Cape Town to Goodwood

Tracey Curtis-Taylor
4 November 2013

Tracey Curtis-Taylor following the route first flown by Mary Heath in 1928.

In 1928, Mary Heath – the first woman to hold a commercial flying licence in Britain – made front page news around the world as the first pilot, male or female, to fly a small, open-cockpit biplane from Cape Town to London’s Croydon Airport.

On 2 November 2013, to commemorate Lady Heath’s Flight and to highlight some of the historic “firsts” being set by women today all across the African continent, pilot Tracey Curtis-Taylor embarked on a journey to fly her own open-cockpit Boeing Stearman biplane from Cape Town to Goodwood.

Mary Heath in the cockpit of an Avro Avian.
Photograph: Museum of Science and Industry
Tracey Curtis-Taylor

Mary Heath: The Inspiration

Largely forgotten today, Mary Heath, born Sophie Catherine Theresa Mary Pierce-Evans on 10 November 1896, was for a few years at the end of the 1920s one of the most famous women in the world, whose life was a succession of pioneering firsts.

Having spent two years as a dispatch rider and an ambulance driver during the First World War, Heath pioneered women’s athletics in Britain (setting records in the javelin and the high jump in the process) and helped introduce women’s track and field to the Olympics.

Switching her attention to flying, she became the first woman in Britain to receive a commercial pilot’s licence; the first woman in the world to parachute from a plane and to become an airline pilot; and, in 1928, the first person, male or female, to fly solo from South Africa to the UK.

Her aircraft was a 1927 Avro 594 Avian III, c/n R3/AV/412, registered G-EBUG, and she began her journey in Cape Town on 5 January 1928 and arrived at Croydon on 17 May 1928.

“When we are very young, we look for adventure and long for it, but it is generally only when we are grown up that we are able to have it, and often then do not make use of our opportunities”

Mary Heath

Mary Heath, aged 31, and her Avro Avian at the end of her triumphant flight, Croydon Airport, 17 May 1928

Tracey Curtis-Taylor: The Pilot

On the 2nd of November 2013, to commemorate Lady Heath’s Solo Flight and to highlight some of the historic “firsts” being set by women today all across the African continent, pilot Tracey Curtis-Taylor embarked on a journey to fly her own open-cockpit Boeing Stearman biplane from Cape Town to Goodwood Aerodrome. Goodwood/Chichester Airport is approximately 90km South of London:
GPS 50.860036,-0.757935 (50°51’36.13″N 0°45’28.57″W)

Tracey Curtis-Taylor, born in 1962, and her Boeing Stearman “Spirit of Artemis”, registered N56200

Flying in an open cockpit, exposed to the elements, is not for the faint­ hearted, the flight representing a formidable physical and logistical challenge – in a plane designed in the 1930s, with a top speed of 95 mph, an operating ceiling of 10,000 feet and a range of only 450 miles.

But this sort of extreme flying is what Curtis-Taylor, one of the Shuttleworth Collection display pilots, has been doing all her life.

Tracey’s route follows Mary Heath’s. From South Africa to Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania, then on through Kenya, Uganda and the Sudan to Egypt and along the coast through Libya and Tunisia before she turns for Sicily and home. In all she will cover approximately 7,000 miles in over six weeks.

Tracey, flying solo in her Boeing Stearman, registered N56200, began her flight in Cape Town on 2 November 2013. One of her stopovers was at Baragwanath Airfield, home of the Johannesburg Light Plane Club, on Monday 4 November. Mary Heath stopped over at the original Baragwanath Airfield in 1928, 85 years ago!

Tracey’s route follows closely that of Mary Heath’s, the English Aviatrix, who in 1928 was the first person to fly this routing. A few years later Imperial Airways used a similar route.

New Baragwanath Airfield GPS:
26°20’54.49″S 27°46’44.94″E (-26.348469, 27.779150)

Old Baragwanath Airfield:
GPS 26°15’22.86″S 27°58’14.51″E (-26.255915,27.970694)

The Aircraft: 1943 Boeing Stearman

“Spirit of Artemis”, a 1943 Boeing Model 75 Stearman (B75N1), cn 75-7813, registered N56200. The aircraft is powered by a Lycoming R-680-E3B nine cylinder air-cooled radial engine producing 300 hp.

Stopover at Baragwanath

Unfortunately Tracey Curtis-Taylor’s planned arrival at Baragwanath on Sunday 3 November did not materialise due to the departure from Cape Town being delayed a day as a result of unfavourable weather conditions.

So, on Monday 4 November, well-wishers began arriving at Baragwanath Airfield at around 14h00 for the expected 15h15 arrival of Tracey and her steed. A message over the radio announced an earlier than expected arrival and the Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, 5Y-MJA, with Camera Crew and Stearman Technical Crew on board touched down at 14h53. As the Cessna turned off the runway the Stearman gave the awaiting group two flypasts and gently touched down.

While Courtney Watson put chocks on the wheels, his father, Roy, welcomed Tracey to Baragwanath. Members of the Johannesburg Light Plane Club were introduced to Tracey and immediately began to chat about her experience so far. Tracey, with her delightful character, was most accommodating and, facing a barrage of questions, was only too pleased to share her story with the pilots and enthusiasts present.

A while later and a stroll over to the Watson’s beloved de Havilland DH.82A Tiger Moth, ZS-UKW, saw Courtney proudly showing Tracey the aircraft. On the walk up to the clubhouse Tracey encountered two 44-gallon drums with the wording Amelia Earhart on them, remnants of the filming of “Amelia” starring Hilary Swank and Richard Gere that took place in 2008 at Rand Airport. These drums are significant because the trip that Tracey is replicating was achieved in 1928 by Mary Heath in an Avro Avian, which was later sold to Amelia Earhart.

Once inside the clubhouse Tracey was shown the many interesting photographs and memorabilia from a bygone era of aviation. The Solo Mugs, the photographs of Mary Heath and her Avian as well as many other fascinating items which are on display.

Over refreshments Tracey was shown some interesting old strip maps detailing a 1941 route from Cape Town to Cairo. She settled down to continue the discussions about her adventure as well as being presented with a book, ‘Bush Pilots do it in Fours’ by Roy Watson. Lady Heath claimed to have read a novel while flying the length of the Nile, so Tracey is now armed with some reading material for her own flight over the river! Tracey was also given a specially prepared South African flag with the Johannesburg Light Plane Club emblem embroidered in the centre. The flag was signed by those present and handed to Tracey.

All too quickly, it seemed, Tracey had to depart for her night stop at Lanseria Airport. After cheerful goodbyes Tracey and her Boeing took to the air at 16h47 accompanied by Tiger Moth ZS-UKW and Cessna 140 ZU-ECP. After ten minutes Tracey waved goodbye and the Boeing set course for Lanseria and the Tiger and 140 returned to Baragwanath.

It was a most enjoyable afternoon spent with a wonderful aviatrix, one that will be remembered for many years to come.

After several delays along the way, due to poor weather, Tracey landed at Goodwood at 11h45 on Tuseday 31st December 2013.

Below is a selection of photographs, taken by John Austin-Williams, of the afternoon’s proceedings.

Further Reading

Cape Town to Goodwood Official website
Cape Town to Goodwood Facebook page
Mary Heath Wikipedia
Lady Icarus The Life of Irish Aviator Lady Mary Heath by Lindie Naughton. Published in 2004 by Ashfield Press, Dublin, 2004. ISBN 1901658384
The colourful life and times of Lady Mary Heath, Irish aviator, athlete and writer Blog by Lindie Naughton
Lady Heath’s Experiences From Flight magazine 16 February 1928
The Shuttleworth Collection
Artemis Investment Management Major sponsor
Nylon Films Producers of the documentary “A Woman In Africa” about Tracey’s solo flight. The film will be released in early 2014.
Goodwood Airport
Croydon Airport Wikipedia
3G Classic Aviation Restored Tracey’s Boeing Stearman

History of Mary Heath’s Avro 594 Avian III – Construction number (c/n) R3/AV/412

Avro 594 Avian III Regd G-EBUG [CofR 1485] 9.27 to AV Roe & Co Ltd. CofA 1245 issued 17.11.27. Regd [CofR 1510] 29.10.27 to Lady Heath. London W1 (based Manchester). Regn cld 29.6.28 as wfu. Regd [NC]7083 9.28 to Amelia Earhart. Regd [10.30] to Whittelsey Manufacturing Co, Bridgeport, CT.

Courtesy of Air-Britain