Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Just about everyone has taken a flight somewhere, most likely finding themselves squashed into a pygmy-sized seat and breathing in putrid air after a long wait at an overcrowded airport. The romance of air travel has long since died.
Amazing then to think that just over a century ago, taking a heavier than air vehicle off land even for a minute or so was regarded as virtually impossible. When the Wright brothers became the first to fly at Kittyhawk Beach in 1903, they were risking their lives in a flimsy machine composed of cloth, timber and chicken wire.
Just seven years later, flying came to Ireland when a young Belfast journalist called Lilian Bland made her own glider of bamboo, ash and elm. After testing it out, she ordered an engine from England.
When this arrived without a fuel tank, she improvised by using an empty whisky bottle and her aunt's ear trumpet and,in August 1910, became the first person to fly on this island.
So right from the start, Irish women were at the forefront of the fledgling Irish aviation industry. In the mid-1920s, Irish women pilots were still blazing trails in the skies, none more so than Lady Mary Heath, who had been brought up as plain Sophie Mary Peirce in the Co Limerick town of Newcastle West but soon became one of the best known Irish women on the planet.
Sophie, as she is still known in her native county, was born in 1896 and died just 43 years later in 1939, but into those years, she packed more than many living twice as long.
While still a student at the Royal College of Science, she married a British army officer called Eliot Lynn, in Ireland because of the 1916 Rising, and in early 1917, took herself off to the war, driving motor bikes and ambulances, both in England and closer to the Front in France.
Even then, her forceful personality and imposing physical presence (she was close to 6ft tall) made her hard to miss and Sir John Lavery painted her portrait in the uniform of an air force driver. Back home, she paused just long enough to finish her degree before heading out to East Africa, where her husband had acquired a coffee farm.
By this time, she had also taken up athletics, and before sailing for Africa, had competed in various events all over Ireland, setting an unofficial world's best for the high jump in Ballygar, Co Galway.
She created quite a stir - a memorable photograph of her leaping over the bar at Lansdowne Road in a pinafore dress was printed in the Freeman's Journal.
By 1922, she was back in London, where she became a founding member of the Women's Amateur Athletic Association. Because of the 1921 Women's World Games, held in glamorous Monte Carlo, track and field athletics was the latest craze and Sophie competed regularly in the field events, winning the first ever British javelin title and travelling with British teams to Sweden and France several times.
In 1925, she flew for the first time when travelling to Prague for an International Olympic Committee conference to discuss the inclusion of women in the track and field programme at the 1928 Olympics. She was immediately hooked.
A few weeks later, Sophie Eliott Lynn became the first person to take a flight at the newly inaugurated London Aero Club at Stag Lane. Her every move was reported on by the press, which like the country had gone aviation mad; even the Irish Independent devoted a full page to aviation almost every day.
There was plenty to report on. Air shows attracted thousands of awed spectators to venues all over the country, where pilots performed dangerous acrobatics with their machines and daring wing walkers had the crowds gasping. There were also air races, which Sophie would often win, with her ability to swoop around pylons particularly admired. Afterwards, anyone could take a "spin" in one of the small planes at minimal cost and there were no shortage of takers.
Around this time, she became the first women to jump from an aeroplane by parachute and set a number of altitude records - easy enough for women to organise.
But although women pilots were becoming more visible, they were not allowed to make a living from flying. The official view was that women's physical make-up, most notably their monthly periods, made them unsuited for such a stressful activity.
Sophie naturally believed otherwise and she took her fight all the way to the top, enlisting the support of Lady Astor, the first woman MP, and the Director of Aviation Sir Sefton Brancker, who, to his credit, had always supported the cause of women pilots.
With the help of fellow flying enthusiast Stella Wolfe Murray, an influential journalist and writer of the time, she got her way and, in 1926, became the first woman to hold an A or commercial licence in Britain. She was soon followed by two other Irish women pilots, Sicele O'Brien and Lady Mary Bailey.
By now her first husband was dead and in 1927 she married Sir James Heath and, as Lady Mary Heath, set off her life's greatest adventure - a solo flight in an Avro Avian from Cape Town to London. This took her three months, with many stoppages along the way. She lost a week to sunstroke, and as she progressed further north, was grounded several times by worried authorities not prepared to allow a single woman fly over some of the most dangerous territory on earth.
She finally made it and on a chilly May afternoon in 1928, flew into Croydon Airport in south London. Her achievement was front page news all over the world and her fame hardly diminished when, a few weeks later, Amelia Earhart, dubbed "Lady Lindy" because of her close resemblance to Atlantic pioneer Charles Lindberg, landed in Wales, as the first woman passenger across the Atlantic.
Lady Mary was one of the first to welcome her and, impetuously, sold Earhart the famed Avro Avian which she had so recently flown over Africa. Earhart, by no means as skilled a pilot, took it back with her to the USA and crashed it.
By then, Lady Mary had embarked on a hectic schedule of personal appearances all over Britain, and took the opportunity to fly unpaid with KLM, with the aim of getting a job on their newly established long haul flight to Indonesia.
That made her the first woman anywhere to fly a commercial aeroplane, but she was way ahead of her time - only in the 1960s, did women start getting jobs as commercial pilots.
With her ambitions of getting a job with KLM thwarted, "Britain's Lady Lindy" as she was billed, took up an invitation to visit the USA and join the lucrative Chautauqua lecture circuit.
While in the USA, she became the first woman in the world to acquire a aircraft mechanic's licence, but a terrible crash just before the National Air Races in Cleveland in 1929 effectively put an end to her career.
With a tin plate inserted in her skull, Lady Mary returned to Ireland in 1931 with her third husband, Jack Williams, and started work with Iona National Air Taxis at Kildonan in Finglas, Dublin.
A few months later, she founded the National Junior Aviation Club, which was to have a formative influence on commercial aviation in this country. Unfortunately by then, this larger than life figure was dead, killed by a combination of her American accident, a fondness for alcohol and a final, fatal fall down the steps of a tramcar in London.
She remains one of a handful of truly great Irish women - a fearless adventurer, a promoter of equal sporting opportunities for men and women, a skilled pilot and mechanic. Her life is well worth celebrating.


Anonymous said...

Who are the six people in the photograph, please?

Anonymous said...

The picture was published in the 28 July 1928 issue of "Flight" magazine. From left to right: Miss O'Brien, her passenger the Hon. M K Leith, Captain Cordes, his passenger Mr Cooke, Lady Heath, and her passenger and private secretary.