Flying the flag for women pilots

During her six-day layover in Singapore, Ms Tracey Curtis-Taylor (left) will meet young pilots and aviation enthusiasts.
During her six-day layover in Singapore, Ms Tracey Curtis-Taylor (above) will meet young pilots and aviation enthusiasts.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Tracey Curtis-Taylor travels the world in a vintage plane to pay tribute to pioneering aviatrix

In 1930, during the golden age of civil aviation, British pilot Amy Johnson was the first woman to fly from Britain to Australia - a feat she completed in a mere 19 days.

Two years before her, Ireland's Lady Mary Heath - the first woman to hold a commercial aviation licence in Great Britain - became the first person to fly a small, open-cockpit airplane from Cape Town to London.

Despite the achievements of these pioneering aviatrix, few today are aware of their stories or the path they forged for women in a male-dominated industry.

Ms Tracey Curtis-Taylor wants to change that - by flying a vintage plane solo around the world and speaking to young female pilots.

The British gemologist-turned- aviator is flying her vintage 1942 open-cockpit Boeing Stearman from Britain to Australia in tribute to Ms Johnson, ahead of the 75th anniversary of the pioneer's death next year. Her 24,100km trip started in Farnborough, Hampshire in England in October last year. She is flying across 23 countries, making 52 pit stops and concluding in Sydney next month.

At every stopover city, she talks about aviation to girls, women and female student pilots.

She landed at Singapore's Seletar Airport on Monday. During her six-day layover here, she will meet young pilots and aviation enthusiasts, including those at the Youth Flying Club today.

Speaking to The Straits Times on Wednesday, the 53-year-old was all smiles. "It's been amazing to land at the same airport Amy did during her flight all those years ago," she says. "I feel privileged to be able to meet people and retell the story of her contribution to aviation."

Seletar Airport in Singapore was one of Ms Johnson's pit stops during her 19-day flight from England to Australia in 1930.

For security reasons, Ms Curtis- Taylor had to deviate slightly from Ms Johnson's original route, which back then flew over numerous sections of the Middle East. But she tries to remain as faithful as possible to Ms Johnson's flight.

She is flying a Boeing Stearman, a canvas-bodied plane from 1942 that she had fully restored in 2012. It is controlled by a manual stick and rudder system. Her other plane, a Ryan Recruit, is based in Goodwood, West Sussex.

She flies the Stearman for up to six hours at a time and about 3km above ground - a much lower altitude than modern private planes' 10km to 12km - which lets her enjoy the scenery.

As the plane does not have modern technology such as an autopilot, she navigates using the terrain as a guide. But she keeps an iPad for navigation and communication purposes too.

Being in a small plane makes her vulnerable to bad weather, which includes sandstorms in Saudi Arabia. "Thankfully, I'm not out to break any world records, so I take my time and make sure I stay put or turn back when the weather is unfavourable. I've been lucky enough to not have had any hair-raising landings so far."

A gemologist by training, she got her commercial and private flying licences in England in the 1980s. In 1983, she began to fly regularly and, in 2013, decided to make round-the- world trips. They are sponsored by partners such as British fund manager Artemis Investment Management, Boeing and Singapore Airlines.

But the outreach portion is the most important part of her journeys.

A highlight is her talk with 2,000 young female students aged five to 18 in Karachi. "They were wearing handmade biplane headgear and costumes and were so eager to learn. It was one of the most moving things I've ever experienced."

Meanwhile, a documentary about the expedition is being filmed by a small support crew that is travelling with her in a separate aircraft.

The singleton says her Boeing Stearman is "the love of my life". "Even though bureaucracy and security regulations these days have made it difficult to plan these trips, I can't help but feel at one with the plane when I'm flying. Sometimes, I feel like it's taking me on the journey instead of the other way around."

Ms Tracey Curtis-Taylor describes what it is like flying a vintage plane. Go to str.sg/ZKUR

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2015, with the headline 'Flying the flag for women pilots'. Print Edition | Subscribe