A girl, just seven years old, has but one dream: to fly! As she is living on the second floor, she concludes that she can easily fulfill this dream. So she takes an umbrella and jumps from the balcony with the open umbrella by way of a parachute. Of course, this cannot end well, as she is no Mary Poppins. Instead of taking off, she crashes and breaks both legs. Nine years later she has a second try, now with a better result. This is the story of Maria Josep Colomer i Luque, better known as Mari Pepa Colomer (1913-2004).
The young Mari Pepa
As a young girl she already has a very strong bond with her father Josep, a liberal and bohemian textile industrialist, who is a personal friend of Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí, among others, and linked to the famous café Els Quatre Gats in Barcelona. He sees to it that she can study at the ‘Institut de Cultura i Biblioteca Popular de la Dona‘, a modern and innovative institute in Catalonia’s capital founded in 1909 by Francesca Bonnemaison aiming to give working class women the opportunity of enjoying a good training and learning a trade, so that they could earn their own living.
And then, when Mari Pepa is 17 years old, some friends take her to the Canudas airfield near El Prat de Llobregat (later turned into the Josep Tarradellas Barcelona-El Prat Airport). In those days you could take a tour in a light aircraft paying five pessetes, a small sum. As she finds aircrafts hugely interesting, she does not let slip by this chance. Afterwards she is so impressed by the feeling of being able to fly and see the city of Barcelona from above, that as soon as she touches the ground again she asks the pilot what she should do in order to learn to fly an aircraft herself. Easier said than done.
In those days women were brought up with a view to the role of housewife and mother. Furthermore a course of 20 hours would cost about 4.000 pessetes, in other words: a fortune. But Mari Pepa is intent on her wish to fly and eager to break conventions. So once again she turns to her ally, her father. He promises to finance part of her studies (later she would use her grandmother’s inheritance to pay the rest) and together they try to convince Mr Canudas, the highest authority of the airfield, to accept her as a student. As she is the first women to pursue the career of pilot, it is a rather complicated matter, but in May 1930 Mari Pepa finally enters the ‘Escola d’Aviació Barcelona’.
Less than a year later she passes the exam eagerly watched by the assembled press and municipal authorities. With only 17 years she is granted the official title of pilot, converting her into the first Catalan (and Spanish) airwoman and a symbol of female empowerment in a sector that till then was reserved for men. This feat causes a huge social impact. The next day the newspaper ‘La Vanguardia‘ dedicates a spectacular front page to her achievement, illustrated with a smiling Mari Pepa in front of an aircraft. Only then her mother, who still thought she was studying at the institute like a good girl, discovers what she has been up to.
But Mari Pepa is still not satisfeid. She is dying to become a commercial pilot who can take passagers on board, but in this case a special licence is required. At least 60 flight hours are considered obligatory before she can qualify as such. Every week she trains hard and methodically at the Aeròdrom Canudas. During her first instructions, she has struck friendship up with a number of pilots and mechanics, especially the emblematic mechanic Llorenç Fornés. They assist her to make the required amount of hours by offering her to testfly serviced airplanes.
Furthermore the Sunday morning maiden flights are very popular. In those early days people were eager to experience the sensation of stepping into one of these machines and take to the air. Gladly Mari Pepa volunteers, as each flight brings her closer to her coveted title. So gradually she accumulates the required amount of hours and in September 1933 she can take her final exam that includes a night landing on the airfield of Sabadell. It is pitch dark, no visibility, but some friends help her to correctly approach the airstrip lighting the headlamps of their cars. She gets her title and two years later even becomes a flying instructor.
Slowly odd little jobs start coming in. Now and then Mari Pepa is hired to throw out brochures above the beaches or to transport merchandise. Another opportunity to fly presents itself thanks to the belief at that time that a cure of whooping cough is to be found in the pure air that the patient can breathe at a height of 2.000 metres; of course, only children of well-to-do families could afford such a trip. She even flies and lands a Zeppelin. In order to demonstrate that women pilots have the same qualities as men she takes part in aeronautic festivals, shows and competitions. In this way Mari Pepa builds a reputation as a flier and becomes a celebrity.
Spanish Civil War
Just when Mari Pepa and other pilots have founded the first Aeronautic Cooperative and Catalan Aviation School Civil War breaks out and all of them are mobilized. Most of the pilots find themselves in that part of Spain that is occupied by the Nationalists which causes a shortage of well prepared pilots on the Republican side. This produces one of the contradictions in wartime. Basically women could not be part of the army, but in the light of this urgent situation a rather bizarre solution is found. The Generalitat (Catalan government) appoints Mari Pepa army official without a rank, a kind of honorific member, and she makes her first military flight on 2 August 1936.
Although she finally never has to fight on the front, her job in the rearguard is manifold. She has to drop anti-fascist leaflets over Barcelona and carry out coast patrols looking for enemy boats and planes as well as do liaison missions flying to the front and test flights throwing bombs. Another important part of her work is the transport of wounded soldiers from the Aragon front to Barcelona, a dangerous affair as she has to make low passes with her ‘De Havilland DH-84 Dragon‘. Moreover, she flies to France taking people who fear for their lives and as a result thereof decide to go into exile. At some point she performs three flights a day.
As she was qualified as an instructor, Mari Pepa also trains some seventy pilots who were incorporated into the army of the Spanish Republic and later had to finish their training elsewhere, for example in Russia. A rather complicated task, as the army only disposed of small obsolete and worn out planes, while the pilots later had to fly fighter-bombers. Towards the end of the war this aspect of Mari Pepa’s work catches the attention of nationalist authorities and generals who mock her contemptuously. She realizes that she may not be safe after the likely victory of the nationalists and decides to escape to France.
Exile and Second World War
Thanks to her profession she is able to cross the border by air and travels to Toulouse with the intention to join her father who lives in Uruguay. But she changes her plan and marries Josep Maria Carreras i Dexeus, one of her flight instructors. Together they go to England where Josep is immediately employed as the private pilot of Lord Baeverbrook, one of Churchill’s ministers. And then they find themselves in another war. Josep joins the Royal Air Force, but Mari Pepa never practices her profession again: ‘The war has shattered all my dreams.’ One night during a Nazi bombing she gives birth to twins and from then on she fully dedicates herself to motherhood.
Nevertheless, she does not become a traditional and conventional woman, but remains an active and sport-loving person. Her passion for flying and planes also remains intact, during and after the war. Her friends know all about it and sometimes surprise her on her birthday or other special occasions with a free hour of flying in the newest planes. It is told that the moment she occupies her seat and takes off, a big smile appears on her face.
After the death of dictator France she travels to Catalonia more than once, but never to stay, because her friends were dead or had also moved to another part of the world. She loves to travel and visits faraway countries like Zimbabwe up till her death on 24 May 2004 at the age of 91. According to her wishes, her ashes are brought to Catalonia, to the cemetery of Reus where she joins family members and friends.
Recently Betsabé Garcia has published with Ara Llibres the book L’aventura de volar (The Flying Adventure) reconstructing Mari Pepa’s life, based on interviews, extensive documentation and her own research.