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Lilly Steinschneider, Hungary's first female pilot

Conquering the skies in 1912

Lilly Steinschneider wearing a pilot costume, she is holding her eye protecting goggles and her pilot cap in her right hand
Ildikó Szerényi (opens in new window) (National Archives of Hungary)

Lilly Steinschneider was born in Budapest in 1891, in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. She had a comfortable life, the daughter of a well-to-do horsehair-weaving factory owner of Jewish origin.

Her affection for motor sports showed early in her childhood. She strongly believed that one day humans would know how to fly. Louis Blériot, the French aviator who first flew across the English Channel, visited Budapest in 1909. His flight over the Hungarian capital had a great impact on Lilly’s imagination. When she could see with her own eyes that aviation is possible, she immediately decided: she would be a pilot at all costs.

black and white photogrpah - Lilly Steinschneider wearing a pilot costume, holding her eye protecting goggles and her pilot cap in her right hand

This emancipated and daring young girl chose a kind of sport that was considered to be the privilege of men. Flying demanded abilities that could primarily be associated with masculine characteristics: endurance, bravery and technical knowledge. The early airplanes of the 20th century were open structures - pilots often had to fight extreme weather conditions. Flying was one of the most dangerous sports, where accidents often resulted in death.

black and white photograph of a crashed vintage plane

Yet Lilly proved fearless. She followed a step-by-step principle and aimed for obtaining a driving license first. To achieve this goal, the young woman needed 200 crowns and she did not hesitate to pawn some of her jewellery. She visited car repair shops in Budapest to study engines. After six weeks of practice, in 1911, she held her driving license in her hand. She was only 20 years old. Most likely she became the first female driver in Hungary. According to the newspapers, it was a great surprise for her parents when their daughter sat in the driver’s seat in the family automobile!

black and white photograph of a vintage plane
black and white photograph of a group of men standing by an early airplane

To learn to fly she travelled to Wiener Neustadt, where the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy operated a famous pilot school. In the beginning, she could receive parental financial support as she stayed in Lower Austria under the supervision of a French lady companion. Later she took a job, but still struggled with financial difficulties, since aviation was a particularly expensive sport.

Lilly learned to fly on an Etrich Taube monoplane designed by Igo Etrich Austrian aircraft developer and flight pioneer.

colour photograph of a wooden vintage airplane
black and white photograph of a number of people standing at an airfield with outline of an airplane in the foreground

At first, she became acquainted with flying as a passenger. Newspapers regularly reported about her ground-flights (when apprentices learned how to control airplanes before flying in the air) and later about her flight in the air. She took her pilot exam in August 1912. To celebrate this occasion, an expensive and special piece of jewellery - an airplane-shaped brooch - was designed for her.

black and white photograph of a jewelled brooch in shape of a plane with a ribbon attachment

Immediately she became famous as the first female Hungarian pilot. Many people were fascinated by the young lady’s aviation skills and bravery. She received numerous congratulatory letters and postcards from Hungary and from abroad as well. Her first public flight was in October 1912 in the Hungarian town Nagyvárad (today in Romania). After landing, two thousand people cheered her enthusiastically and her admirers brought her on their shoulders. She also participated in the International Flying Week in Aspern in 1913. Among the 24 aviators there were only two women, Lilly and Jeanne Pallier from France.

During this contest she was forced to make an emergency landing due to a motor failure. The plane crashed but she escaped the accident unscathed. On the final day of the Flying Week, the French acrobat pilots Maurice Chevillard and Roland Garros made an aerobatic show. Chevillard flew with Lilly on board. We know from Lilly’s memoirs that he turned the plane upside-down so that she suddenly felt the blood in her head as she was hanging on the seat belt at the height of 1000 metres.

Lilly’s dream to fly in front of an audience in her hometown Budapest came true in 1913. The Hungarian Aero Club organised the 'Aviation Day of Saint Stephen' on August 20 . This exceeded her expectations: she completed the required 2500-metre lap in 1 minute 27 secs and, with this, she won the speed contest. Altogether six different types of race were organised. Lilly came second in the overall qualification, with Viktor Wittmann the winner.

black and white photograph of a vintage airplane on the ground, with two people standing nearby

The outbreak of World War I ended civilian aviation, as well as Lilly’s short but all-the-more-valuable pilot career (1912-1914).

Despite difficulties arising from the different social status and the minority of the groom, Lilly married the love of her life, Count Johannes Coudenhove-Kalergi of Ronspergheim, the son of an Austrian diplomat and his Japanese born wife, Mitsuko Aoyama. With this marriage, Lilly became the sister-in-law of Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, the founder of the Pan-European movement. Since Lilly dreaded the thought of being away from her beloved husband, she followed him to the Eastern front, where she served as a nurse and cared for typhoid patients.

After the war, the couple settled in the Coudenhove-Kalergi family estate in Ronsperg (in Czech Pobezovice), in Bohemia. Longing for a child replaced aviation in Lilly’s mind, and finally, in 1927, her daughter was born by caesarean section.

During World War II, Lilly had to flee because of her Jewish origin and spent some years in Italy together with her daughter in modest material conditions, falling from one illness to another. Separated from her husband, the once happy marriage was broken and ended in divorce. After the war, Lilly moved to Southern France and lived a solitary life.

Lilly Steinschneider - once the owner of the fourth pilot licence of the Hungarian Aero Association, one of the first woman pilots of Europe, who had made a lasting impression during her short sport career - died in her 80s in Geneva in 1975.

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