In March 1915, an injured pilot of the French Aéronautique Militaire was transported to a field hospital behind Verdun, 200km east of Paris. There, one of his nurses learned he had been the only pilot available to fly an important bombing mission.
Within days, that nurse would become history’s first female combat pilot.
No ordinary nurse
This was still the early days of air warfare. It would be four more months before Anthony Fokker’s insightful EIndecker set the template for every successful fighter plane to follow and began its long and bloody ‘Fokker Scourge’. Even the defining horrors of Verdun and the Somme were respectively still 11 and 15 months away in the war’s bleak narrative.
In fact, air warfare was still so new that pilots were relatively rare and the loss of one could easily mean no one was available to take his place.
This irreplaceable pilot, however, had not been delivered into the care of any ordinary nurse.
Marie Marvingt was a Major in the Red Cross and a trained surgical nurse. She came from a long line of military officers and had signed up without a second thought in August 1914. She had also experienced the new phenomenon of air war as early as December 26th, 1914, when a Zeppelin flew low over her hospital in the town of Nancy at dawn, dropping eleven bombs into the ground fog as it passed.
But most importantly, she was an accomplished pilot.
First women’s aviation records
Despite being the third woman to qualify for an Aviator’s Certificate (No.281) from the Aéro-Club de France, Marie had a string of aviation firsts to her name. Not least, as early as 1910 she had become the first woman to graduate from Hubert Latham’s flying school at Châlons near Mourmelon-le-Grand – mastering the famously difficult Antoinette Monoplane to do so.
(She would also achieve an extraordinary record of more than 900 flights without breaking wood and was one of the very few Latham alumni to die of old age.)
She had won the first official records for height and distance awarded to a woman pilot. An accomplished balloonist, she had also been first to pilot a hot air ballon from Europe to England – in a storm and at night, no less!
First female combat pilot
By March 1915, Marie had hundreds of flights to her credit and had trained numerous male pilots. She was like a mother eagle to many of the pilots in the Aéronautique Militaire.
Obviously, the idea that there were no pilots available for an important mission, when the accomplished Marie Marvingt stood right there, was preposterous!
Using her truly unique combination of fame, charm, aviation experience and logic, Marie soon persuaded the Escadrille’s commander that she would fly the mission.
On March 25th, 1915, Mme. Marvingt became the first-ever female combat pilot.
The type of aircraft is not recorded but she took off from the airfield and flew to a pre-arranged rendezvous point. From there, she and five other French pilots flew west to the German airfield at Frescaty, on the Moselle River near Metz, and bombed the enemy aerodrome.
For her courage on this and a subsequent raid, Marie was awarded the Croix de Guerre 1914-1918 avec Palmes and inducted into the Légion d’honneur.
However, her historic milestone remained a state secret until 1932.
Above and beyond
In the meantime, Marie Marvingt had managed to enlist in the French Army and spent 42 days in uniform disguised as a man, including sustained stretches in the front lines. She was eventually wounded and discovered, after which she was sent to serve alongside the Italian Army in the Dolomites.
A skilled mountaineer since the 1890s, Marie served officially as a nurse but the reality was she was closer to a corpsman or medic, travelling up to the front to evacuate stretcher cases through deep snow, high cliffs, avalanches and glaciers – putting her alpine skills to the best possible use.
She also flew reconnaissance missions over the mountainous war zone – putting her considerable aviation skills to their best possible use.
All the while, she was officially a nurse. But another layer to her extraordinary life story is that she was also a respected journalist and she continued to file stories and send private letters from wherever she was sent.
The sobering counterpoint to that, of course, is that if she were ever caught by the enemy – during her sojourns to the front or over enemy territory – she would almost certainly have been shot as a spy.
Marie’s passion for aviation would continue her entire life.
Having flown as a balloon pilot in 1909 and an aeroplane pilot in 1910, she went on to obtain her helicopter license in 1960, aged 85. Along the way she also flew seaplanes, gliders and dirigibles. On her 80th birthday, she took a supersonic ride in a USAF F-100 Super Sabre based near her home at Nancy, but only as a passenger.
She renewed her fixed wing license for the last time when she was 85 and passed the medical haut la main – with flying colours.
For all her courage and skill in the air, in the mountains, and in the field hospitals, Marie’s lifelong dream was to combine powered flight with medicine in what she called ‘air ambulances’.
Australia is justly proud of its pioneering Royal Flying Doctor Service, which was conceived by Lt John Clifford Peel (Australian Flying Corps) in 1917 and finally begun by the Reverend John Flynn at Cloncurry, Queensland, in 1926.
Ironically, in September 1918 Lt. Peel was killed in combat over France – the very land where Marie Marvingt had conceived and designed her air ambulance in 1910!
By 1911 she was badgering her contacts in the military with her ideas for air rescue and then, when they refused to risk their wounded soldiers in the frail and unreliable contemporary aircraft, she began a tireless campaign or writing newspaper articles and giving lectures that traded off her fame, in order to raise the 36,000 francs needed to build her prototype.
A year later she had raised the required amount and placed an order with the aircraft manufacturer Deperdussin. Unfortunately, in August 1913, owner-manager Armand Deperdussin embezzled the company’s funds and bankrupted the business leaving Marie’s half-finished plane in the hands of creditors.
Unfazed, Marie simply started again.
Mother of medivac
Following the outbreak of war in 1914, the French Army did experiment with her air ambulance concept and on occasion she flew surgeons up to the front lines where they could operate on wounded soldiers immediately behind the trenches.
During the course of the war, some 7,000 soldiers were airlifted to safety thanks largely to Marie’s vision – and despite there never being an organised air ambulance service.
Over the next 40 years, Marie would give more than 6,000 lectures promoting the benefits of air ambulances and raised funds for her Captaine Ècheman Award for improvements in air ambulance design.
She set up the first course and school for nurse-pilots, a role that evolved into today’s flight nurses.
In the 1920s she was a driving force in the establishment of civilian air rescue services in the (then) French colonies of North Africa. During the 1920s Rif War in Morocco, more than 5,000 people were transported by air ambulance.
Following her death in 1963, her tomb and a commemorative plaque on her former home in Nancy, France, were inscribed with the epitaph ‘Pioneer of Medical Aviation’ (Pionnière de l’Aviation Sanitaire).
From a long list, she would surely agree that was her greatest achievement.
A pivotal female aviation pioneer
Given her countless accomplishments – and I’ve not told you about the time she rode the entire 4,497km (2,789 miles) Tour de France of 1908 alongside the recognised participants, because women were not allowed to compete; or how she surmounted most of the notable peaks in the French and Swiss Alps; how she cycled from Nancy to Paris (a distance of 280 km) aged 85; or the countless awards she won for swimming, fencing, shooting, skiing, speed skating, luge and bobsledding – it seems incredible that Marie Marvingt is not a household name all over the world.
It’s more extraordinary that she is not as famous as Harriet Quimby, Amy Johnson, Amelia Earhart, Jacquie Cochrane or Nancy Bird-Walton in aviation circles. In fact, she could stand shoulder to shoulder with Chuck Yeager or Neil Armstrong.
She was a towering aviation pioneer and multiple record holder…
first female air combat pilot…
military recon pilot…
founder of medical aviation…
and much more.
It is a glowing resumé, by any measure.
Fiancée of Danger
I am immensely grateful to author Rosalie Maggio for bringing Marie Marvingt’s accomplishments to my attention.
Rosalie has written two biographies of this great sportswoman, aviator and benefactor – the first, Marie Marvingt, La Femme d’un Siècle (1991) in French and her most recent, a completely new work, in English.
Marie Marvingt, Fiancée of Danger, was published in 2019 by MacFarland & Company (ISBN 978-1-4766-7550-3). As evidence of just what a human dynamo Marvingt was for her entire life, the chapters are organised by theme, rather than as a chronological progression.
As Maggio explains in her preface: Marie engaged in …so many disparate domains, often simultaneously, that it would otherwise be difficult to tease out what she actually accomplished in each.
Marie’s remarkable life has been comprehensively researched and wonderfully well retold. If you are looking for a hero and inspiration in aviation, start with hers.
And, on that note, it is a privilege to leave the last word Rosalie Maggio:
Marie Marvingt belongs in the canon of exceptional human beings, in the annals of sports, in any book of “firsts”, in the history of the women’s movement, as a role model in children’s books, and as a name commonly recognized by most people.
Amen to that.
The most important pilot you’ve probably never heard of.
- First to fly a ballon from France to England across the North Sea (in gale conditions)
- Won or placed in many major balloon events of her day.
- Third woman in the world to obtain a pilot’s license
- Set the world’s first aviation records for women
- First female combat pilot, first female bomber pilot
- Served as a reconnaissance pilot
- Balloon, airplane, seaplane. glider and helicopter pilot
- Invented the ambulance-airplane
- Established air-rescue groups and trained personnel
- Gave thousands of conferences around the world promoting air-rescue
- Wrote, directed, starred in two documentaries on air-rescue
- History’s first flight nurse
- Toured the United States twice
- Gave a conference with Amelia Earhart in Chicago
- Her bronze wings can be found in the Flyers’ Chapel at the Mission Inn, in California
- Outshot an entire army division to be honoured as a first-class shot by the French Minister of War
- Fought in the front lines of WWI disguised as a man
- Served as an Alpine trooper in WWI, skiing in provisions, skiing out injured soldiers
- Received a Croix de Guerre avec Palmes for her war work
- Inducted into the Legion d’Honneur
- Decorated Resistance hero of WWII
- Certified nurse and Red Cross Major
- Surgical nurse during wartime
- Invented a new surgical suture
- Placed first in two major canoe races
- Winner of several swimming competitions
- Established swimming for girls in high schools
- Opened the first civilian ski school in France
- First Frenchwoman to swim the length of the Seine through Paris
- Completed the 1908 Tour de France
- Won 20 first prizes at Chamonix in winter sports
- First woman to win the Léon Auscher Cup
- International bobsled championship
- Ranked #5 internationally as a mountain climber
- First to reach the summit of several Alpine peaks
- Awarded a Gold Medal from the French Academy of Sports for being expert at all sports (the only person ever to be so honoured)
- Spent years in North Africa, forming air-rescue groups and giving conferences
- Accompanied French, Italian, and Spanish troops as war correspondent in North Africa
- Taught health and hygiene to indigenous peoples
- First white woman to cross the Sahara, driving a six-wheeled Fiat
- Invented metal skis for in the sand dunes of North Africa
- Established a skiing school in North Africa
- Journalist for 50 years, submitting stories on sports, aviation, aeronautics, celebrities
- Either invented or, at the least, hugely popularised, culottes
For the complete story, read Marie Marvingt, Fiancée of Danger (Rosalie Maggio, McFarland Publishing, 2019, ISBN 978-1-4766-7550-3).