Daredevil Pilot Jacqueline Auriol, RIP

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:52

    Auriol climbed to nearly 40,000 feet, put her plane into a dive until it exceeded 662.5 mph (Mach I, the sound barrier) and boomed perfectly, then repeated the maneuver. Back at 35,000 feet, she initiated her last dive. Clutching a stopwatch in a room at the test center, Raymond Guillaume?Auriol's former instructor and colleague of several years?monitored her progress, expecting her, as was her custom, to radio she'd achieved Mach I between 60 and 90 seconds after her dive began. Just shy of two minutes, Guillaume still had received no message from Auriol, who would crash in seconds if the Mystère was, in fact, hurtling toward the ground.

    Finally, Guillaume heard, "I can't hold the plane anymore." Then silence. In the cockpit, Auriol's mask, with its built-in mic, had become disconnected, and she lost consciousness for a few seconds as her plane tumbled in a spiral, the result of a stabilizer breakdown. When she revived, she reattached her mask and radioed, "I'm in a tailspin." At that moment, with the ground rushing toward her, Auriol recalled a chance conversation she'd had a week earlier with a fellow pilot, who was testing the Mystère IV. He'd told her, "When you get into a tailspin in this plane, what you have to do is so contrary to approved procedure that you really have to kick yourself in the backside to make yourself do it." And so, quite calmly, she executed his unorthodox instructions, righting the jet only yards above a small village. "Made it!" she assured Guillaume. "I've pulled out!"

    Seven years earlier, in July 1949, she'd crashed, with three others, including Guillaume, in the Seine, while a passenger in a small amphibian prototype. All survived, but Auriol suffered extensive injuries: three skull fractures, broken ribs, broken arm and a face virtually obliterated upon impact?no teeth, no nose, no chin, no cheekbones, eyes pushed back into her head. As the daughter-in-law of Vincent Auriol, then president of France (1947-1953), she received the best care, and yet her face resisted healing. Outfitted in a helmet-like device and wrapped in bandages?she describes herself as "a kind of living mummy" in her 1968 autobiography Vivre pour Voler (translated into English in 1970 as I Live to Fly)?she underwent more than two dozen operations to rebuild her face. "I had a face," she writes, "but whose? It is a face that is human again, but so different from what it was that I have never grown completely used to it."

    Born Jacqueline Douet to a well-to-do timber-importer father on Nov. 5, 1917, in Challans, near the Atlantic coast in western France, she studied art at L'École du Louvre and Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1936 she met Paul Auriol, a political science student and son of a Socialist Party luminary, and they married in February 1938. While Paul served in the Resistance during World War II, Jacqueline and her two infant sons, using aliases, led a peripatetic existence. Lithe and petite, with fine facial features, Auriol easily adapted to life at the Elysée Palace after her father-in-law became president in January 1947. Shortly thereafter she took some flying lessons, eventually obtaining her private pilot's license in March 1948.

    Aviation came naturally to Auriol, who had acquired a fondness for speed while racing cars and skiing. She learned rapidly, studying aerobatics with Guillaume ("I felt that the plane, the air and myself were as one," she writes), but then came the July 1949 crash. By 1950, though still badly disfigured, she'd resumed flying, and in January 1951, while convalescing after an operation in New York, she earned a helicopter pilot's license in Buffalo. Around this time she determined that she wanted to pursue a career as a professional pilot; to win the approval of the staff at the Flight Test Centre at Brétigny, where she hoped to be accepted, she sought to establish a new world speed record for women, then held by the American aviatrix Jacqueline Cochran.

    On May 11, 1951, Auriol climbed into a Brit-made Vampire jet, and, over a 100-kilometer (63-mile) French course posted an average speed of 510 mph, eclipsing Cochran's 1947 mark of 441 mph. Thus began a decade-plus-long to-and-fro tussle, what the press billed as "the war of the two Jacquelines." In May 1953, Cochran, in a Sabre, bumps up the record to 590 mph; May 1955, Auriol takes it back in a Mystère IV at 719 mph; October 1961, Cochran again, at 784 mph; June 1962, Auriol at 1150 mph; Cochran, May 1963, 1204 mph; Auriol, June 1963, 1267 mph; and, finally, Cochran, flying a Lockheed F.104 G, 1303 mph, in June 1964.

    Auriol's 1951 world speed record earned her a spot as a staff pilot at Brétigny, where, in 1954, she qualified as a test pilot, ultimately flying close to 100 different new planes for commercial manufacturers and the military. She broke the sound barrier for the first time on Aug. 15, 1953, and on three occasions?in 1952, 1953 and 1956?won the Harmon Trophy, awarded by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower for the previous year's foremost aviation achievement. Auriol's love of flying remained vibrant long after her retirement as an active test pilot in the early 70s, palpable up until her death at her home in Paris on Feb. 11 at age 82. "Flying itself is always a miracle," she notes in her book, "an extraordinary joy that is never diminished. It is so beautiful."

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