• 29

    Jan

    Rebel on high

    Insufferable on the ground, divine in the air, Adrienne Bolland was the heroine of the Andes, 90 years ago. - Text Marc Branchu

    Adrienne Bolland was arguably the most foul-tempered female pilot on the planet. Born in 1895, the youngest of six children, she had to fight for the attention of her father, guidebook writer Henri Boland. She was known as “the little terror.” In her own words: “No one could change my mind. I kept saying, ‘I won’t give up.’ It served me well in life; I never gave in”—except to the temptations of men, liquor and gambling.

    At the age of 24, Adrienne was deep in gambling debts. A few friends invited her to drown her sorrows; at one point in the evening, she announced, “I want to be a pilot.” Someone at a nearby table told her to try Caudron: “They’ll pay you to fly.” That’s all she needed.

    Born to fly

    Next stop: Le Crotoy and the flying school run by René Caudron, who made airplanes. A typing mistake added a second “l” to her name. Two months after her first flight as a frightened passenger, she earned her pilot’s license. Her teachers all agreed she was a natural, but had a nasty temperament. She was a fighter, slapping and punching anyone who got in her way. She was often grounded for 24 hours at a stretch, a real punishment for this skinny kid who was only happy behind the controls of her Caudron G.3.

    Caudron hired Adrienne, who wanted her own plane: “Perform a loop and you’ll get it,” he told her—which she did. He realized the publicity she could create for his company, and told her to fly across the English Channel. Delighted, she took off and immediately headed to Brussels, where she partied with friends. The next morning, reading the headlines announcing that she was lost at sea, she quipped: “I may have drowned that night, but it certainly wasn’t in water.” She went on to make the Channel crossing. Caudron was relieved to see this troublemaker head to Argentina, where she would make demonstration flights. She was also seeking fame. Her goal: to be the first woman to fly over the Andes Mountains. On paper, it looks like the ideal way to get into the history books; in practice, it is an aviator’s nightmare. The mountainous barrier is more than 400 kilometers wide, with altitudes exceeding 4,200 meters—the highest altitude that Adrienne’s Caudron G.3 could reach. She was promised a more powerful plane, but the weeks were going by.

    The flight of her life

    Her patience was wearing thin, so she decided to go ahead with her plan, despite the flimsy Caudron, the warnings and her lack of experience—she had a grand total of just 40 hours of flight time. The rest was legend. At 6 am on April 1 1921, she headed straight for the dangerous, snow-capped peaks, without any maps or landmarks: “The night before I took off from Mendoza, a mysterious woman came to see me in my hotel. She warned me: ‘Up there, you’ll reach an oyster-shaped lake. And you must turn left, toward the steep mountain face. If you turn right, you’re lost.’” The flight proved the stranger right. Adrienne followed her advice: “Suddenly I saw a break in the mountains … And in the distance, the plain of Chile. I was saved.”

    After an epic flight of 4 hours, 17 minutes, Adrienne landed near Santiago, frozen to the bone, her face pummeled. She had flown without a windshield at 4,250 meters for four hours; the blood vessels in her nose and lips had burst. She was acclaimed as a hero in Chile and Argentina, and called “the goddess of the Andes.” And after? “I said to myself: this is glory? It’s nothing. Glory isn’t worth anything compared to the inner joy of accomplishing something.”

    Sabotage

    Back home, the reception was glacial, her flight barely mentioned. She was furious with Caudron, who fired her in 1923 under pressure from his jealous new wife. Rivalry was a constant in her life. People loved her or hated her. In 1933, she miraculously escaped unharmed from an accident. The investigation ruled it a sabotage. But why? Professional rivalry? Sexist jealousy? Political intrigue? Early on, Adrienne started working for progressive causes. With Ernest Vinchon, whom she married in 1930, she supported the suffragettes, including Louise Weiss; the Spanish Republicans starting in 1936; then resistant fighters during the war. Age did nothing to blunt her convictions or straight talk. During the 50th anniversary of “her” Andes flight, marked in 1971, she confided to a journalist: “Ultimately, it doesn’t interest me. I’m much more interested in what’s happening now than 50 years ago.” Strong-willed and combative, she seemed eternal. She died in 1975, just days after the year was declared International Women’s Year.

    Caudron G.3

    The champion of the Andes was an observation aircraft designed just before World War I. It was popular postwar for acrobatic flying and flight training.

    Wing span 13.40 m. Length 6.40 m. Height 2.70 m. Wing area 27 m2. Takeoff weight 778 kg. Maximum speed 115 kmh. Service ceiling 4,200 meters. Engine 80 hp rotary Gnôme engine.