Aviatrix Tracey Curtis-Taylor follows the airways of historical pilots Lady Heath and Amy Johnson – pioneering adventurers championed by Globe-Trotter for decades. Here she reveals how she made it to the skies.
My first memory of being on an aeroplane was flying to Canada on a commercial flight when I was 16 years old. Looking out over the ice caps of Greenland was such a profound experience that shortly after I took my first flying lesson. It’s not that I had a master plan to become a pilot; I just went along for the ride.
My family emigrated to Canada from the UK when I was two years old. We lived mainly on the West Coast in the 1960s and grew up near the mountains. The sense of freedom and wilderness there was hugely formative; all my family hears the ‘call of the wild’.
I got my first job when I was 18 working for De Beers in London. I later joined the Diplomatic Service at the Foreign Office in Whitehall, because I was desperate for a posting to Africa. Back then it was a chauvinistic institution. On my second day, somebody said: ‘Your best chance of promotion would be to marry an ambassador’. It wasn’t for me, and eight months later, I travelled to South Africa under my own steam. I worked for some months as a waitress, before driving back to England (from Johannesburg) in a Bedford truck.
Learning to fly in the UK was neither accessible nor affordable, so in 1983 I moved again, this time to New Zealand where my sister had emigrated. There, I started flying in earnest. I just couldn’t leave it alone. I kept thinking: ‘Oh, I’ll just get a private licence’ and ‘Oh, I’ll just do an instructor rating’. I chipped away at it, got a commercial licence and joined the New Zealand Warbirds Association.
Luggage is an issue in vintage biplanes, but I’ve doubled the baggage capacity – when you’re filming, you can’t leave the cockpit looking like nothing on the planet – you need a bit of glamour.
Aviation is like a gentleman’s club, an old boys’ network, and I’m always an outsider. But I’ve never let that be an impediment. I was brought up to be determined and independent, and while I’ve come across extraordinarily entrenched attitudes, I don’t let them stand in my way.
In the interwar period, female aviators were some of the most famous people in the world. They were free, they were feisty and they were unbelievably brave. They took enormous risks and paid a very high price. When I decided to fly across Africa, it wasn’t enough to just do that, I had to underpin it with the historical significance of what women like Lady Heath had achieved, and demonstrate how it relates to modern day. Private aviation is in decline and the involvement of women can’t seem to reach double figures, in some sectors. It’s about exposure and education; if girls really understood about the opportunity from an early age, I think it would be very different.
The flight that defined my life was when I flew the African Rift Valley from Arusha to Kilimanjaro through to Nairobi, in formation with a Piper Cub. Flying Lake Natron with the flamingoes, and then up and over the Rift Valley and into Nairobi, was like being in the film Out of Africa. It was the most sensational thing I’ve ever done and when I got out of the plane, I could hardly speak.
I have a great love affair with Spirit of Artemis, my 1942 Boeing Stearman. When we crashed in Winslow, Arizona last year – due to suspected contaminated fuel – I experienced profound grief. My engineer and I managed to step out unscathed, but it wasn’t the impact or near-death experience that shocked me: it was the state of the aeroplane. I thought it would never fly again and I was beside myself. When I heard it could be rebuilt, I felt fine. In fact, I’m returning to the States to complete the flight (following the US airmail route) later this year.
I travel with a very large handbag and a lot of Estée Lauder. Luggage is an issue in vintage biplanes, but I’ve doubled the baggage capacity – when you’re filming, you can’t leave the cockpit looking like nothing on the planet – you need a bit of glamour. Jean Batten used to carry a silk dress in her flying suit pocket, which she’d slip into once she landed and then she was off down the wing. Wonderful – isn’t it?