Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Flying in the slipstream of Lady Mary Heath

Tracey Curtis-Taylor: Meet the daredevil recreating Lady Mary Heath's historic 1920s flight

I remember first reading about this lady's aeronautical attempt last month during the coverage of the Goodwood Revival and I planned then to make a post out of it but then time moved on, work got in the way and the story was half-forgotten.  Now, with barely a week to go until its hopefully successful conclusion I can finally manage to feature it on here.

Really this is the story of two remarkable women - Mary, Lady Heath (born Sophie Peirce-Evans), a pioneering aviatrix whose name had sadly been lost to obscurity and Tracey Curtis-Taylor, the accomplished modern-day female pilot inspired by her forbear.

Flying through the glass ceiling: Saluting Britain's intrepid female aviators

Lady Mary Heath (or Sophie Peirce-Evans) is a name that by rights should be up there with Amy Johnson, Amelia Earhart and Diana Barnato-Walker in the list of famous women aviators.  The first woman to gain a commercial pilot's licence, the first woman to jump out of an aeroplane by parachute and the first person to fly a light aircraft solo from England to South Africa, a world altitude record-holder of the time - and she's practically unheard of today.  She looks to have been a most fascinating personality, glamorously photographed in fur coats atop the wing of her 'plane or dancing the night away in sumptuous ball gowns even while part-way through her record-breaking Africa flight, where she also took the time to hike around the savannah.  Even putting aside her feats in the air she sounds a remarkable woman - a university graduate, athlete, mechanically-minded and an ambulance driver during the Great War.  She truly was a trailblazer in all walks of life and her early death at only 42 is made only more tragic as a result.

Flying in the slipstream of Lady Mary Heath

Tracey Curtis-Taylor seems every inch the 21st-century incarnation of Lady Mary (and other early aviatrices) and her career before this event is just as remarkable, if still somewhat constrained by what regrettably remains a male-dominated industry even now.  However her role as an air show display pilot - currently at the excellent Shuttleworth Collection in Bedfordshire - and this attempt to recreate Lady Mary's 1928 Cape Town - Goodwood flight is a worthy and thrilling way to honour the memory of this forgotten female flier.

Not only is Ms Curtis-Taylor using a comparable aircraft in her 1942 Boeing Stearman but she has to contend with the same sort of endurance conditions Lady Mary would have faced 85 years ago, including variable weather and complex geopolitical borders.  Her journey looks to be as exciting and challenging as it would have been in 1928 and I have no doubt that she will overcome all obstacles and finish the course, just as Lady Mary did.  Here's to them both, and to Brooklands in a week's time!  (Hopefully I'll be able to post an update).

A Woman In Africa from Nylon Films on Vimeo.

A documentary film of Tracey Curtis-Taylor's extraordinary journey, A Woman In Africa, which will feature glorious African scenery and in-air footage of the flight is scheduled for release next year and if it can bring the name of Lady Mary Heath - and Tracey Curtis-Taylor - into the public consciousness, boost British tourism and show everyone what women in 'planes can do then so much the better!


  1. Lady Mary sounds like a fascinating woman - I bet the documentary will be really interesting.

  2. Mary Heath was 100% Irish, born Knockaderry, Co Limerick

  3. I've always been interested in her, quite a fascinating character.


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