In the pioneering age of aviation, a handful of men rich and brave enough to take to the air set out armed with a cigarette, a smile and a jaunty white scarf. With a cheery “Chocks away”, their place in history was assured. But largely forgotten is the tale of another crack aviator who took to the skies and beat the “flyboys” at their own game.
The trailblazing Mary, Lady Heath, was, in the roaring Twenties, the first woman in Britain to gain a commercial pilot's licence, the first woman to parachute from a plane and the first pilot, male or female, to fly a light aircraft from South Africa to the UK. This weekend, another female pilot set out from Cape Town to Goodwood in Sussex to recreate Lady Heath's remarkable journey in 1928.
"It's a little bit bigger and more stable than the one Lady Heath flew but very much in the spirit – all stick and rudder stuff," Tracey Curtis-Taylor said of her vintage Boeing Stearman biplane. The 51-year-old is no stranger to long-haul travel. Although born in the UK, she spent her early childhood in Canada before moving to New Zealand in her twenties. It was here she began to fly, gaining a private licence and going on to acquire a commercial licence and instructor rating.
Ms Curtis-Taylor took off from Cape Town yesterday. Her plane, Spirit of Artemis, has a top speed of 95mph, a maximum altitude of 10,000ft, and can fly for only 450 miles at a time. While a modern jet would make the journey in a little over 12 hours, it will take Ms Curtis-Taylor six weeks and 32 stopovers.
Her route will follow Lady Heath's, taking her over a number of countries experiencing political unrest, from Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania, through Kenya, Uganda and Sudan to Egypt, Libya and Tunisia before turning for Sicily and arriving in the UK. She will cover around 7,000 miles.
Unlike her predecessor, Ms Curtis-Taylor said she has "basic GPS equipment on board, so [has] some navigational help... Lady Heath was using pages torn from an atlas."
The journey is being touted as a boost for Britain. Maria Miller, the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, said: "The groundbreaking achievements of Lady Heath deserve recognition. I hope everyone who watches as [Curtis-Taylor] retraces the route will be inspired to visit the country that she comes from."