Saturday 24 October 2015

Constance Leathart: The forgotten 'aviatrix' of WW2


Constance Leathart: The forgotten 'aviatrix' of WW2

This month's post focuses on the the fascinating B.B.C. article (linked above) regarding one of Britain's most obscure and long-forgotten aviatrices - Constance Leathart.

The Beeb has gone into some detail about this remarkable lady in their article for the regional Inside Out programme, so I do not intend to repeat all of it again here.  Suffice to say it appears that Miss Leathart was every inch a most indomitable woman, at a time when women needed such spiritedness in order to break into the male-dominated world of early aviation.

Her appearance in the majority of the surviving photographs of her shows this plainly; usually sporting a short side-parted haircut and often wearing shirt, tie and tweeds she could easily pass for a man.  This allowed her to embark on many fantastic-sounding aviation adventures, from air races to long distance flights (not to mention repairing aeroplanes on the side!), culminating in being one of the first women to sign up for the Air Transport Auxiliary during World War Two.  Even then her adventurousness continued unabated - as it would if you were able to fly myriad military aircraft, particularly the Spitfire!


Behind the exciting lifestyle and the overturning of gender stereotypes, though, seems to me to be a very sad portrait of a lonely outsider.  Leathart herself admits to dressing in the masculine style in order to try to please her father, who had wanted a boy child.  To see her self-deprecating notes on her own photographs is heartrending; her exclusion from most ATA publicity shots on the grounds of her not being of the "pin-up" style is equally saddening (and in the photo featured in the accompanying article of Miss Leathart standing with the rest of the ATA women one can even sense there a difference and an element of exclusion - whether on Leathart's part or not we may never know).

Her spirit of adventure still not sated, following her war service she became a UN Special Representative to the Greek island of Icaria - helping to provide food and medical supplies by air.  She eventually had to give up flying in 1958 and retired to a farmhouse in her native North-East, where she spent her time caring for rescued donkeys.  She never married and, when she passed away in 1993, in a final display of tragic seclusiveness requested to be buried in an unmarked grave (thankfully her friends disregarded this and marked her resting place with a stone from her outside swimming pool).

Although it's splendid to see Constance Leathart's life be recognised, I do feel she (and the other aviatrices of her time) are worthy of whole programmes to themselves.  Hopefully one day we shall see even greater recognition of these pioneering female pilots.


Tracey Curtis-Taylor to recreate Amy Johnson's flight from Britain to Australia 

On a related note I'm thrilled and delighted to see that modern-day aviatrix Tracey Curtis-Taylor, who presented the B.B.C. report on Miss Leathart (and whose recreation of Lady Mary Heath's 1928 Cape Town-Goodwood flight I blogged about two years ago) is currently recreating Amy Johnson's epic 1930 flight from England to Australia.  By now somewhere over the Middle East and on her way to India, Ms Curtis-Taylor aims to land her vintage 1942 Boeing Stearman biplane in Sydney some time early in 2016, before shipping the aircraft to the west coast of the USA to continue across that continent and so make it a genuine round-the-world trip!

I heartily commend Ms Curtis-Taylor for striving to keep the memory of these early aviatrices alive through her own flying adventures and I admire her greatly for both this and the courage and drive it must take to undertake such expeditions.  Those of you in the U.K. (or with access to B.B.C. output) may remember that a documentary of Ms Curtis-Taylor's South African flight was broadcast shortly after its completion and I'm pleased to see that discussions are underway to produce a further series of programmes covering the Australian and American flights (and beyond!) for airing in the first half of 2016.  Until then I'm sure you will join me in wishing Ms Curtis-Taylor continuing good luck as she makes her way to Australia.  Soft landings and no dud engines!


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