year Blanchard made his first successful flight at the Champs de Mars in Paris using a hydrogen-filled balloon.
Desperate to achieve fame and fortune, Blanchard moved to London in August 1784 where the population had not yet become caught up in ‘balloonomania’. Blanchard quickly convinced a group of financiers to support him and, alongside the wealthy Dr John Jeffries, Blanchard planned the first aerial crossing of the Channel.
Having provided the necessary funds, Jeffries insisted that he should accompany Blanchard on the flight from Dover to Calais. Unwilling to share the certain fame Blanchard concealed lead weights in his clothes in an attempt to persuade Jeffries that the balloon would be too heavy to carry both of them, but the American discovered the deception and was able to take his place on board.
Soon after departing England, the pair were forced to throw out their ballast and cargo. This included a propeller and a set of oars with which they had hoped to ‘row’ through the air. Barely skimming the tops of the waves, they later urinated over the side in an attempt to reduce the weight before opting to discard their clothes. When they touched down in a forest near Calais, they were wearing nothing but their underwear and the cork life jackets that they had brought in case they crashed into the sea.
On the 17th December 1903, American brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully made the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight. Their aircraft, known as the Wright Flyer but later referred to as Flyer I, made its historic flights about four miles south of the town of Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. Four flights were made on the day, with the first by Orville lasting for just 12 seconds over a total distance of only 36.5m.
The brothers originally went into business selling, repairing and designing bicycles. However, by the end of 1899 they had developed a keen interest in flight, and began to devise control systems that could be employed on manned gliders. Their justification was that it was pointless to create a powered aircraft before a reliable control system had been designed. Their research led them to develop three axis control: wing-warping to control the roll of the aircraft, a moveable rudder to control yaw, and elevators to control the pitch.
Successful testing of these controls on a glider in 1902 led the brothers to build an engine to power their flying machine, along with a pair of specially-designed propellers that were refined under testing in their own wind tunnel.
After a number technical delays, the brothers tossed and coin to decide who would be the first to fly on the 14th December. Wilbur won, but stalled the engine on take-off and crashed the plane after just a three-second flight. After repairs, Orville became the first to pilot the aircraft on its first true flight three days later. Each brother successfully flew twice that day.
On the 1st November 1911, the first aerial bombing took place when Italian Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti dropped four grenades on Turkish troops in Libya. Although unmanned balloons had been used by Austrian troops to carry bombs in their war against in Venice in 1849, Gavotti was the first to drop explosives from a manned aeroplane. The four 4-pound grenades that he dropped caused no injuries, but his action was still widely condemned by the international community. Despite this, within three years aerial bombing had become an established part of modern warfare.
The weakness of the Ottoman Empire demonstrated by Italy’s victory in the Italo-Turkish War is seen by some historians as a contributor to the rise of Balkan nationalism that preceded the First World War. Indeed the First Balkan War was launched while Turkey was still fighting the Italians in Libya. The Italo-Turkish War was also significant for its impact on the use of aircraft for military purposes. As well carrying out as the world’s first aerial bombing, the Italians were also responsible for conducting the first ever aerial reconnaissance mission a week earlier.
Gavotti himself was flying a reconnaissance mission when he decided to drop the four grenades from his Taube monoplane. Although nobody was injured during the attack, the Ottoman Empire complained that aerial bombing contravened the Hague Convention of 1899. However, Italy argued that the agreement specifically stated that bombs could not be dropped from balloons and said nothing about bombs dropped from aircraft. However, it’s probably worth pointing out that the aeroplane hadn’t even been invented when the agreement in question was signed.
The Italian government of Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti launched its invasion of Libya in order to formalise its influence in the provinces of Tripolitana and Cyrenaica amidst the declining power of the Ottoman Empire. Having sent an ultimatum to the Ottoman government that was not accepted in full, war was declared on 29 September 1911.
Carlo Piazza formally qualified as a pilot in April 1911, and soon took control of the Royal Italian Army air detachment having proved himself as a talented racing pilot. When the Italo-Turkish War broke out later that year, the Italian military transported its entire fleet of nine aircraft to Tripoli following the prediction of aviation theorist Giulio Douhet that aircraft would cause significant problems for the enemy.
Having arrived in Libya by steamship, the Italian aircraft were brought on shore after the 20,000 ground troops began disembarking their ships on 10 October. The Italians soon found that the Ottoman defence was stronger than they had expected and, during a standoff near Benghazi, Piazza made history’s first reconnaissance flight when he observed the Turkish lines from a Blériot XI aircraft. This type of machine, powered by a 25-horsepower, three-cylinder engine, had famously made the first flight across the English Channel in a heavier-than-air aircraft in 1909.
Barely a week later the Italo-Turkish War would also see the first ever aerial bombing, when Italian Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti dropped four grenades from his Taube monoplane. Later in the conflict, the Turkish military was the first to shoot down an aircraft with rifle fire.
On the 6th August 1945, the USA dropped an atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima from the B-29 aircraft Enola Gay. 70,000 people were killed instantly, of whom 20,000 were military personnel. Approximately another 70,000 died over the following months due to radiation sickness, burns, and other injuries directly related to the explosion.
The Potsdam Declaration issued on the 28th July by the Allies called for the unconditional surrender of Japan. If the government did not surrender they threated “the complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and…utter devastation of the Japanese homeland”. Having completed the successful Trinity atomic test on the 16th July, the USA felt that the atomic bomb could quickly end the war in the Pacific.
Hiroshima was chosen as a target due to its industrial and military significance since it was the command centre for the defence of southern Japan and contained approximately 40,000 military personnel. The Enola Gay and six accompanying aircraft had a 6-hour flight from the air base at North Field, Tinian before reaching the city where they released the bomb at 8.15am. It exploded 600m above the city as planned, with the equivalent to 16 kilotons of TNT. Virtually all buildings within a mile of the blast were flattened.
Following the bombing, President Truman warned that if Japan did not surrender, “they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Japan did not surrender. A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later.
RAF Flight Officer T. D. Dean became the first Allied jet pilot to achieve a combat victory when he ‘tipped’ a Nazi German V-1 ‘doodlebug’ flying bomb with his Gloster Meteor jet fighter.
The V-1 was specifically designed for terror bombing civilians, and had first been used on 13 June 1944. The RAF began to investigate ways to intercept and destroy the Nazis’ new weapon, and soon found that they could be tipped over by positioning an aircraft’s wing to within 6 inches of the V-1’s wing. This manoeuvre used the changing airflow of the interceptor’s wing to force the V-1 upwards, confusing the flying bomb’s gyroscope and resulting in it diving into the ground before reaching its target. The first aerodynamic flip manoeuvre was performed by Major R. E. Turner on 18 June, using a North American P-51 Mustang.
The following month, No. 616 Squadron of the RAF received the first ever Gloster Meteor jet planes. This new aircraft, equipped with Sir Frank Whittle’s revolutionary turbojet engines, could reach speeds in excess of 400 miles per hour and placed it well within reach of the average speed of a V-1. The hope was that the new Meteors would be able to shoot the flying bombs down using their 20mm cannons, but the guns had a habit of jamming.
On 4 August Flight Officer T. D. Dean experienced a problem with his Meteor’s cannons as he approached a V-1. He consequently resorted to the tipping manoeuvre and successfully sent the bomb off course. It is believed to have crashed on farmland near Headcorn in Kent, where shrapnel said to be from the explosion can be detected deep inside the trunk of a nearby oak tree. The destruction of this V-1 marked the first ever ‘kill’ for an RAF jet plane.