Hélène Dutrieu, whose skills and accomplishments involved several modes of transportation, was born in the municipality of Tournai in Belgium. By the time she was only 15, she had already established herself as a professional track cyclist. One of Dutrieu’s biggest achievements in this role took place in 1893 when she set a new women’s world record for distance cycled in an hour. In both 1896 and 1897, she won the women’s speed track cycling world championship in the Belgian city of Ostend.
Other major cycling events that Dutrieu won included the Course de 12 Jours (12-day race) in London in 1896 and the Grand Prix of Europe in 1898. Her cycling successes led King Leopold II of Belgium to award her the prestigious Cross of St André with diamonds. By the early 20th century, Dutrieu was using her cycling skills to perform in variety shows in Paris, London, Berlin, and other major European cities. Over time, she started performing those stunts with motorcycles as well.
Dutrieu’s interests eventually shifted to aviation. In 1910, she learned how to fly using a Santos-Dumont Demoiselle monoplane. That same year, she became one of the first women – if not the first – to fly a plane with a passenger on board. She also made history as only the fourth woman in the world, and the first Belgian woman, to become a licensed pilot when she received license #27 from the Aero Club of Belgium towards the end of 1910. At around the same time, Dutrieu achieved yet another distinction when she became the first female pilot to remain airborne for more than an hour.
Dutrieu became a regular at air shows, earning the nickname “Lady Hawk” and causing a scandal when it was reported that she didn’t wear a corset while flying. In 1911, she beat 14 male pilots to win the King’s Cup in a competition in Florence, Italy. The following year, Dutrieu became one of the first women to fly a seaplane. In 1913, she became the first female pilot to be awarded membership in the French Legion of Honor.
During World War I, Dutrieu distinguished herself with yet another means of mobility when she served as an ambulance driver for wounded Allied Powers troops on the front lines. Dutrieu, who was awarded the French Medal for Aeronautics in 1953, died in 1961 at the age of 83.