Sunday, April 16, 2006
Extracts from "Lady Icarus" - a tale of murder, adventure and high romance.
From Chapter 11 ‘The Flight from the Cape’
She was exhilarated to be in the air after all the ‘vicissitudes’ she had experienced and reckoned the first day out of Pretoria ranked second only to her first solo flight as the best adventure of her life. Once on her own, she was entranced by a wonderful vista of craggy hills, collections of tiny houses and fleecy clouds. It was warm and bright and she was wearing just her flying helmet, with her head and neck unprotected from the blazing equatorial sun. Six hours into her flight, she had passed the meandering Limpopo and was soon flying over the great quartz hills of Matobo in Zimbabwe, then called Southern Rhodesia, where Sir Cecil Rhodes, the British explorer who had done so much to open up Africa, lay buried.
Thinking idly of how unpleasant it would be to crash land, she suddenly became aware of a pain in her head, neck and shoulders. She had suffered from sunstroke twice before and knew the signs. Even more ominously, in her most recent experience, she had passed out, not an experience she wished to repeat especially when flying several hundred metres above hard, unforgiving ground. Desperately, she twisted and turned in her tiny seat, trying unsuccessfully to retrieve the special topee, or pith helmet, packed in the back locker of her machine. When the pain in her head and neck got worse and she started to see black blobs dancing in front of her eyes, she pulled off part of her underclothing and wrapped it around her head and shoulders.
With the black blobs turning into waving black feathers, she saw Fort Usher straight ahead. The last thing she remembered was aiming the plane north-east to some clear ground. When she recovered consciousness, she found herself under some thorn bushes, with three native girls looking after her. They had removed her fur coat and placed it under her, then steeped two of her handkerchiefs in milk and put them on her head. Leaning up woozily on one elbow, she saw her plane a little way off, with one wing drooping but otherwise intact. Her hair was clotted with milk and there was a gourd of milk beside her. With the help of the girls, who seemed to understand Swahili, although this was not their language, she staggered to the plane to discover the time. She had been unconscious for about four hours.
So little damaged was the machine that had she been at all well, she could have flown it away. But she could hardly see straight and the effort of making it to the plane made her sick again:
So I sat on the ground and told the girls to collect stones and earth for my sandbags to secure the machine for the night…They thought it a tremendous joke and in spite of feeling as ill as I did, I could not help seeing the amusing side of it too. A great silver bird comes out of the sky and lands beside their huts and a strange white woman is found in it unconscious, and flops to the ground even after she has come to!
Lady Mary had landed or as she put it, the plane landed itself, since she remembered nothing of it just ten miles from her target of Bulawayo and her expertise as a pilot had undoubtedly saved her life. After helping her to their hut about a quarter of a mile away, one of her new friends, Makula, who spoke a little English, told Lady Mary that in her delirium she had written a note to be delivered to white people and had asked for milk. Of this she had absolutely no recollection and when she saw the note a few days later, she realised why no help had come: ‘It was a confused scrawl of what looked like Egyptian hieroglyphics and I was unable to read it myself!’
Lying on her fur coat with a ‘tiny silver fitted dressing case which the Johannesburg Light Aeroplane had given me’ as a pillow, Lady Mary realised she was in a harem hut and that the owner of the kraal had five wives. They looked after her in an entirely matter-of-fact way, feeding her gourds of milk and a whole boiled chicken, complete with innards: ‘At dusk, they lit the fire close to my head and, with their youngest children, undressed entirely and covered themselves with blankets.’ The hut was swarming with mosquitoes and flies and, although still in a state of coma, Lady Mary stirred occasionally because she had been badly bitten.
The next morning, after Makula had woken and washed her, a white woman, Mrs Pat Fletcher, was motoring past the encampment with her husband in search of grass for their cattle. To her astonishment, she found an emotional Lady Mary. She immediately bundled her into the car and drove back to their farm, where the patient was put to bed. In the evening, Captain Douglas Mail of the Rhodesian Aviation Syndicate agreed to rescue Lady Mary’s machine. Reporting back, he told her that there was not too much damage, although the machine was bone dry of oil and ‘owing to a bend in the undercarriage fitting, the port forward flying wire was loose’.
Her disappearance had made front-page headlines in the South African press. ‘The absence of any news in any of the newspapers published on Saturday night and Sunday morning of the arrival in Bulawayo of Lady Heath, who set out in her Avro Avian from Pretoria on Saturday morning, caused intense excitement throughout the union,’ said the Rand Daily Mail. The newspaper had received hundreds of calls from concerned members of the public. Prominent members of the South African air force had been planning to start a search.
They speculated that she might have been blown off course. Air force members had escorted her as far as Warmbaths, along a route that followed the railway line. From this point, she had left the railway and would have been relying entirely on compass bearings. There was a strong wind blowing from the northwest, which meant that she could have drifted several degrees to the east and been forced to land in an unknown part of the veldt. As it happens, she was not far off her course when forced to land.
When it left Pretoria a day earlier, the Avro Avian was carrying enough petrol for over ten hours’ flying, the consumption of the engine being 20.4 litres per hour and the average cruising speed 128 kph. Lady Mary had passed Warmbaths at 8.45 am and so should have appeared in Bulawayo at 2pm or soon after. News that she was safe came though at 7.30pm the following day from the newspaper’s Bulawayo correspondent. After she had spent the night in a native hut, a party of motorists had discovered an exhausted Lady Heath earlier that day, he reported, adding that oil trouble appeared to have been the cause of the forced landing.
The Avian was now in Bulawayo and, when she awoke from a long sleep, Lady Mary was flown there by Captain Mail in his own DH Moth and taken to Sister Rigby’s Maternity Home because all the nursing homes were full. Placed in a room with a tiny white cot at its foot, she slept for a further eighteen hours. A few days later, her temperature was back to normal. She could continue with her adventure.
On 6 May, Lady Mary finally left Africa behind, flying again with the Bentleys across the Mediterranean from Cape Bon, near Tunis, to Sicily, a distance of 153 kilometres. Thanks to her fear of water, she slept little the night before the ocean crossing and devised her own version of a lifebelt: ‘I had obtained a couple of motor-cycle tyres, and having blown them up, had wrapped them round my waist as a life-belt if I came down in the sea.’ This was a tale she was to relate many times, with the number of tyres increasingly from two to six.
To increase her chances of reaching land in case of trouble, she ascended as high as she could: ‘the higher I went the safer I felt’. As she reached 2,100 metres, the tyres burst with a loud pop in the thin air and she was left with shreds of rubber hanging around her neck: ‘My heart was thumping and bumping. The blue sea looked frightfully wet and deep. Shreds of red rubber may have looked decorative, bizarre. But they lacked buoyancy.’
Flying even higher at three kilometres above the earth and with excellent visibility, she was able to see both Europe and Africa. Indeed, Europe was now within gliding range and knowing that while she could still crash, there was little possibility of her drowning, she could relax and enjoy the extraordinary views. Ahead, Mount Etna pierced the clouds, making a perfect landmark on the way to the aerodrome at Catania on the east coast of Sicily. She landed in mid-morning, with the Bentleys following half an hour later. After a hasty lunch and running repairs by the Italian mechanics, who even repainted portions of the machine, she was soon airborne again alone and enduring a bumpy ride as she headed over the Straits of Messina to Naples.
Thanks to the hospitality and help she had received in North Africa, Lady Mary was by now a confirmed fan of Italy and the Italians. She was particularly impressed when, from high above, she could pick up emergency landing grounds, all with their names cut out in white chalk and clearly visible from the air. It was growing dark as she approached Naples, clouded by the volcanic outpourings of Vesuvius drifting gently downwind. So thick was the smoke that she was forced to descend almost to ground level, using the roads below as a guide. Although it was Sunday, she was welcomed by a duty officer at the aerodrome and, after eight and a half hours flying, was grateful for an invitation to stay overnight with Commandant Cancianotti and his wife: ‘They were very kind and understanding and let me go to bed early, a thing which I found very difficult to do at most places where I landed.’
Take-off from the small aerodrome the next morning was delayed for two hours until the officer who took payments appeared. After her overloaded machine just cleared the trees beside the runway, which she found ‘ rather exciting’, she followed the wind to Rome, and was then guided by the Via Appia into Rome’s ‘vast’ new aerodrome, where it took a full ten minutes to taxi to the sheds. She stayed for a week in Rome, partly to convalesce from her rheumatic fever, partly because of the Italians’ ‘wonderful hospitality’, and partly because General Balbo, head of the Italian air force, offered her a free overhaul of her engine so that she could be certain of a ‘a strong finish’ to her adventure. While in Rome, she was invited to meet Mussolini and, like many more of the time, was enchanted by the dictator, describing him as ‘that great man who is more of a national monument than an individual’. He had a good knowledge of aviation and ‘seemed interested to hear my experiences, and glad of what I was conscientiously able to say about Italian hospitality and efficiency’.
The night before she left Rome, the Marquis de Pinedo, one of Italy’s best-known aviators, hosted a dinner in Lady Mary’s honour, an occasion she particularly relished as she had read translations of his books while flying over Africa’s north coast. The harmonious mixture of old and new in the Eternal City made it ‘surely the most beautiful city in the world’ and she found it difficult to tear herself away. But London was now just a few days distant and early on 14 May, she left Rome for Marseilles, and following the coast, arrived there in the late afternoon. ‘The Riviera coast looked more beautiful than I had ever seen it before,’ she commented in her book, adding that she had only known it ‘on the ground’ before, when she came to Monte Carlo to gamble ‘ as one does’, or for the Women’s Olympic Games, first held there six years earlier.
In Marseilles, she met her friend and co-author of Women and Flying, Stella Wolfe Murray. ‘When Lady Heath arrived after eight hours’ non-stop flight from Rome, she looked as if she had stepped out of a bandbox, having changed her flying helmet for a little black cloche straw hat,’ reported an admiring Wolfe in the book they later wrote together. For luggage, she had just a soft leather duffel bag, in which she carried her eight frocks, and the dressing-case presented to her by the Johannesburg Flying Club. After tea and sandwiches, she donned a cretonne overall and set to work on her engine, while an admiring group of mechanics looked on open-mouthed. When Murray brought her back to her hotel, Lady Mary took the opportunity ‘to devour’ the latest aviation magazines.
Low clouds and driving rain hampered her progress as she flew northwards along the Rhône valley to Lyons the next day. After months in warmer climates, she had lost the habit of picking her way through fog and clouds and, forced to stay no more than
150 metres above the river, decided that she might as well press on in case the weather got even worse. So she settled for a height of less than twenty metres, found a railway line to follow, and ‘groped’ her way as far as Dijon, feeling more shattered after her four-hour flight than on even her longest flight over Africa. Delighted to plunder a library of English books at the aerodrome’s library, she retired to bed early, still slightly affected by rheumatic fever.
The next morning, though damp, was beautiful and clear and she flew as high as 600 metres on her way to Paris. As she got close to the city, she was battered by thunder and lightning, with hail cutting her face and beating her plane almost down to ground level. Following a safe landing at Le Bourget, she was an honoured guest at a party hosted by Clifford Harmon, president of the International League of Aviators. Next morning, Harmon drove her from Claridges Hotel on the Champs Elysées to Le Bourget, from where she set off on the last lap of her long journey.
Flying over the English Channel in stormy conditions, she was blown northwards as far as the coastal town of Deal, in Kent. This left her so annoyed and cold that she landed for a cup of tea at the Lympne aerodrome near Folkestone before continuing on for Croydon. By now, her arrival was eagerly anticipated and two circling aeroplanes greeted her in mid-air. Despite a warning that her make-shift tail could fall off, she could not resist exuberantly looping the loop over the aerodrome. She finally landed, to be surrounded by a crowd of cheering mechanics. It was 17 May 1928 and her long adventure was over.