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  • Writer's pictureFrank DiGiovanni

Wright-ing a wrong

We find inspiration everywhere and at the most random times and this time it came thanks to the PBS show Antiques Roadshow. I was sitting, watching an episode (from Palm Spring, Florida, I think) when someone brought a collection that stopped me in my tracks because I'd never heard of the person associated with it. I'll get into that in a little bit, but first, let's get into the science behind why she* is famous: flight.

*And, no, it's not who you're probably thinking about.

To get something like an airplane off the ground there are four forces that must be accounted for: Thrust, Drag, Gravity and Lift. We must also understand that when we think about air, scientifically speaking, air is a fluid. You also have to know a little bit about Daniel Bernoulli, a Swiss mathematician who came up with a principal: slower moving fluids (air) exert more pressure than faster moving ones and vice-versa. You can demonstrate this to yourself or someone else by taking a sheet of paper, holding it beneath your bottom lip and blowing as hard as you can across the top of the paper. If done successfully, you should have noticed that the paper, which had been hanging limp, suddenly rose up as you blew across it.

The four forces of flight as they relate to the body of a plane and the wing itself. Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By reducing the pressure under the plane, aircraft achieve lift, the upward force that helps planes into the sky. When combined with thrust, from the engine(s), these two forces act together to overcome the force of gravity pulling the plane down and the drag associated with pushing an object through the air and the air simply colliding with the aforementioned object. These collisions cause the plane (or other object) to slow, which is what is known as drag. If the plane's wings are sufficiently designed, to have more air collide with the bottom of the wing, lift will be generated and the plane will fly. The diagrams above help demonstrate these four forces and what is required to successfully fly; you have to have enough thrust to overcome the drag and weight/gravity to get up into the sky.

Now, to introduce you to the reason I wrote this post, Dr. Bessica (Bessie) Raiche. I told you, you probably weren't thinking of this aviatrix (female pilot). You can admit it, you were probably thinking of another famous aviatrix, Amelia Earhart, and that's okay, but that's why I'm writing this: to help shed light on America's FIRST female pilot! Bessie, as she was known, was born Bessica Faith née Medlar in April of 1875 and sadly, her exact date of birth remains unknown to the public at large.

One of the more incredible things about Bessica is that she was what has been dubbed a "proto-feminist". She drove a car, wore bloomers, and, among other things, was a musician, painter, linguist. She even participated in swimming and shooting! Remember these were very different times and these activities might have been seen as "strange" for a woman to participate in, but some barriers should be broken! Around the age of 35, Bessie, as she was more commonly known, married François "Frank" C. Raiche of New Hampshire and they moved to Mineola, New York, which is where the flying comes in. A mere seven years after the Wright brothers' historic flight at Kitty Hawk, Bessie and her husband François started building.

Bessica Raiche, 1910 | US Dept. of Transportation

Through the interaction with the family member who was on Antiques Roadshow, I came to learn that they started building a a Wright-type biplane in their living room before having to remove a wall to get it out and continuing the build in their yard! Being the innovator she was, she and François opted to cover their bamboo flyer with silk instead of the heavier canvas that the Wrights had used.

It is here again, that history is somewhat confused to the exact date of takeoff but between September 16-26, Bessica had her aircraft at Hempstead Plains, NY and would take off into HERstory. Climbing aboard her aircraft, she powered up her plane and took off into the record books! According to her flight only lasted a few minutes and ended in a crash, but Bessica Raiche had become the first American woman to solo pilot an aircraft!, again lends their information to our story.

One local paper described the aftermath this way: "She scrambled to her feet and before any one of the mechanics and others who had witnessed the fall of the biplane could reach her, she had shut off the engine and stopped the propeller. She calmly said she was not injured to those who ran to her aid, and then she directed the men to drag the wrecked plane back to the shed."

Over the following weeks, Bessie would continue to make flights and would garner the attention of the Aeronautical Society, who would later award her a gold-and-diamond medal inscribed "First Woman Aviator of America." There's more to this story of "first-American-woman-to-fly" because Rochester (NY) native Blanche Stuart Scotts had soloed two weeks before Bessie!! But, because she (Blanche) was only practicing her taxing when a strong gust of wind lifted her plane into the sky; the Aeronautical Society refused to admit she (Blanche) had flown, solo first. This was, according to the Aeronautical Society, an accidental flight on Blanche's part.

Bessica Raiche's obituary from the New York Times | Wikimedia Commons

Bessica and her husband would continue to build, creating two more aircraft as part of the French-American Aeroplane Company. Together, they came up with new ideas like using piano wire instead of the iron wire, which was heavier. Innovations also included the use of lighter and lighter materials to decrease the weight. But sadly, it was not to last for Bessie, who would give it (flying) up to pursue her education and become a doctor. François and Bessie would have a daughter, Catherine (1915-1995) and Bessica would AGAIN, be one of the first to do something. She eventually specialized in obstetrics and gynecology in the United States and François would continue in his law practice. Bessica even served as the president of the Orange County Medical Association!

One of the concrete dates we know about Bessica is her date of death, April 11, 1932. It was on that date that she was found dead from an apparent heart attack. She had passed away in her sleep at her home in Newport Beach, California, she was 57 at the time of her passing.

Now you've probably been wondering about that OTHER aviatrix that was very famous, Amelia Earhart. Bessica had beaten her into the sky by almost 17 full years! Take nothing away from what Amelia Earhart did for female flyers, but she wasn't the first, just one of the more famous.

I hope that this introductions rights the wrong that is the collective ignorance that permeates American history about the "firsts" of many things.

If you want to learn more about Bessica, you can check out the National Air and Space Museum's search page about her, here. Start at her Wikipedia page, here or check out any of the other links I've provided throughout this post.

Bessica Raiche, America's FIRST female flyer, pass it on and don't you forget it!

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