(Terri Helm is writing in place of Midge this month.)
Bessica Medlar Raiche would have been considered a bit of a “naughty” woman during her lifetime. Born in April 1875 in Wisconsin, Raiche once said of herself, “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.”
Just being herself would result in Raiche becoming the first woman in the United States to fly solo. On Sept. 16, 1910, with no previous experience or flight instruction, Raiche hopped into an airplane she and her husband, Francois, had designed and built together at their home in Mineola, N.Y. During that day, Raiche made five flights. The last one covered approximately one mile.
Raiche became fascinated with flying while she was studying painting in France. While there, she saw Orville Wright demonstrate his Wright Flyer. Upon her return home, she and Francois built their first airplane in their living room. They used lighter-weight materials such as bamboo, silk, and piano wire. Because Bessica was lighter, it was decided that she would attempt the first flights.
Two weeks earlier, on Sept. 2, 1910, Blanche Stuart Scott had also made a solo flight in Hammondsport, N.Y. Scott’s flight, however, was deemed to be accidental by the Aeronautical Society of America. Scott was practicing taxiing in an airplane that had been mechanically rigged to prevent takeoff. A gust of wind, however, allowed Scott to be airborne for a few seconds.
The Aeronautical Society of America credits Raiche with the first intentional solo flight by a woman. On Oct. 13, 1910, the society held a dinner in her honor and awarded Raiche with a diamond-studded gold medal inscribed “First Woman Aviator in America.”
Raiche went on to make as many as 25 flights in a week, and with her husband, formed the French-American Aeroplane Company. They would build two more airplanes and would become innovators in the use of lighter-weight materials in aircraft construction.
A woman of many talents, Raiche received a Doctor of Medicine Degree (MD) from Tufts University in 1903. She practiced dentistry for awhile, but would later become one of the nation’s first woman specialists with a practice in obstetrics and gynecology.
When Raiche’s health forced her to retire from flying, she and Francois moved to California, where Bessica focused on her medical practice. On April 11, 1932, Raiche died in her sleep from a heart attack. She was only 57 years old. At the time of her death, women comprised just 3 percent of the world’s licensed pilots.
Guest columnist Terri Helm lives in Montezuma County, Colo. She and regular columnist Midge Kirk have been artistic partners for about 10 years, bringing little-known women from the dusty archives, where they have been relegated, back to life to share with you.