Marie Marvingt: Aviator, air ambulance visionary, world-class athlete, nurse, journalist, inventor... She dared to dream, dared to conquer.

by Jess Clackum

                           Marie Marvingt, 1912

                           Marie Marvingt, 1912

Marie Marvingt, known as "Daredevil Marie" and "Fiancée of Danger" was born in 1875 in Aurillac, France. An exceptional athlete from a very young age, Marvingt competed in a variety of sports including water polo, speed skating, luge, boxing, martial arts, fencing, shooting, hockey, football and mountaineering.

Marvingt swam the length of the Seine River, won an international military shooting competition and was a skilled mountaineer. Between 1903 and 1910 she scaled most of the peaks in the French and Swiss Alps including Grands Charmoz and Aiguille du Grépon in one day. When she was refused the opportunity to participate in the Tour de France because it was a men’s sport, Marvingt completed the course on her own—a feat accomplished by only 1/3 of the men who had participated in the race.

In March of 1910, the French Academie des Sports awarded Marie a Gold Medal for all sports, the only one the Academy has ever awarded.

Marie Marvingt climbing the Alps, 1913. (Photo credit Bibliothèque nationale de France Photographie de presse de)

Marie Marvingt climbing the Alps, 1913. (Photo credit Bibliothèque nationale de France Photographie de presse de)

With an interest in aviation, Marie began flying hot air balloons, becoming the first person to pilot a balloon from France to England across the North Sea in 1909. She received her pilot’s license in 1910 and became the second woman in France and only third woman in the world to be licensed to fly a fixed-wing aircraft.

When WWI broke out, Marvingt wanted to do her part so she disguised herself as a man and fought in the infantry until she was discovered and sent home. She returned to service as a Red Cross Nurse and eventually allowed the opportunity to fly aerial combat missions, becoming the first woman to do so. For her bravery she received the Croix de Guerre.

Marvingt in Military Uniform, WWI

Marvingt in Military Uniform, WWI

Between wars, Marvingt worked as a war correspondent and medical officer with French Forces in North Africa. While in Morocco, she invented metal skis with the idea they should be used on airplanes landing on sand.

Years after inventing metal skis, Marie Marvingt poses with her invention.

Years after inventing metal skis, Marie Marvingt poses with her invention.

Long before WWI, Marie had envisioned using airplanes as ambulances in the air. She was one of the most influential and effective advocates for the cause. She even designed an aircraft for such a purpose, though it was never built.  She worked with a number of doctors who shared her vision of an air ambulance and throughout her life, worked tirelessly to promote the cause. She helped organize the first International Congress on Medical Aviation and co-founded the Friends of Aviation Medicine and lectured on behalf of the air ambulance, even creating a service in Morocco and created training courses for aerial nurses. Over the years she gave more than 6,000 conferences and seminars in at least four continents on the subject of aeromedical evacuation. In the last few years of her life she was awarded the Federation National d’Aeronautique at the Sorbonne for her work in aviation medicine.

Marie's proposed air ambulance as drawn by artist Emile Friant

Marie's proposed air ambulance as drawn by artist Emile Friant

At the time of her death at the age of 88 in December 1963,  Marie Marvingt was the most decorated woman in the history of France, having been awarded more than 34 medals and decorations.  In 2004, the French postal service issued a stamp in her honor. The French Aviation and Space Medicine Society (SOFRAMAS) and the US Aerospace Medical Association created an award for “excellence and innovation in aerospace medicine” with the first award given in 2005.   In 2007, Marvingt was inducted into the Women in Aviation International Hall Pioneer Hall of Fame.

It is said that the list of Marie Marvingt’s accomplishments, awards and activities, if listed on paper, would take up six pages, single-spaced. She was an exceptional woman whose courage and determination knew no limits. FlyGirls salutes her not only for her contributions to aviation but for her relentless pursuit of equality for women. Through her experiences, Marvingt proved women could complete and succeed in male-dominated fields, in a male-dominated world.

She dared us all to dream…and to conquer.

French pilot Marie Marvingt arriving in Washington, where she was invited by the American Legion photo credit the Times UK

French pilot Marie Marvingt arriving in Washington, where she was invited by the American Legion photo credit the Times UK

THE INTOXICATION OF FLIGHT

by Marie Marvingt

featured in Collier's Magazine, 30 September 1911

     Though only a novice in aviation, I have already many recollections of aerial impressions and emotions. But it is difficult to compare them with another. One evening, when the weather was very calm, at the time when I was Latham’s pupil at Mourmelon, I was initiated into the rolling and pitching of an aeroplane at one and the same time. I had my first experience of a current. On alighting, Latham told me that he had never before been shaken in so violent a fashion, We had the impression of being hurled upon an invisible rock. Another day, with poor Wachter when flying at a height of 30 meters, we narrowly escaped a collision with a biplane, just grazing it. I had the feeling that a catastrophe was imminent, At a few meters distance from us the biplane turned upside down, without its pilots sustaining any injury, while we pursued our flight. Having been through numerous incidents when flying with my instructors, I was much less surprised when I experienced them while on board alone.

     On October 1, 1910, in the evening, I made one of my finest flights. I flew alone for the first time in a wind that was fairly strong, with violent currents. On the morning that I won my pilot's certificate, during the second test, a biplane flew off 60 meters from me. I left the course in order to avoid its wake and rose to a height of 80 meters. But for nearly the whole circuit of the course I failed to distinguish it. I called to mind, during those moments, the catastrophe that befell Dickson Thomas. My companions told me afterwards that we were at one moment within 20 meters of one another. With the new sloping wing, this inconvenience will no longer exist.

     But I find that I am speaking to you of several flights without having yet notified you which was the most stirring. It was beyond all dispute the first that I made alone in my Antoinette, on the 4th of September 1910. For a long time past I had had complete control of the machine with my last teacher, Laffont. I had as much confidence as a learner can have. But, in spite of that, I felt a very unusual and strange sensation. There was a little wind, and I at once rose to a height of 60 meters. The monoplane climbed far better than the one I usually rode in. The first turn caused me real uneasiness, which, at the second, was turned into joy unalloyed. I was rather nervous about coming to earth, but my landing was quite normal. It was done: I had flown.

      This new sport is comparable to no other. It is, in my opinion, one of the most intoxicating forms of sport, and will, I am sure, become one of the most popular. Many of us will perish before then, but that prospect will not dismay the braver spirits. In devoting themselves to the new cause, those who have the true aviator's soul will find in their struggle with the atmosphere a rich compensation for the risks they face.

     It is so delicious to fly like a bird! "