Flying 14,500 miles across 23 countries recreating Amy Johnson’s famous long-distance flight, Tracey Curtis-Taylor landed in Sydney Australia in January 2016. The modern-day adventurer flew ‘in the slipstream’ of Amy in Spirit of Artemis, an open cockpit biplane, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Beverley born aviation icon’s, pioneering solo-flight in May 1930.
Tracey Curtis-Taylor was born and raised in Canada but moved to the UK in the seventies and grew up in the Lake District. Captivated, as a teen, by tales of polar exploration and inspired by the adventure stories of Wilbur Smith, the intrepid young woman had her first flying lesson aged just 16.
In 1982 after working in S.Africa for de Beers, Tracey made her way back to the U.K. driving in a Bedford truck. The ambitious trip took a total of five months travelling through savannah, jungle and desert. After gaining her private pilot’s licence in New Zealand, Tracey was trained by military pilots to fly WWII aeroplanes with the New Zealand Warbird Association.
Today Tracey combines her love of flying with history, landscape and education to inspire the next generation. By promoting and being an ambassador for the engagement of women in engineering, design and aviation, she pays tribute to the early pioneers of flight. Tracey uses her expeditions to raise awareness of many different causes, including disability awareness, conservation of the natural world, military service charities and historic aviation.
Since reaching your destination Sydney, have you had time to reflect on your achievements: what do you see as being the most significant?
I have had very little time for anything since arriving in Sydney. Actually, I considered the send off from Farnborough on October 1 2015, one of the finest moments. It took so much effort (literally – blood, sweat and tears) to pull the expedition together over the previous eighteen months, you never quite believe that the moment has arrived, until you climb into the cockpit and take off. It was a very special thing to have so many friends and supporters there and not know when I might see them again. I literally had to tear myself away and thought “If I can just get over the Channel, it will be more than enough…”
You are living proof that the thirst for adventure has not diminished in the 21st Century but how has it changed since Amy’s time: the long distance flight heyday?
It’s not just a different century, it’s a different universe from 1930, especially post 9/11. Back then the pioneers were out to break records and prove that it could be done. The route to Australia was predominantly British Empire, there was very little in the way of airspace restrictions or regulations and security issues which dominate the world today.
Amy was flying without a radio, she had twelve hours of range so could fly huge distances and over borders without stopping to process or refuel. She relied on basic navigation (she was a fantastic navigator) and dead reckoning. She often flew “blind” in cloud. The old AA topographical maps which I have seen from this period are very good, in some respects better than anything we can get today for open cockpit flying. It would be impossible to fly to many of the airports I went to without GPS and other modern aeronautical aids.
The world is a very different place with conflicts and civil unrest in many Middle Eastern countries, what geo-political concerns did you have, when planning your route? Did these feel like compromises?
There were several areas which were problematic because of political and historical sensitivities and security was an issue everywhere. I could not follow Amy’s route through Syria and Iraq for obvious reasons so we routed across the Mediterranean instead.
The first issue was trying to get into Cyprus which we were unable to do directly from Turkey. We ended up routing from Istanbul down the west coast of Turkey to the Greek Island of Rhodes; and then to RAF Akrotiri via the Greek Cypriot part of the Island but we were still challenged by the Air Traffic Controllers. We then flew over Israel (I would love to have stopped but this would have prevented us from landing in Saudi Arabia which was our only route through to Pakistan and India) I don’t regard this as a compromise, it was expedient to do so in order to get through at all. And it was fantastic to fly the Dead Sea and the Arabian Desert.
Amy was so intent on breaking the world record to Australia and pushed herself to the edge of physical and psychological exhaustion, that I don’t think the flying would have been terribly pleasurable for her. By contrast, I have revelled in flying low-level and taking time to see and film some of the most amazing scenery on the way. I hope the documentary shows something of what it is like to fly in this increasingly rare way.
One of the tenets of the Amy Johnson Festival, is to highlight the role of engineering in our lives, and to inspire the next generation of engineers; particularly women engineers. What would you say to those considering a career in engineering?
Go for it, girls!! The opportunities are endless and exciting beyond words especially in aerospace. From what I have seen, most school girls have no idea what it involves and think that engineering is all about engines, mechanics and dirty hands. That’s pretty much what I thought and that’s exactly what Amy did. Basic mechanics! In reality, engineering in its simplest form is designing and making things and females are very good at that. But it’s all about early conditioning and educating girls about the infinite range of choices and possibilities.
Were there moments when you questioned yourself or your ability, to achieve what you’d set out to do?
No. I just knew that I would make it happen, somehow. And I had a fantastic crew to support me. Determination is a very big part of achieving something like this. Amy herself said that once she decided to fly to Australia, she just drove through obstacles and impediments like a tank. I can relate to that.
What are the biggest concerns when setting out to make a journey such as this one?
At almost any minute on an expedition like this, anything can happen. Every single day was fraught with challenges, mostly never what you expect. The most obvious hazards: the weather – low cloud, fog, reduced visibility, thunderstorms, headwinds and howling cross wind – old biplanes are notoriously susceptible to ground looping (when the tail of the plane swings out either side on landing) in these conditions. Then technical breakdown, catastrophic engine failure, crew injury or illness; money concerns with harrowing and non-budgeted charges en route; and political issues which might stop the expedition in its tracks. It is a very dangerous world out there!
Were there any moments when things might have gone wrong: dangerous storms or technical failure, some other unforeseen event?
The Stearman plane didn’t miss a beat, wonderful old flying machine that it is! We flew in some horrible and frightening weather notably coming through the Carpathian Mountains in Romania, a serious thunderstorm in Saudi Arabia and some very poor visibility in northern India. I was concerned about the monsoon coming through Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia but in the event, we got through and only got wet a couple of times.
When you were up there alone in your vintage plane, did you ‘really’ feel like you were following in the slipstream of Amy Johnson? Did you have any of Amy’s writing up there with you?
I often had passengers in the Stearman with me, notably my engineer and right hand man, Ewald Gritsch. There is a lot of communication with air traffic controllers and also at times with the support aircraft which would take off behind me and land ahead of me. We would do air to air filming in some of the more iconic places – over the temples of Myanmar, the James Bond Islands in Thailand and Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in Australia, of course.
In those long hours of flying, a sense of being one with the machine and looking out over the wings blazing in the sun, with nothing but the air and the earth, a long way from anywhere. At these moments it was possible to believe that it was then,1930, and that I really was flying back in time.
I thought about Amy an awful lot and always took a few minutes each night to read about that part of her journey which I was going to cover the next day. But the flying is too hands on to allow reading in the cockpit. I am too completely absorbed in flying and sightseeing to even want to read!
Are you adventurous in other aspects of your life?
I have always loved travel, history, adventure, excitement, freedom, wilderness and mobility, preferably in three dimensions. Flying old aeroplanes is how I realise all of these elements. It is ridiculously romantic but that is how I have tried to live my life. At a certain cost, of course…
Besides Amy Johnson, who has clearly inspired this flight, are there other feats of exploration or adventurers from times past, who continue to inspire you?
Living near the Lake District as a teenager, I was interested in mountaineering and early exploration in Africa and read all the Wilbur Smith books. Polar expeditions were also a source of great interest – Shackleton is another personal hero – and other famous travels and journeys, such as the Voyage of the Beagle. I have huge admiration for Gertrude Bell and recently read the book “Queen of the Desert”. She was another brave and brilliant woman who led an exceptional life, like Amy Johnson. Another Northerner!!
What is next? Are the maps and charts already out in anticipation of your next adventure?
You know, I love maps and I nearly always have one in my handbag at any given moment. I find it deeply comforting to have the world laid out before me!
I am flying the Spirit of Artemis across America in May to celebrate 100 Years of the Boeing Company. It is my tribute and thank you to them for being so magnificently supportive of my flights around the world. The Stearman is an early Boeing so it will be something of a spiritual homecoming for the aeroplane.
Follow Tracey Curtis-Taylor on Twitter https://twitter.com/biplanebird/ and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/birdinabiplane/
Amy Johnson Festival takes place in Hull, East Yorkshire from July 1st 2016 http://amyjohnsonfestival.co.uk
All images used by permission courtesy Tracey Curtis-Taylor http://www.birdinabiplane.com/