When you think of the most famous women in aviation history, few names probably come to mind. Surely you know of Amelia Earhart, the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean — and then mysteriously disappear on her attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Those with a little deeper knowledge on aviation history might even know Raymonde de Laroche, the first woman in the world to earn a pilot license, or even Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman, the first African-American woman to earn a pilot license.
Experts on modern aviation may recognize the name of Beverley Bass, the first female captain of an American Airlines aircraft, who is depicted in the award-winning musical about the aftermath of Sept. 11, "Come From Away." But few people — even the biggest aviation enthusiasts — know much about Bessica Medlar Raiche.
Years before Earhart took flight, Raiche took to the skies in a solo flight, making her the first American female aviator. And that's not her only aviation accomplishment. She and her husband built that plane from scratch. And years after the whole flying thing wasn't working for her anymore, Raiche went on to become one of the country's first female doctors specializing in obstetrics and gynecology.
As appraiser Ken Sanders said on an episode of "Antiques Roadshow" in which Raiche's great-grandson recounted his family legacy, "How can this be that America's first female aviator is virtually unknown outside of a tiny circle of aviation aficionados?" Great question — let's change that.
Who Was Bessica Raiche?
"Bessica grew up in Beloit, Wisconsin, and was attracted to an active life seemingly from the beginning," Dorothy S. Cochrane, curator of general aviation at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, says via email. "She convinced her parents to let her study music in France — part of her artistic and ambitious side. There, she embraced French society and life, becoming fluent in French and being acquainted with the vibrant aviation scene there. So she knew when Raymonde de LaRoche became the first woman to earn a pilot license March 8, 1910, and that she entered contests with male pilots."
Life took a turn for Bessica when she met François C. Raiche during her travels abroad. "Bessica found a kindred spirit of adventure in France, married him, and they returned to the U.S., settling in Mineola, New York," Cochrane says. "Long Island was a hotbed of aviation with Hempstead Field and others nearby."
A 'New Woman' of the 20th Century
While you'd have a tough time digging up facts on Bessica, you're likely to come across that she was considered a "new woman" of the modern era. "Bessica was eager to adopt the more progressive ideas of the 20th century, especially as a woman, like the later pioneer Amelia Earhart," Cochrane says. "She wore bloomers, played sports, including shooting and swimming, and learned to drive a car — also similar to Blanche Scott who took her first flight only two weeks before Bessica."
While Scott beat Bessica by a couple of weeks, her flight isn't considered "official" because she only reached an altitude of 40 feet (12 meters). (Scott's flight is considered more of an accident than intentional because she was simply practicing taxiing on her own when "something happened" and she went airborne.) So to be totally accurate, Scott is the first American woman to fly solo in an airplane, but Bessica is the first one to do it intentionally.
"All of these women were bucking the notion of conventional female behavior and thinking of the day," Cochrane says. "Like Harriet Quimby and Earhart, she wanted to accomplish something."
Raiche's Road to Flight
By the time Raiche and her husband had settled in Mineola, she'd accomplished quite a bit. She was already a practicing dentist and then went back to receive a Doctor of Medicine degree (M.D.) from Tufts University in 1903. And she was deeply interested in the arts, hence her excursion to France. During her time there, she saw Orville Wright demonstrate his Wright Flyer, and, of course, crossed paths with François. The two bonded over their shared aviation admiration.
"We don't know a lot about her husband, but do know they were collaborative and Bessica was obviously educated, intelligent and inquisitive," Cochrane says. "Nothing seemed too difficult for her so she embraced whatever interested her. There was no real aeronautical training at the time, so I imagine she and her husband studied aircraft in France and on Long Island and simply tweaked their own design based on existing aircraft."
Taking what they knew about Wright's designs, the couple began building pieces in their New York home, made of lighter materials like bamboo, silk and piano wire. When all the components were ready, they took them outside to assemble what would eventually become a 28-foot, 6-inch (8.6 meter) biplane with a wingspan of 33 feet (10 meters). Employing an engine built with their partner C.M. Crout, their creation had about 30 horsepower.
"Aircraft were very simple then, but the fact that they managed to understand enough about emerging theory on aerodynamics to keep a plane safely aloft is very impressive," Cochrane says. "Their aircraft was reportedly similar to a Wright biplane (the Wrights held strict patent rights on their design), presumably seated upright. The Raiches built their aircraft of bamboo and piano wire (an innovation instead of heavy iron wire), which are both very strong and light and covered in silk, which is much more fragile than linen or cotton fabric favored by others."
How Raiche Took to the Skies
Once the Raiches assembled their homemade plane, they were ready to test it — and Bessica was the one to hop in the pilot seat (presumably because she weighed less so it would be easier to get the craft off the ground). "She made her solo flight in it, on Sept. 16, 1910, two weeks after Scott's more accidental flight, and six months after de LaRoche," Cochrane says.
The day was pretty eventful — over the course of five flights, Bessica flew from her home to Hempstead Plains (about 5 miles/8 kilometers), covering 1 full mile (1.6 kilometers) on the last trip. That was also when the plane took a bit of a nosedive and tossed Bessica from the seat, but she came out unscathed, and the plane did too.
"For this, Raiche received a diamond-studded gold medal inscribed to the 'First Woman Aviator of America' from the Aeronautical Society," Cochrane says.
That wasn't the end of the Raiche's aviation journey. "They built at least two other aircraft, and then a Curtiss-style aircraft with a 40 hp 4-cylinder rebuilt marine engine that flew up to 35 mph (56 kph)," Cochrane says. "The Raiche's French-American Aeroplane Company sold two more aircraft." But over time, Bessica had to make another life change and abandon the skies. "She apparently became ill and had to give up flying," Cochrane says. "Later on, she changed course to become one of the first women specialists in obstetrics and gynecology."
Why Don't We Know Her Name?
So if Bessica accomplished such an impressive, unprecedented feat, why isn't she a household name? "No publicity," Cochrane says. "I haven't seen any images or further discussion of her flying or aircraft. She didn't perform in flying exhibitions like Scott, the Moisant women, and Quimby or make a noticeable cross-country flight which were the best ways to be covered by the press. I think Raiche just did not seek the limelight, became easy to overlook, and then through illness and changing course, disappeared from the scene. Quimby, already a well-known journalist, arrived on the scene in New York shortly thereafter with more style and ambition."
Despite the lack of public knowledge around Raiche's historic achievements, her legacy lives on in the aviation world, and she's considered a true trailblazer for women of all industries. "Bessica was one of the pioneering women of the early 20th century, willing to push boundaries as an aviator, physician and progressive woman," Cochrane says. "These are the women who paved the way for women's rights and acceptance into society and business by being driven enough to seek out careers and live very accomplished lives. Even though Raiche's life did not receive the attention it may have warranted, she is still a leader in women in aviation and medicine."