Saturday, January 27, 2007

Lady Heath's Crash in Bulawayo (Time Magazine 1928)

On Feb. 28, it was so hot in Bulawayo (South Eastern Africa) that the monkeys were sitting almost motionless on the lower branches of the trees. The air was as thick as chicken gumbo. Suddenly, the animals and the natives were disturbed by a noise like nothing they had ever heard before. An airplane shot down from the sky and came to an abrupt stop in the tangled grasses of a clearing near the village. A woman stepped out unsteadily and fainted. Two natives picked her up and carried her into Bulawayo, where they gave her some sour milk. She developed a fever, and said her name was Lady Heath. That did not mean much to the natives, who wondered what business a lady could have between the tip of South Africa and the equator in an airplane painted turquoise blue. Nearly a month later, the fever left her and she left Bulawayo, flying North.
Behind the flight of Lady Sophie Heath there was jealousy and good British gold—the gold that comes from coal and iron mines which husbands own. Her new husband, Sir James Heath, is 76. She is pretty and 30 and got for her wedding present from him a turquoise blue plane to match her favorite stone.
The day before their marriage, last October, she had taken the plane up above London to establish an altitude record of 19,000 feet. A few weeks later, she had kissed Sir James goodbye, embarked for Cape Town, South Africa, whence she quickly began to fly across all Africa toward London. If she succeeded, a new female flight record would be hers, but a rival, an "other woman" loomed.
The other woman was Lady Mary Bailey. She, too, was an aviatrix and the not quite so young wife (38) of a richer but not quite so old baronet, Sir Abe Bailey, 63. The gold of Sir Abe came from diamond mines and from other oldtime South African transactions which gained for him the dubious title of "one of Cecil Rhodes' young men." Lady Mary had given him five children and he had supplied a town house in London, a country place in Suffolk, a 200,000-acre ranch in Rhodesia, and plenty of airplanes.
No sooner did Lady Mary hear that Lady Sophie had recovered from the fever, and was really about to resume the Cape Town-London flight, than she called for her latest and staunchest Moth, and hopped over the British channel. But she had no wish to flaunt a rivalry. Therefore, since her diamond-mining husband, Sir Abe, happened to be in South Africa, she announced that she was taking the most leisurely trip to visit him and that quite incidentally she would be the first woman to fly the London-Cape Town wastes.

But when she got to Khartum, on the banks of the upper Nile, it was no longer possible to conceal her passion to win the great race Woman v. Woman. For there British officials stopped her. They positively refused to let her fly over the enemy-infested wastes of the Sudan without an escort. She protested she must fly alone. Was not Lady Sophie flying that very day alone? Not so, said they; Lady Sophie, flying north over the Sudan, had also been forced to take an escort from the other side—a young lieutenant, snatched from the bride with whom he was honeymooning in African solitude. Very well, said Lady Mary, but time was never so precious; must she wait until the Lieutenant arrived with Lady Sophie? She must. The lieutenant came, the two ladies exchanged brief words of recognition, and back went the lieutenant over the Sudan, this time flying south with Lady Mary.
Lady Sophie flew solo to Cairo. The race was hers. She had done the hard bit —vast veldt and jungle now lay in wait only for her rival. But, name of a dog, at the Cairo airdrome, where she stopped for supplies, officers padlocked her plane. It was not safe, they said, for a lady to cross the Mediterranean alone.
The race then was Lady Mary's. Zooming went she over the dark green heart of Africa, over the crystal blue of the longest freshwater lake in the world (Tanganyika) . And then, name of a dog, while she spiraled down to land at Tabora (10,000 blackamoors gaping) her motor missed. Suddenly the motor died cold. The Moth crashed to earth, a twisted wreck. She was only slightly injured. Fever loomed.
At last reports, Lady Mary was telegraphing her Sir Abe (2,250 miles south) telling him just where to get another kite. And Lady Sophie was still arguing heatedly with British officials in Cairo, 2,600 miles from her Sir James.
The race, whoever wins, will add two names to the annals of Air and of Empire. But both are already known to fame. Last year they sat side by side above London, the nose of their plane tilted up till it set a new altitude-record for Moths. Lithe Lady Sophie is admittedly the hardier—first woman to loop the loop in England. In a cruel speed-race she zoomed to the finish line a few yards ahead of Lady Mary, who had been leading. But it was the International League of Aviators which threw the apple of discord into the air; it pronounced Lady Mary, Sir Abe's wife, to be the "champion lady aviator of 1927."


dany.clemenceau said...

Quelle femme!!!J'ai réussi à lire cet article à peu près correctement! Je suis toujours épatée par la réussite de ces pionnières.... elles n'avaient pas que le ciel à vaincre


LindieNaughton said...

Merci Dany - les francaises aussi. Quel monde!