Aviatrix readies for historic flight


The final countdown has begun for female pilot Tracey Curtis-Taylor’s flight in a restored Boeing Stearman biplane from Cape Town to the UK.

Covering more than 7 000 miles in an open cockpit aircraft over seven weeks, Curtis-Taylor is recreating the 1928 flight by English aviatrix Lady Mary Heath, the first person to fly this route, which later became the Imperial Airways route.

She will depart Cape Town on 1 November trailing a film team, making four stops in South Africa before heading to Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Italy and France before her final touchdown at Goodwood in England on 18 December.

The other South African stops scheduled are East London, Durban’s Virginia Airport and Pretoria’s Wonderboom Airport. All told she will fly more than 7 000 miles in about 35 separate legs in her Stearman, named “Spirit of Artemis.”

The Boeing Stearman was built in 1942 and was purchased by Curtis-Taylor last year. It was restored by Awald Gritsch of 3G Classic Aviation in Hungary. Gritsch and the support team are accompanying the flight in a Cessna Caravan, which will land ahead of the Stearman and prepare for its arrival at each stop.

The aircraft arrived in the port of Cape Town from Austria, via Hamburg in Germany, last week and is in the process of being re-assembled prior to departure from Cape Town International Airport.

Given the tight scheduled required to meet the conditions of the various aviation permits and overflight permissions, the first hurdle of importing the aircraft into south Africa was not without its own problems.

The container load sheet noted the contents as a Boeing, resulting in the Customs officials thinking it contained Boeing airliner spare parts and wanting to charge hundreds of Rands in VAT and other duties. Luckily, the local agent made a few phone calls and the confusion was cleared up at the last moment.
“Customs have been amazing. I can’t speak highly enough of all of them, how they handled it. Once they knew what was at stake and our schedule and the scale of the undertaking, everybody has done everything to help us. So it’s been terrific,” Curtis-Taylor said.

The Stearman was in perfect condition when unpacked, having hardly moved an inch. It is in the process of being assembled at the ExecuJet hangars at Cape Town International airport and the first test flight is expected within the next two days.

Curtis-Taylor will be facing numerous challenges. With an endurance of between 4.5 to 5 hours, she will be flying exposed to the elements in a cramped cockpit at low altitudes. “It’s exhausting, frankly,” she said. “I’m sure I’ll get thrown around a lot.”

Besides weather, another issue to contend with is the bureaucracy and security situation in the areas through which the aircraft will be flying. “There is uncertainty and I have fears about that,” Curtis-Taylor said. “But,” she continued, “that’s not going to stop us. You have to press on and do these things. Life should be about great projects and passion. This is a culmination of a lot of things for me really. I am determined to do it.”

Speaking to Curtis-Taylor, her passion is obvious. So when people ask her what preparation she has done, she answers: “Nothing prepares you for flying on this scale!”

However, Curtis-Taylor is being a little modest as she is no stranger to Africa. She drove from Cape to Cairo in the early 1980’s and this is where the seed for flying across Africa in an open-cockpit biplane first germinated. Earlier this year, Curtis-Taylor accompanied an An-2 biplane on its 20 000km charity flight from Russia to South Africa down the west coast of Africa. This time, Curtis-Taylor will be following Heath’s route up east Africa.

Curtis-Taylor first heard about female aviation and Olympic sport pioneer Mary Heath five years ago and decided it was the ideal story to give historical meaning to her proposed flight, celebrating what Heath had achieved. Not only that, but Curtis-Taylor is celebrating what all the aviation pioneers accomplished.
“These people were astonishing individuals. They were fearless, I just take my hat off to them,” Curtis-Taylor said.

The Boeing Stearman was chosen because of its ruggedness, with its 300 hp Lycoming engine making for a strong, reliable combination. The only modification made to the airframe for the historic flight was fitting two auxiliary tanks on either side of the main fuel tank. With only basic instrumentation (VFR flight only), a simple radio and GPS has been fitted, but Curtis-Taylor is still required to hand-fly the aircraft all the way.

The Stearman first took to the skies in the 1930s as a military trainer aircraft and has a top speed of 95 mph with an operating ceiling of 10 000 feet and a range of 450 miles.

In the 1920’s, Mary 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 in 1928, the first person (male or female) to fly solo from South Africa to the UK.