"Flying is the ultimate detachment"


'Flying is the ultimate detachment'
'BIRD IN A BIPLANE': Tracey with her 1942 Boeing Stearman vintage airplane at the Dubai Airshow last month

Aviatrix Tracey Curtis-Taylor talks about her love for vintage biplanes and recreating historic expeditions that are taking her up, up and away from male prejudices, one flight at a time


Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Thu 3 Dec 2015, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 11 Dec 2015, 9:09 AM

Tracey Curtis-Taylor is on a mission. Two, actually.
The aviatrix is currently in the middle of flying her open cockpit vintage biplane across 23 countries and 13,000 miles, from Great Britain to Australia, in a bid to recreate the historic flight first undertaken by pioneer Amy Johnson in 1930. In doing so, she hopes to bring back to public consciousness the life and legacy of an incredibly pioneering aviatrix ("who nobody seems to remember, or even know, anymore") - and inspire women everywhere to believe that they too can fly. In a manner of speaking, of course.
I'm waiting at the Taj Dubai in Business Bay, 10 minutes early for our interview, and eagerly anticipating this chat with a woman who, no doubt, cuts an unusual figure in aviation circles. "She's usually right on time," says director of marketing and communications Ahmad Nazzal, glancing at his watch, as I do too. It has just turned five. As if on cue, the elevators ping open and Tracey comes striding out in our direction.
A proud Briton, she looks remarkably fit for her age at 53 and exudes a quiet determination that leaves little doubt about how she's managed to succeed in "living the dream". And it all started with a flying lesson at 16.
"My twin sister and I were going back to Canada for the summer hols and it was my first experience in an airliner," says Tracey, the memory making her smile. "I was glued to the window, mesmerised by the view as we flew over Greenland, with its mountains and ice. When we got to Canada, my sister went shopping while I had my first flying lesson. Not the 20-minute introductory flight kind either," she adds. "I ended up flying all afternoon with the pilot. He couldn't get rid of me! The flying bug had bitten me almost immediately."
Tracey went on to dabble at a "series of fantastic jobs" - including training as a diamond valuer with De Beers and a stint with the Diplomatic Service at the Foreign Office in Whitehall - before emigrating to New Zealand in her early twenties. That's when she started flying in earnest, being trained (unusually enough) by military pilots with the New Zealand Warbird Association to fly World War II aeroplanes. Flying old planes soon became a huge passion - and a defining one, as it turned out.
Not that she didn't encounter the occasional "bite of impatience" from her male counterparts. Aviation is, unfortunately, still a predominantly male establishment today, Tracey laments. "It may be biological or it may be cultural upbringing, but women don't approach this with the same degree of confidence that men do. So, occasionally, I would encounter a difficult attitude - but I didn't have the time of day for that, I might add, so I worked around it pretty quickly," she states, rather bluntly.
In fact, misogyny was a key factor in driving Tracey away from the 'conventional life' she was living in England at the time. "One of the reasons I left the foreign diplomatic office was because it was very much the male establishment," she recalls. "I was told on practically my second day of training that I would never really have a career. The best I could hope for was to marry an ambassador. So, I decided I wasn't going to hang around in that environment, wasting my youth. Within eight months, I'd left for Africa under my own steam."
There, the adventurer worked and travelled around South Africa for several months, before taking an overland trip from Johannesburg to London in a Bedford truck - a five month-long journey that involved camping through savannah, jungle and desert.
Occasional chauvinism aside, however, Tracey notes what's more important is the "mostly fantastic support" she's received because she was an atypical figure on the scene. It's good to see more and more women getting involved today, she says, but points out that "we are still very much underrepresented across the board in aviation, aerospace engineering etc. In Europe, for instance, we make up less than five per cent of the industry. That's part of the motivation behind this flight - to encourage women everywhere, not necessarily to fly but, to pursue their dreams and make brave choices."
It's something that Tracey, whose first expedition was flying her 1942 Boeing Stearman up Africa two years ago, knows a thing or two about. The idea for that expedition was seeded in 2009 - inspired by the flying sequence in the film Out of Africa - but it took her four years to plan the flight, work out the logistics, and source both the airplane and the required funding before she could actually take to the skies.
"It's a very dispiriting process because you have to keep knocking on doors and writing letters and networking," she says. But that's how she got her principal sponsor, Artemis Investments, on board in the end. "I'd seen an advertisement for the company, featuring a 1930s airplane flying over some Pacific island - the creative really caught my eye, because it spoke about risk management and being off the beaten track. It took me a year before I wrote to them, because I knew I had just one crack at it. I had to get my plan and business model in place first."
When she was ready, Tracey "found the chief executive's name over the internet" and wrote to him with her idea of doing a flight up Africa in a restored vintage airplane to retell the story of another forgotten aviatrix, Lady Mary Heath. "She was one of the finest pilots in the late 20s, one of the first female Olympic athletes, the first female commercial licence holder in Britain, the first person to jump with a parachute - and the first person to fly solo from the Cape to the UK in 1928. That's a lot of firsts. No one remembers her. I wrote all that and told him how Artemis embodied everything I was doing - and, within three days, I had my first sponsor."
It was a lot of hard work, but well worth the effort, Tracey says. "To fly open cockpit, it's very physical - it's loud and noisy; you get burnt by the sun, no matter what you do; you're very exposed to the elements; you get dehydrated. But, frankly, the minute I'm up in the air, I'm just euphorically happy. That moment when you take off and leave everything behind, with nothing but spectacular views and wonderful terrains below - flying just a wing span off rock faces, finding herds of camels in the desert, the brilliant play of sunshine on the wings. Sometimes, you don't even have the sensation of movement, when you're flying, because the horizon disappears around you. The sun and the sand almost become the same element because they disappear into the haze. I mean, who else gets to see it like this? I'm very conscious of the rarity of what I'm doing here."
With the current expedition to Australia - which she hopes to achieve by early 2016 - Tracey flies four to five hours a day, and has a total of 52 legs to cover. By comparison, her predecessor Amy Johnson did 10-12 hours a day, and engineered the aeroplane herself for two-three hours every night. While Amy was going for a world record and got to Australia in 19 days, Tracey will be setting a far more relaxed pace, taking about three months and making multiple stops along the way to share Amy's story.
"I don't think Amy could've enjoyed what she was doing," Tracey reckons. "She was terribly inexperienced, almost killed herself several times - even flipping the airplane on her final landing in Australia. It was almost a comedy of errors, but she made it. And while, literally, three people saw her off at Croydon airport in London, when she started, there were no less than a couple of hundred thousand to meet her by the time she got to Australia."

Where is she now?At the time of going to press, Tracey had crossed the halfway point in Delhi, India. Taj Hotels Resorts & Palaces is lending support along the way as global hospitality partner for her journey.
What Amy didn't have to contend with, however, was bureaucracy. "If flying is the dream, the nightmare is what happens on the ground today," says Tracey. "Amy didn't have a radio, and there was no 'airspace' in those days. So, she could fly 10-12 hours at a time, at high altitudes, covering great distances. She didn't have to contend with any of the bureaucracy, red tape, and hours and hours of processing that we do today. Sometimes, I can't even get access to my own airplane, and that's incredibly frustrating. The world is such a different place today."
That said, navigating difficult weather is the one factor that was a major challenge in Amy's time, and remains so today. Some of the flying has been terrifying, Tracey admits. Like the big electrical storm she once got caught in, when it went "dark as night" and the skies opened to heavy downpours. "Thunderstorms like that are death traps and we were pushing through - which wasn't good, because that's what killed Amy in the end in 1941. She was flying for the Air Transport Auxiliary during World War II; the weather was terrible and she should never have taken off. But she did, eventually ditching the plane in the Thames Estuary and getting killed in the rescue attempt at just 36 years old. It was awful. The bureaucracy won't necessarily kill you - but the weather will."
All of these experiences tend to give you a remarkable perspective of your life, says Tracey. "Flying is the ultimate detachment, and it's been a rather self-fulfilling destiny. I have an almost terrifying freedom in a way now, so the question is what to do with it and how to bring some benefit to others because of it. That's what drives me now."
She's been flying through the glass ceiling for more than 30 years now. Does she have more heroes or heroines to thank for this? "Definitely heroines," says Tracey. "Gertrude Bell, who gained an extraordinary career as a writer, archaeologist and spy in the Middle East; authors Karen Blixen and Emily Bronte. And then, of course, Amy Johnson, Lady Mary Heath, Amelia Earhart - they were all aviation pioneers. I think their achievements were exponentially greater than those of their male counterparts, because, not only were they flying, they had to do it against huge opposition, scepticism and patronising resistance all the time."
Self-styled 'Bird in a Biplane', Tracey is also a motivational speaker and has been meeting with girls and women during her stops on the ground. "I think there are wonderful opportunities out there for women, if they understand what's out there and can get over the cultural resistance they face in these parts of the world. The irony is: someone said to me, 'Never mind talking to the women, talk to their husbands and fathers!' The world is getting harder and harder economically, and two-income households are becoming a must. It seems to be a real paradox to not let women have fulfilling careers too, if you want them to flourish. I don't expect everyone to become pilots," she clarifies. "But there's an extraordinary diversity of jobs in aerospace engineering alone - and I promise, once they get involved in aerospace, they'll be hooked and never look back again."
It's how she feels about her beautiful vintage biplane. "Every time I see it, I can feel my pulse quicken and I can't wait to get back into it again."

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