CHARLIE CONNELLY on the extraordinary life and tragic death of Hélène Boucher.
Yermenonville is a small village to the west of Paris, home to no more than 600 people. Its cemetery is typical of small churchyards across Europe: small, walled, and with headstones of various vintage where you’ll come across the same three or four surnames dating back several generations.
What sets the cemetery at Yermenonville apart from those of similar size and demographic is a large stone tomb that dominates one side of the graveyard. Two enormous white wings immediately catch the eye in the tiny plot but these are not the feathery wings of a weeping angel. Solid, rectangular and brutalist, they tower over the bust of a young woman in a flying helmet held in place by goggles. She’s looking up at the sky and slightly to one side, smiling almost dreamily. In front of her is the smooth marble slab that covers the grave of the village’s most famous daughter.
Until the First World War many young women from privileged backgrounds found themselves in a frustrating position. While they would never be short of money it was likely they wouldn’t inherit, nor would they be permitted to forge any kind of significant career. Theirs was a powerless privilege: from an early age they were told of the need to, in the words of the time, ‘marry well’. It was almost programmed into them that a well-connected husband should be the pinnacle of their aspirations.
The First World War changed that. With so many men away fighting these women found opportunities opening up, the chance to earn their own living and throw themselves into roles they couldn’t have dreamed of in peacetime. At the end of the war this new independence endured and was inherited by the next generation of wealthy, adventurous young women, a generation who matured just when aviation was becoming accessible to those who could afford it. For a clutch of young women from rich backgrounds between the wars the skies offered an exhilarating freedom and a sense of self-determination they couldn’t find on the ground.
The drawback was the danger. Aviation was still a relatively young pastime, aircraft were far from perfect and flying them involved instruments and skills rudimentary by modern standards. Danger was part of the thrill though, and to experience the freedom of the skies was worth the risk. For a lucky few aviation did become a career, or certainly a full-time occupation. A handful of dashing young woman pilots even became celebrities.
For a brief period during the mid-1930s Hélène Boucher was the sweetheart of a nation. Known as ‘Léno’ she broke speed records and altitude records and became France’s most renowned test pilot. Her name was never far from the headlines and her face appeared in advertisements endorsing the fastest cars.
For Boucher celebrity was a bonus. What she cherished most was that by her mid-20s she was living her own life entirely independent, both spiritually and financially, of the bonds of family hierarchy and societal norms. She had achieved this by doing something she loved, something that gave her the opportunity to succeed and be respected for something entirely disconnected from gender, on her own terms.
The daughter of a leading Parisian architect, Boucher was an aviation enthusiast from an early age and covered the wall of her childhood bedroom with photographs of pilots clipped from newspapers and magazines. The pioneering aircraft designer Jean Hubert was a family friend and young Hélène would pump him for information about the latest aircraft advances. When Hubert was killed in a car crash in 1927 Boucher was devastated; her subsequent determination to become a pilot was partially in tribute to his memory.
She qualified for her pilot’s licence in June 1931 at the age of 23 after just three months of instruction and almost immediately embarked on a timed tour of France that she completed at a speed impressive for a pilot who had only been flying for a few months.
Boucher thought big from the start. In February 1933 she set off from Le Bourget airfield in Paris for Saigon on a route that would take her via Rome, Athens, Aleppo, Basra, Karachi, Allahabad, Calcutta, Rangoon and Bangkok. Despite being forced back for repairs before she’d even left French airspace Boucher flew as far as Baghdad before mechanical problems curtailed her epic flight. It was still enough to make her a celebrity in France. People loved her combination of bravery, determination and the unfettered joy with which she took to the air.
“These things happen,” she smiled after abandoning her marathon flight, “but I’m still young, there will be other opportunities.”
She used her celebrity for good causes too, becoming a prominent and passionate exponent of women’s suffrage. In 1934 she appeared at a rally in Bordeaux with fellow fliers Adrienne Bolland and Maryse Bastié alongside France’s leading campaigning feminist Louise Weiss. She may have come from privilege but Boucher wanted the best for all women.
For herself she pursued financial independence from her father’s fortune, something she could only achieve from the pilot’s seat. After returning from the Middle East she studied with pioneering stunt flier Michel Détroyat: if she could join a flying circus there was a good living to be made, especially when Détroyat announced that “with a little more experience Hélène Boucher will be the best acrobatic pilot in the world”. At her first women’s European aerobatic championship in April 1934 at Valenciennes Boucher finished a close runner-up to Liesel Bach of Germany after an epic battle of spins, dives and loops that thrilled the crowd.
By the summer of 1934 Boucher was developing into the complete pilot. The Saigon attempt had shown she had stamina, she was establishing herself as one of the world’s great aerial acrobats and she could fly like the wind, renowned as one of the fastest pilots on the European circuit. On August 18, she climbed into a Caudron 13 and flew 1,000km at an average speed of 266mph, a world record. The following day she topped that, averaging 277mph over the same distance. By the end of that summer she had broken six speed records, as well as holding the world altitude record at a shade over 20,000 feet.
Her reputation earned her a lucrative contract as chief test pilot for the Caudron-Renault company, guaranteeing the financial security and independence she craved and the opportunity to fly full time in some of the best and most cutting-edge aircraft available.
That’s why Boucher was at Caudron-Renault’s aerodrome at Guyancourt, not far from Versailles, on November 30, 1934. The following day she was to demonstrate the Caudron C340 Rafale two-seater pilot training monoplane before a Japanese delegation visiting France for the Paris Air Show, and Boucher wanted to spend a little more time in the cockpit in order to show off the machine at its best.
It was a misty afternoon and the light was just starting to fade but there was still more than enough visibility to give the aircraft a decent run out before darkness fell. After half an hour or so, and with dusk dimming the sky, Boucher was happy she’d mastered the machine and banked over the forest next to the airfield to make her landing approach. Suddenly the aircraft lurched to one side. As she fought to bring it level the engine lost power, the nose dipped and the aircraft went into a dive. Boucher drew on all her skill as a pilot and tried to level up but she’d been barely 300 feet in the air to start with. A couple of her colleagues talking and smoking by the hangar heard the tone of the engine suddenly change and looked up in time to see the Rafale disappear nose first into the trees. There was a brief splintering of wood, then silence.
The two men ran across the airfield, hoping they’d see France’s most famous pilot emerge, pulling off her gauntlets and laughing at the indignity of her descent. But beyond the gentle sibilance of the breeze shifting leaves and branches there was nothing.
When they reached the wreckage the men found the broken machine among the trees with Boucher unconscious and clearly grievously injured. An ambulance was summoned and she was lifted gently from the twisted wreckage but died before she reached hospital. Her body lay in state for two days at Les Invalides, the first woman in history to be granted one of France’s highest honours.
Today there are schools and streets across France named for Hélène Boucher, but the most poignant memorial is that at Yermenonville; the assertiveness of the giant stone wings each side of that smiling bust, looking up forever at the skies where she captured the hearts of the French people and never felt more alive, never felt more like herself.