Monday, November 25, 2013

Cape Town to Goodwood Day 24: Khartoum - A Tale of Two Marys

Spirit of Artemis and team is heading for Khartoum from Malakal today - a distance of over 400 miles.
Mary Heath had flown from Mongalla to Malakal with Capt Bentley as her escort. She had "drifted quietly" into an unmarked ditch at Mongalla but was pulled out of it easily enough by Bentley and ten local troops.
Chase plane - a Cessna Caravan
Malakal's aerodrome "as full of cracks as if there had been an earthquake" caused further damage, when one of her tyres blew.  Fortunately she carried a spare and after the District Commissioner ensured that she had the petrol and oil she needed, she decided to carry on to Khartoum. "There was a following wind from Serk, and so although I did not approve of flying in the middle of the day (it is rather cruel to the engine), I decided to make an exception."
She left Malakal  at noon - on her own at last!
"My beloved Nile was underneath me all the way and with such a wonderful guide to follow, I was able... to read a novel and just glanced out occasionally to see that my guiding river was still beneath me".
She soon regretted her decision to cover such a long distance in one day. "Flying fairly low about 3,000 ft, with occasional dives to visit houses of friends at the various stations on the river, I found the scorching rays and the bumps terrible - in fact I was actually physically sick".The thermometer showed 120 fahrenheit, and  when held "over the side into the slipsteam" at 150 degrees "and then right off the map".
 The cruel heat meant her engine slowed drastically and she had the feeling "that my wings were like the tired wings of a bird giving me little support".  She was still wearing her fur coat because its collar gave protections to her neck and shoulders and was feeling both overheated and sick when she saw the long bridge at Kosti with an "enormous well-marked aerodrome beside it".
She decided to land "just avoiding one or two camels that were wandering about loose" and was met by the District Commissioner Mr Arkel who provided her with "two lovely Arab ponies" for transport to his house.
She did her customary work on her plane's engine and then "carrying my coat a la John Gilpin, we cantered up to his beautiful little bungalow".  The Bentleys arrived later and were put up in the Rest House.
Early next morning, she set off an "an impossibly early hour" and had an uneventful journey to Khartoum 185 miles away, with the two and a half hours it took her seeming "only like so many minutes". Visibility however was not good and she ran into two sandstorms, forcing her to swerve west and pick up the Nile. She landed at 9am and stopped off for a few days, enjoying the cool swimming baths in the club.
Lady Mary Bailey
On Sunday April 1, her fellow Irish pilot Lady Mary Bailey arrived, having flown in  from Cairo "after a very gallant and plucky flight with a badly behaving engine and a forced landing in the desert". Lady Heath's exasperation is only partly hidden. "It hurt me to see her looking tired and weary after it."
In 1926, Lady Bailey (a mother of five, who flew "to get away from prams") had taken her first flight in Lady Heath's plane at Stag Lane, so they knew each other well.
"I cannot speak too highly of Lady Bailey's gallant and plucky attitude in making his flight when she had never flown outside England before and when she had always been accustomed to the marvellous care and attention which De Havillands give their machine and engines, making it unnecessary for you ever to work on themself," she says.
Lady Bailey "did not know any part of Africa except South Africa" (her husband, the enormously wealthy Sir Abe Bailey, was South African and friend of Sir Cecil Rhodes). Still she pressed on "in spite of discovering all that lay before her and the dangers she might have to run".
Lady Bailey ran into the same problems as Lady Heath concerning her flight over the Sudd and so Capt Bentley turned around and escorted her as far  as Nimule. 
When it came to personality,  the two "ladies" couldn't have been more different. At a dinner held in their honour in Khartoum,  Lady Heath appeared in an elegant evening dress, while Lady Bailey wore the tweed suit she used while flying; she truly didn't care what people thought of her. 
Born the honorable Mary Westenra in Co Monaghan, Lady Bailey was part of what passed then for an Irish aristocracy, living  between London and big country houses and spending much of their time hunting. With the family on its uppers, she was married off to Sir Abe  at the age of 21; he was then a 58-year-old widower.
Lady Bailey made her own waves in the world of aviation. She was the first woman to obtain a blind flying certificate and the first women to fly across the Irish Sea, packing an inflatable inner tube from a motor car in case of a ducking (see Lady Heath's story later on).
When Capt Bentley set off on his flight from London to Cape Town on 1 September 19278, it was Lady Bailey who christened his DH Moth - called "Dorys"  in honour of his future bride - before he set off. In January 1928, Lady Bailey was  the first ever winner of the women's "World's Champion Aviator" awarded by the International League of Aviators. Soon after, she announced her intention of flying to South Africa.
"There is no question of trying to put up new records or racing against the clock. I am just trying to blaze a trail that will, I hope, be a rough guide to those in whose hands the future of commercial flying is vested". Her trip, she told journalists, "is in the nature of a cure. I have felt the need of a change  of scene and interest recently. I am taking only two suitcases."
She set off on 8 March 1928 in a 80hp DH 60 Moth with a Cirrus engine, fitted with an extra fuel tank that would give her a range of ten hours. Unlike Lady Heath a few months later, she took in Malta on her route, flying from Catania to Valetta, and then was escorted by RAF three seaplanes for the first three hours of her 200 mile flight over open sea to Libya. A few months later, Lady Heath was refused permission to fly in the opposite direction by the British.
In Cairo, Lady Bailey's plane was impounded and she was told she could fly no further by Air Vice Marshall Webb Brown, officer commanding RAF in the Middle East. She then thought of her old friend Dick Bentley and after a frantic exchange of telegrams, managed to contact him. They agreed to meet up in Khartoum.
* Extra information from "Throttle Full Open" the excellent biography of Lady Mary Bailey written by  Jane Falloon.

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