• Lady Mary Heath was feted as hero after flying the length of Africa in 1928
  • But 11 years later she died falling from London tram, an alcoholic
  • She was banned from being commercial pilot because she was a woman 
  • Her third husband, a Trinidadian jockey, was called ‘little n*****’ by society
  • Feat eclipsed by Amelia Earhart and was humiliated by Earhart’s manager
  • Her journey has been recreated for a documentary by an English female pilot flying a vintage biplane for a BBC documentary 

May 17, 1928: A small bullet-scarred Avro Avian biplane makes a bumpy landing on the grass runway at Croydon Aerodrome and skids to a halt to be immediately engulfed by the adoring thousands waiting there. 

Soon afterwards photographs of the pilot, draped in her customary fur coat, mink, pearls, and heels, are wired back to newsrooms around the world so that their front pages can record this historic feat.

Lady Mary Heath, born Sophie Mary Peirce-Evans 31 years earlier, had just become the first woman, or man for that matter, to fly solo the length of Africa back to the UK. 

The at times perilous 10,000-mile open cockpit journey, during which she was reported as dead after suffering with heat stroke in 100 degree heat and crashing near Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, made her in that moment the most famous aviator in the world.

A little over eleven years later, the same newspapers which covered this extraordinary triumph were reporting her death when, after years battling a serious alcohol problem, she fell down the stairs of a London tram and died from head injuries. 

By that stage also Lady Heath had long ceased to be news, ostracised then forgotten by the high society circles she was once so much a part of.

Pilot Tracey Curtis-Taylor, inspired by a biography of Lady Heath written by the journalist Lindie Naughton, decided in 2010 to try and raise the funding to recreate this historic flight in a restored 1942 Boeing Spearman biplane. 

In 2012 she was joined by Annette Porter, of Nylon Films, and the result was the documentary which is being aired next Tuesday, 87 years on.

What they were not prepared for as they probed deeper into Lady Heath’s story for The Aviatrix, however, was the very human tragedy which lay behind it, a story of how also sexism and racism played an irresistible part in her downfall.

For, in what was the golden age of pioneering aviation, women were permitted to fly for themselves but not permitted to carry passengers or, heaven forbid, earn a living from what for many had become a passion.

According to the all-male club which was the International Commission for Aviation their menstrual cycles were a disability which made them unfit to serve as commercial pilots.

Indeed it passed a resolution in April 1924 stating that ‘women shall be excluded from any employment in the operating crew of an aircraft engaged in public transport.’

Even when, following countless battles with the aviation authorities, Lady Heath became the first woman to hold a commercial pilot’s licence, passing arduous physical tests while on her menstrual cycle in the process, no airline was willing to employ her.

For a time she was listed as a co-pilot with KLM but after being on the crew of one flight she was dropped.

Even more shameful was the response Lady Heath received when she took a handsome Trinidadian jockey called Jack Williams on as her third husband. The unpardonable sin in those days of marrying a black man saw Jack referred to as ‘the little n****er’ in social circles and the advertising endorsements which once rained down on Lady Heath abruptly stopped.

True to form, she ignored them all and her marriage to Jack was by far the happiest and the longest until her dipsomania, or craving for alcohol to put it another way, forced them apart.

Lady Heath’s biographer and, later, the documentary team were able to pore over the journals, poetry, and countless articles she wrote, but few gave any inkling to the effects on her life of a succession of personal traumas.

She just made me laugh when you read her memoirs, she has that exuberance. She was a natural. She was winning air races here and in America. She was cleaning up even when competing against men.

Tracey Curtis-Taylor said: ‘She just made me laugh when you read her memoirs, she has that exuberance. She was a natural. She was winning air races here and in America. She was cleaning up even when competing against men. She was some lady in every sense of the word.

‘But she also rubbed up a lot of people the wrong way. What amuses me is she is always there with her fur coat, her pearls, her mink, this is one large Amazonian woman. She was kind of playing up to the male establishment, saying “I am flying up in an airplane eating chocolates and reading a novel.” There is a lot of humour here, just sending herself up. But she is also playing the male establishment. And that is what I loved about her.

‘Everywhere she went she had this exuberance. Even coming in she would throw a loop over the air field. She was a show off and an entertainer.

‘Looking back most of the women pilots we talk about from those times lost their lives. They did die young. For the women this is the price that they paid to achieve that. Most of them never had families, never had children. They were so obsessed with flying that it cost them everything to do it. And I think they understood that.

‘In Lady Heath’s case I just think she became too eccentric for society at that time. It is also a sorry fact that she became an alcoholic and absolute embarrassment. She would be found lying in the street, she would disappear for months at a time on drinking binges.

‘It’s not recorded what she did, but there’s one particular paragraph in Lindie’s book which is terribly sad.

‘Because mostly she is saying it’s all fine, that stuff upper lip, and all that kind of faux joy, there was one note where she said she had done everything to try and achieve happiness but that it had somehow eluded her. That was sad and it was the first time you got that real emotional honesty of what it cost her. She lost everything basically.’She was kind of playing up to the male establishment, saying ‘I am flying up in an airplane eating chocolates and reading a novel.’ 

She was kind of playing up to the male establishment, saying ‘I am flying up in an airplane eating chocolates and reading a novel.

Sophie Peirce-Evans was born in Knockaderry, County Limerick, on November 10 1896, the only child of a John Peirce, son of George Peirce, a well-respected doctor in the nearby town of Newcastle West. He had taken Kate Doolin from County Kerry, his then housekeeper, as his wife.

John Peirce, called ‘Jackie’, had inherited Knockaderry House from an uncle called Evans and so took on his name, becoming Peirce -Evans.

When Sophie was only a year old, her father beat her mother to death. The infant Sophie was sitting by the lifeless body when the police arrived. After a sensational trial which made headlines across Ireland at the time, Jackie was imprisoned in a lunatic asylum for the criminally insane.

Sophie moved to her grandfather’s house in Limerick’s Newcastle West and later boarded at a number of schools, most notably St Margaret’s Hall in Dublin, where she proved a brilliant student and became star of the hockey team. 

She then enrolled at the Royal College of Science for Ireland in Dublin until her aunts arranged what proved a disastrous marriage with British army captain William Davies Elliot-Lynn in late 1916 – Sophie was 20 and he was 41. He promptly went back to army life, and Sophie signed up as a dispatch rider for the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps.

After she was demobilised in 1919, Sophie returned to Dublin where she resumed her studies; the plan was that she would join her husband on the farm he was awarded in British East Africa under the Soldier Settlement Scheme. By this time Sophie was also competing as an athlete, throwing the javelin two handed and using her 6ft frame to good effect in the high jump, where she set an unofficial world record.

She followed her husband to East Africa in late 1922, but by then the farm was foundering and Eliot-Lynn suffering with malaria; he was not pleased to see her and – she would later claim – took to beating up his young wife. By the time Sophie returned to London in 1923 on a 3rd class ticket, the marriage was over in all but name. The pair were officially divorced in 1925, a matter Sophie kept secret. In 1927, her ex-husband was found drowned in the Thames.

In the early 1920s, women were barred from performing at the Olympics – unless it was in a genteel sport such as archery. Sophie, as vice-chairman of the newly-founded Women’s Amateur Athletic Association, was part of the campaign to have women’s athletics accepted at the Games. 

In May 1925, she flew to Prague to address a conference of the Olympic Congress; it was her first ever flight and she was immediately hooked. On August 19, she became one of the first members of the London Light Aeroplane Club and in October 18, 1925, took her first solo flight. A month later she had acquired a private pilot’s licence, but discovered that this had its limitations.

Amy Johnson did the first flight to Australia, Amelia Earhart flew the Atlantic, the first female to do so. And they are both celebrated and remembered. But before all this there was Mary Heath, and of course she has been entirely forgotten

Writing in Women and Flying, the book she wrote with aviation journalist Stella Murray Wolfe, she recalled her struggles: ‘When I first flew, I took my pilot’s licence and only afterwards did I discover that I had no right to a commercial one. I needed one very badly and as I had staked my last dollar on flying. I simply hounded the various ministries until they felt that at last if I insisted on flying and being killed, perhaps it would be a happy release all round. But in the end, because the men saw that it was unfair and unjust and were sympathetic, I gained my point and it was agreed between countries that women should fly freely to make a living.’

Flying was also expensive and affording your own plane unthinkable. With her first husband now dead, Sophie solved that problem when on October 10 1927, she married the wealthy industrialist Sir James Heath, who was 43 years her senior.

He bought her the Avro Avian in which she would shortly make history and it was boxed up and sent by ship to be reassembled in South Africa, where they went on honeymoon and where his new wife planned to help promote aviation to local clubs. 

While there, she decided that she would fly the tiny Avian back to London solo – a flight no-one had yet made, although there had been flights in the opposite direction.

She flew out of Cape Town in January 1928, although the flight proper didn’t begin until she left Johannesburg almost three weeks later, with an extra fuel tank added to her plane and other adjustments. The flight was to take her three months interrupted by a number of delays, many of them caused by local officials who were not prepared to let her fly on.

Annette Porter, of Nylon Films, accumulated more than 600 hours of footage showing Tracey Curtis-Taylor encountering an entirely different set of problems when she completed the same journey last year. They were able to learn all about Lady Heaths’s difficulties from reports she was filing to newspapers around the world as she made the journey. 

‘Heatstroke was her first problem, outside of Zimbabwe, which forced her to crash land,’ Annette.

‘It was fairly amazing that she landed in one piece. Afterwards she spent a bit of time in a nursing home then got up and flew away. She was not put off by that.

‘The next thing was that she had difficulty flying over the rim of the Rift Valley, west of Nairobi, a 9,000 foot escarpment which can be seen from space. That was when she reportedly had to throw out her books and shoes and tennis rackets to lighten the load.

‘She would fly long hours and the weather was a big issue in an open cockpit, grounding her at several locations. In Sudan she had to have an escort because they were afraid of a woman flying on her own

‘She was up in Libya when she got shot at by tribesmen and there were bullet holes in the fuselage when she landed later. There was also a great story about her crossing the Mediterranean and her being so very worried that she inflated bicycle inner tubes, and put them around her neck, in case she crashed. When she gained altitude she could feel them popping around her neck.

But there were also compensations. Much of the Africa she flew over was still in British hands and Lady Heath was royally entertained, attending parties, played tennis, and going on safari during stopovers.

Tracey Curtis-Taylor, in contrast, completed the same journey in another vintage plane in six weeks. In South Sudan she discovered her aviation fuel, much more difficult to acquire than the ordinary car petrol used by Lady Heath, had been stolen and tampered with. She and her camera crew were placed under arrest and only released after four days. They also had to flee a bloodbath in the city of Malakal.

By the time they reached Egypt, it was deemed too risky to fly over Libya as Lady Heath had done. In Egypt, the army-run airport insisted on forcing Tracey to fly up to 10,000 feet -a difficult task in such a small plane. Unsurprisingly she suffered from stress through much of the trip and was completely exhausted when she finally touched down at Goodwood Airport in January 2014.

When Lady Heath had landed at Croydon in May 1928, her husband Sir James was waiting but they soon became estranged as she attended a whirlwind of parties and lectures in the UK and then headed to the USA where she would promote British-made Cirrus engines.

Annette: ‘She was box office. Thousands of people would come out to air clubs in the US just to hear her speak. They loved her there as much, perhaps even more, than they did in England.’

Home by this time was a house in Clarges Street, Mayfair, where she entertained the likes of Lady Astor and became a darling of the dinner circuit. In the States home was an apartment in New York overlooking Central park, where she was similarly adored. But the lure of flying was such that Lady Heath was not content to just rest on her laurels. In a matter of months she was back competing in air races where pilots frequently lost their lives as they dodged between pylons.

Lady Heath was competing the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1929, when she clipped a chimney as she was staying clear of one such pylon.

‘She was out there raising money after her African flight,’ said Annette. ‘She clipped the chimney and crashed straight through it onto a factory floor. She was still in the cockpit and had fractured her skull. They thought she was dead.

‘She spent weeks in hospital in a coma. And when she eventually came out she had a metal plate in her skull which would remain there for the rest of her life.’

Also waiting for her when she left the hospital was a divorce petition from Sir James Heath, who humiliated her by going public about how he was refusing to pay dressmakers bills she had run up. Soon afterwards she wed Jack Williams.

Also lying in wait for Lady Heath was the controversial figure of George Putnam, who had made a fortune as a publisher from the pilot Charles Lindberg after his pioneering flight from New York to Paris. He set about acquiring a woman pilot to repeat that feat and one he had picked his woman, was not going to let anything get in her way – especially not Lady Heath.

Lindie Naughton uncovered strong evidence of this in exhaustively researching her book, Lady Icarus, for six years, which she re-wrote 15 times.

‘George Putnam was a very cold, calculating man,’ said Lindie. ‘He would have been the very first real marketing man in the way we understand it. His big hit was Charles Lindberg, who was the first person to make a solo flight non stop from New York to Paris. When Lindbergh finished that flight he was closeted away for 40 days and told to write the book, which was a huge, huge success.

Putnam went out of his way to ensure that Amelia completely eclipsed Lady Heath. He put pressure on show organisers to exclude her and put Amelia on instead 

‘And he then knew that the next big thing he knew was for a woman to fly the Atlantic. A woman called Mrs Amy Guest, who was the wife of the American ambassador to London, was planning such a journey. They were going to put the woman on a plane that someone else would fly, but Amy Guest’s husband wasn’t having it.

‘Putnam saw his chance and by pure chance came across Amelia Earhart, who was physically similar to Lindberg. Earhart was probably a nicer person than Mary Heath, certainly less complicated, but was put into a very, very difficult position.

‘Very often somebody else, described as a ‘mechanic’, was flying her plane, as we know, including William Lancaster, who was a great pal of Mary Heath’s. He told her that he had been asked to fly a plane for Amelia.

‘Just a month after Mary Heath flew back into London in May 1928, Amelia Earhart was bundled into the back of a plane with a pilot and a navigator and became the first women to ‘fly’ the Atlantic. A huge publicity machine then cranked into action publicising ‘the girl who had flown the Atlantic’. Aviation was the big story of the time in a way that is difficult for us to grasp now. I suppose it would be a bit like space travel in the 1950s. Newspapers would fill a full page with aviation news.

‘Putnam went out of his way to ensure that Amelia completely eclipsed Lady Heath. He put pressure on show organisers to exclude her and put Amelia on instead. On one occasion, Lady Heath turned up at an event in America thinking she was going to be put on an inaugural flight for Cuba only for Amelia to be put on instead when she arrived. It was humiliating.’

After her crash, Mary Heath spent months in and out of hospitals and clinics, though she still gave lectures and talks that proved very popular. She met Jack Williams, a small man of Jamaican origins, in Kentucky and in 1931, he became her third husband. That year, she also began flying again.

Lindie said: ‘After the Cleveland crash, she got her personal pilot’s licence back but never her commercial one. From the correspondence with the British authorities, it is obvious that the guy in charge of issuing the licences was determined not to see her flying commercially – and he probably had good reason. Her sight for instance had been damaged in the accident.’

In 1932 – the year Earhart did fly the Atlantic- Lady Heath returned to Dublin with her new husband, and by 1934 had taken over the private aviation services at Kildonan aerodrome north of the city. Although she successfully set up organisms such as the Irish Junior Aviation Club, by this time, aviation had moved into a different phase, with governments setting up state airlines and regular routes established all over the world. The glorious days of the pioneering mavericks, such as Lady Heath, was over.

Eventually her third marriage failed, as her alcoholism (inherited from her mother’s side of the family) took hold. She returned to London, where her many appearances before the court on drunk and disorderly charges make sad readings in the small print of the contemporary newspapers. By the time she was declared dead at a hospital in East London, she was classed as having no fixed abode.

She had outlived Amelia Earhart, who had disappeared and been declared dead during a fight over the Pacific in 1937. Two years later, Briton Amy Johnson, who in 1930 became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, would perish as well, after crashing into the Thames Estuary.

Tracey Curtis-Taylor: ‘Amy Johnson did the first flight to Australia, Amelia Earhart flew the Atlantic, the first female to do so. And they are both celebrated and remembered. But before all this there was Mary Heath, and of course she has been entirely forgotten.’

Annette Porter: ‘What she did was remarkable. Coming from where she did, to accomplish the things that she did. She was triumphant and she was tragic.’

Tracey Curtis-Taylor got Boeing, Artemis Investment Management and ExecuJet to contribute almost £300,000.

This was matched by private investors to fund the documentary, which she hopes will lead to history at last remembering Lady Heath. 

Besides a small plaque on the house where she lived as a child in Newcastle West, there are is no public recognition of Lady Heath in Britain and Ireland. Her book, Woman And Flying, is on a lower shelf of the British Aerospace Library, and Lindie Naughton hopes that a re-release of her biography will attract a wider audience this time around.