She died amongst indifference and her name isn’t in any French dictionary. Possibly because she was better than the men, in advance of her time… In any case, it is a great injustice. Why doesn’t the name of Adrienne Bolland figure prominently on the list of heroic aviators? Magic has nothing to do with it, even if it is thanks to a magical operation that she raised herself one day to the rank of the greats like Mermoz, Bleriot, Costes and Bellonte…
For this elegant young woman, a pioneer of aviation, was at the commands of the first aeroplane to fly over the Andes cordillera. By the route, fatal before her achievement, which goes from Argentina to Santiago in Chile.
Five people before her had attempted the feat. Experienced men, resistant to fatigue and cold, in “birds” much better “tuned” than hers. None of them ever came back…
On paper, the challenge is simple: given that the aeroplanes cannot climb, in the 1920’s, to the 5 to 6,000 metres of altitude where the Andean peaks culminate, it is impossible to open the route which makes all pilots dream: Mendoza-Santiago. Unless a corridor can be found in the terrifying rocky wall, several hundreds of kilometres wide. And how did this young aviatrix find the opening in the Andean chain which allowed her to pass through the obstacle, and break its fatality, in 1921?
Adrienne Bolland, herself, tells us this story of a woman…
In 1921, I was a pilot with Caudron and I was starting to perform at air meetings. One day, I learned through a friend that there was a dead man’s place available in South America. He told me that another pilot had just crashed in the cordillera.
I was always a bit frightened in aeroplanes. I told myself that getting a real fright might be a way of vanquishing this fear permanently.
Therefore, I went to see Monsieur Caudron and told him that I wanted to go to Argentina… Instead of screeching at me, as I thought he would, he simply said:
“Well, if you really want to… We’ll take care of it…”
In fact, I think he was happy to see me go down there for a bit… He was so tired of me and my excentricities… But, in his head, it was only a question of little trips over the Pampa, to promote the Caudron aeroplanes.
So there I was in Buenos Aires, having arrived by boat, with my little G 3 in the hold. On the quay, there was an impressive crowd and a lot of journalists. We drank quite a lot of champagne and I don’t really know what I told them. However, the next day, all the press announces:
“Adrienne Bolland in Argentina to cross the Andes cordillera.”
I admit that I was a bit embarrassed…
Caudron had given me a 1.85 metre mechanic called Duperrier, who took this business seriously. He told me, over the morning coffee, that he hadn’t come to America to be laughed at, and that I had to make up my mind that same day.
I immediately telegraphed Caudron who had promised me a better aeroplane. His response arrived during the day:
“Impossible send another aeroplane. Make decision attempt yourself.”
Boom!… There could be no question of backing out… Right!… my little Adrienne, I told myself, when you’ve got to go…!
I must say that no-one in this story encouraged me. Especially locally. Every five minutes, all the French in Argentina were calling me on the telephone to tell me that I was going to crash, that I was crazy and that I was going to seriously damage France’s reputation…
As soon as my decision had been taken, I locked myself up in the Majestic, where I was staying, and forbade anyone to come into my room or telephone me. I needed to concentrate… and to reflect lengthily on the best itinerary.
Rather than take the Southern passage or the Northern one, I decided to attempt the direct path which led from Mendoza through Uspallata, where that enormous statue of Christ dominates the whole Andean countryside, then Las Cuevas and finally Santiago.
My little bird had already been sent to Mendoza by rail and I was packing my bag when someone knocked on my door. Until then, my orders had been well respected and for that reason, I said “Enter!” thinking that it was the chambermaid…
I saw a frail little woman I didn’t know, who greeted me in French. I told her that I’d already heard it all. I was sure that she was going to remind me that I didn’t have any chance of succeeding!
The unknown woman remained standing, in silence, rather nervous, if I remember correctly, in any case incredibly timid… She said to me in hesitant French that she was originally from Brittany and that she worked in a factory. I don’t know why, but I really wanted her to stay then, and I told her:
“Let me be clear. I am going to light a cigarette, and for the time that it takes to smoke it, I’ll listen to you, and afterwards you must promise me you’ll go away!…”
With fixed eyes, stammering a bit, in very approximative French, she began to recount an unbelievable story… I mean, she told me in advance all about the trip that I was going to make, in its slightest details… Exactly as if she had already done this raid five or six times, sitting in the back, with all the time in the world for taking notes…
“At one moment you will be at the bottom of a valley which turns to the right. There, you will see a lake. You will easily recognize it: it has the shape and colour of an oyster. Impossible to make a mistake. You will want to turn to the right. You mustn’t. The mountains are higher than you can climb…”
I said to myself: What on earth can she know about it? And to her: “I see that you’ve already been in the Andes.”. She replied: “Never!”.
To be continued.