Sunday, August 25, 2013

Dick Bentley and Lady Heath

Without the help of Dick Bentley, Lady Heath would not have completed her flight from from Cape Town to London. When the local authorities in Mongalla refused to let her fly over the bandit country of Sudan alone, Bentley stepped in and offered to escort her to Malakal for a fee of £5.
Dick Bentley
Bentley then turned around and escorted Lady Bailey in the opposite direction.
So who was Dick Bentley and what was he doing in Africa? He admitted himself that “As a lad, I had no burning ambition to become notable in any particular sphere and so my life has been an unplanned affair”.
He was born 20 November 1897 and lived in London. After a “limited” education and a job with a wholesale paper merchant, he was sent to Canada at the age of 14, where he worked as a farm hand and in October 1915, joined the Canadian army. Returning to England with the Canadians, he switched to the Royal Flying Corps and in January 1917, went solo for the first time. Later that year, he was sent to France. After the war and jobless, he decided to head for Rhodesia.
From the start of the 1,200 train journey from the Cape to Bulawayo, Bentley loved Africa. He tried out an assortment of jobs, from farm manager to dental mechanic, learned never to walk in the bush without a shotgun, and played a bit of rugby and tennis before signing up with the South African Air Force.
Late in 1926, the De Haviland Moth, a compact airplane pitched at private and club flyers as a posible replacement for the motor car, appeared on the market. Hearing that two pilots had flown their Moths from London to Karachi, Bentley hit on the notion of flying one from London to Cape Town and did a deal with Johannesburg Light Plane Club; he would fly a plane to South Africa and they could then buy it from him. He then persuaded the Johannesburg Star newspaper to cover his insurance costs of £100.
With the deal done, Bentley sailed from Cape Town to London (3rd class) in June 1927and collected his new DH 60x Cirrus II moth G-EBSO on 16 August 1927.
With a 25-gallon auxiliary tank fitted and arrangements made to pick up fuel and oil along his route, he set off for Paris on 1 September. His route took him to the “toe” of Italy, and then to Homs in
Tripolitania (Italian North Africa) via Malta on 8 September. The RAF supplied a seaplane escort for the first 100 miles. “I tensely listened to every small change in engine note in the second 100 miles,” he reports. Lady Heath wasn't the only pilot fearful of flying over water.
Three days later he was in Cairo and heading south using the Nile as his guide. Spotting Abu Simnel he “flew back and forth several times” to look at this wonder, later moved for the Aswan Dam. Just 14 days after leaving London, he was in Khartoum after a 600-mile flight from Wadi-Halfa. Engine troubles prompted a precautionary landing at Jeblin, but he had no further troubles, and passed over the ominous Duk ridge of the Sud – a vast floating thicket of inter-twined lilies and papyrus reed - safely.
On 26 September, Bentley arrived in Johannesburg to be greeted by his fiancee Dorys Oldfield and, two days later, survived a frightening down draft before landing safely in Cape Town. It was the first solo flight in a light aircraft from England to Cape Town and, at 7,250 miles, was the longest single-engined flight to date.
With his South African sponsors generously letting his keep his plane, Bentley made his living from air taxi and joy-riding flights and became acquainted with Lady Heath, who had arrived in the Cape in December 1927 and borrowed the maps he had used for her own proposed flight.
Lady Heath left Johannesburg on 22 January and, after their wedding on 18 February 1928, the Bentleys decided to fly back to England themselves at a leisurely pace.
In Uganda, they met up again with Lady Heath who told him of her problems with the authorities. Bentley agreed to escort Lady Heath as far as Khartoum. In Khartoum, the trio met Lady Bailey who was travelling in the opposite direction and was also experiencing problems with the authorities. So while Lady Heath flew on to Cairo, Bentley turned around and escorted Lady Bailey southwards.
After meeting up with Lady Heath again in north Africa, the Bentleys flew on to England, arriving back in Croydon on 12 May, five days before Lady Heath completed her flight.
Later that year, the Bentleys flew back to South Africa via Germany and Turkey. What only a year earlier had seemed extraordinary was becoming commonplace.
Flying continued to grow in popularity with Bentley a ubiquitous figure at air shows and displays. He and Dorys separated in 1938 and he remarried after a second stint in the RAF during the Second World War. He died in May 1990, aged 93 – one of the few pilots from that era to live to such a ripe old age.
*For a full account of Dick Bentley's journeys over Africa, see Roma Part's 'Pioneering Spirit' on the Johannesburg Light Plane Club's website at
* See film clip of Lady Bailey christening the DH Moth "Dorys" at


Charlotte Thorpe said...

Hi there, great to read your post, I found out about Tracey Curtis-Taylor's flight only recently and have been quietly fuming about the lack of a mention of Dick Bentley, so thank you for setting the record straight. Do the film production team know any of this or are they avoiding any mention of him in case it 'detracts' from Tracey's (and Lady Heath's) achievement?
Would be interested also to find out where you got your info from,
all the best Charlotte Thorpe and Roma Part (great niece and niece of Dick Bentley)

Lindie Naughton said...

Charlotte - delighted to hear from you. Have always thought your great-uncle sounded like a modest and interesting individual. Judging from her writings, Lady H admired and liked him too. I got the info from the link I put on the the blog entry, with a little extra digging. Would love to know if you have any further material. Perhaps you could contact me directly at lindie (dot) naughton (at)