Pioneering across Africa in vintage style

2013-10-25 11:51
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Cape Town - The imagination is a powerful thing. And more often than not it is the source of splendid new ideas, dreams or plans.

Thinking about a solo mother-continent-crossing adventure in a biplane, called the Spirit of Artemis, conjures up scenarios laced with a typical Out of Africa filter.

It also seems to have a nice, go-getter ring to it, don’t you think?

A solo, biplane adventure!

That is until I chatted to Tracey Curtis-Taylor. This British vintage plane pilot will be undertaking the re-enactment of Mary Heath’s historic 1928 first solo flight across the African continent, from Cape Town to London, at the end of the month.

But who was Mary Heath, you may be wondering?

Old-school cool

Well besides pioneering the above flight in an open-plane, let’s just say Mary Heath was so cool that Amelia Earhart bought her original plane from the flight.

The Cape Town To Good Wood website goes on to say that at the end of the 1920’s, Heath was one of the most famous women in the world, living a life of firsts.

“Having spent two years as a dispatch rider and an ambulance driver during the First World War, Heath pioneered women’s athletics in Britain (setting records in the javelin and the high jump in the process) and helped introduce women’s track and field to the Olympics.

Heath later switched her attention to flying and became the first woman in Britain to receive a commercial pilot’s licence; the first woman in the world to become an airline pilot and parachute from a plane; and then in 1928, the first person (male or female) to fly solo from South Africa to the United Kingdom

Not quite the skippy junket initially imagined

I asked Curtis-Taylor which part of the journey she was most looking forward to and she enthusiastically recounts how Heath did a semi-controlled crash near Bulawayo, after suffering heat stroke due to pro-longed sun exposure and how she cannot wait to visit the crash site.

Clearly, Curtis Taylor’s soft Sophia-Lauren-like features belie a somewhat determined inner-spirit.

Taking on this extreme journey, in a plane designed in the early 1900s, with a top speed of 95mph (about 150kph) and an operating ceiling of 10 000 feet (about 3 048m), seems second nature for Taylor-Curtis, who also happens to be the first female pilot based at the the prestigious Shuttleworth collection of Vintage Planes in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire.

Mary Heath is quoted as saying, "When we are very young, we look for adventure and long for it, but it is generally only when we are grown-up that we are able to have it - and often then do not make use of our opportunities".

I started thinking about the sources of inspiration for young minds across Africa, in particular for young girls and their role models or adventure opportunities. 

According to Curtis-Taylor, there are a lot of women across Africa, striding forward to improve women’s rights, going unnoticed. And she plans to meet with many of them and use the historic re-enactment to drum up awareness around what they are doing and inspire adventure.

It is at this point that Curtis-Taylor starts waxing lyrical about the Downing Street initiative known as The Great Campaign to promote Britain overseas, one of the sponsors of her exciting journey. She explains how Mary Heath's pioneer route formed part of Britian's great aviation history and in fact became the "Imperial airways route that opened up the continent for industry and empire".

I couldn't help thinking she really shouldn't mention too much of this in Bulawayo. The inspiration she was aiming to incite was a noble enough cause.

Spirit of Artemis flight path - a celebration of the pioneering aviators

In preparation for her trip, Taylor-Curtis recently spent two-and-a-half months bring a biplane down from Kiev in the Ukraine to Cape Town along the West Coast of Africa.   

“I was invited to join this crew on behalf of ExecuJet and it’s going to be interesting to see the East side of Africa now.”

As we chat it is clear that Taylor-Curtis is chuffed at the prospect of having circumnavigated the African continent.

All in all, on this journey Taylor-Curtis will cover more than 7 000 miles in some 35 legs over an estimated seven weeks, visiting Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, The Sudan and finally Egypt after which she will trace the African coastline through Libya and Tunisia before heading across the Mediterranean to Sicily and then onto Great Britain.

While airport infrastructure can sometimes be tricky at best across the African continent,Taylor-Curtis seems more concerned about the risks created by the weather.

Ground loops and poor visibility are the key risks associated with the Stearman and she is fully aware of its limitations and how different it is to flying a modern airport.

“If conditions are not right we’ll have to divert to another airfield. We’ve got a very intense schedule and we cannot afford any weather or technical delays. We really do have to be careful.”

Sparking the imagination

Her entire journey is to be filmed as the cockpit and wings of the biplane will be fitted with cameras, and Taylor-Curtis will be accompanied by a film crew in a “chase plane”.  

All danger aside, the journey is set to capture what she refers to as the classical African landscape footage, including Tanzania’s Mount Kenya, the Rift Valley and the Lewa Conservancy’s Elephant Corridor. She’s also hoping to fly up the Nile.

The adventure is set to culminate into a documentary Taylor-Curtis and her team believe will cement a pioneering community of like-minded individuals across the world, where young minds can be inspired and dream up pioneering adventures that lead to something fresh and new.

Join Tracey Curtis-Taylor on the journey by visiting the Facebook page or chatting to them on twitter.

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