Of fame

SP's Aviation - - HALL -


in the least at­tracted by the life of staid do­mes­tic­ity that her aris­to­cratic roots fore­told. She was born Mary Westenra, daugh­ter of the fifth Baron Ross­more, in Ross­more Cas­tle, Ire­land, on De­cem­ber 1, 1890. She was spo­rad­i­cally home schooled and raised to be ‘proper’; but she re­belled and even tried run­ning away from home at the age of 16. Her child­hood was hap­pi­est when she was out hunt­ing, shoot­ing and fish­ing.

Later, she ap­par­ently pur­chased a mo­tor­cy­cle to sat­isfy her need for speed and then raced around in a car. In 1911, she was mar­ried to Sir Abra­ham ‘Abe’ Bai­ley, a wealthy South African min­ing mag­nate of Bri­tish de­scent who was more than twice her age. They had five chil­dren over a span of eight years. When World War I be­gan in 1914, Mary vol­un­teered to be an avi­a­tion tech­ni­cian and was sta­tioned in Britain and France with units of the Royal Fly­ing Corps.

Af­ter the War, avi­a­tion be­gan to spread all over the world and many in Britain de­cided to take to the air. Mary Bai­ley’s hum­drum fam­ily life again be­gan to vex her and she signed up for fly­ing lessons in se­cret as a means “to get away from prams” as she put it. To his credit, Abe Bai­ley never tried to dis­cour­age his wife and in­stead footed the bills for her many ad­ven­tures. She gained her pilot’s li­cence in 1927 and soon em­barked on a record-breaking ca­reer. She was the first woman to fly across the Ir­ish Sea. On July 5, 1927, she set a Fédéra­tion Aéro­nau­tique In­ter­na­tionale (FAI) world height record of 5,268 me­tres in a light air­craft cat­e­gory. But her hour of glory was still to come. In 1928, she de­cided to leave her chil­dren in the care of nan­nies and fly solo from Lon­don to Cape Town, at the South­ern tip of her adopted coun­try. It was less than a year af­ter Charles Lind­bergh’s first solo non­stop flight across the At­lantic.

On March 9, 1928, Mary Bai­ley de­parted from Stag Lane Aero­drome, the main base of the de Hav­il­land Air­craft Com­pany Lim­ited. She was fly­ing a stan­dard de Hav­il­land DH.60X Moth that she had bought di­rectly from its de­signer Cap­tain Ge­of­frey de Hav­il­land. It was a light plane, weigh­ing just 417 kg when empty. It was pow­ered by a sin­gle air-cooled Cir­rus Mark II in­line four-cylin­der en­gine. It cruised at 135 kmph and could re­main air­borne al­most four hours and cover a dis­tance of about 510 km. How­ever, Mary had an ex­tra tank fit­ted in the front cock­pit so she could count on re­main­ing air­borne for 10½ hours at a stretch. Her lug­gage was in two suit­cases and she was her own en­gi­neer.

Mary Bai­ley’s trou­bles be­gan on the very first leg. Cross­ing the English Chan­nel, she en­coun­tered bad weather, gale force winds and then fog. The weather de­te­ri­o­rated into a snow­storm that dogged her tran­sit through much of France. In Cairo she was de­tained for sev­eral days be­cause the au­thor­i­ties re­fused to let her pro­ceed with­out a male es­cort. She was equally adamant that she didn’t need a chap­eron. Fi­nally, a Bri­tish of­fi­cer who was fly­ing to Cairo agreed to ac­com­pany her and they took off. Since the plane had no ra­dio, she of­ten had to land sim­ply to ask for di­rec­tions to the next land­mark. Bad weather con­tin­ued to trou­ble her in­clud­ing sand- storms with high winds, poor vis­i­bil­ity and sti­fling heat. When she tried land­ing at Tab­ora, Tan­ganyika, in rather chal­leng­ing con­di­tions, the plane flipped over and was wrecked. Luck­ily Mary was un­hurt. What next?

Her mil­lion­aire hus­band came to the res­cue, pur­chas­ing an­other de Hav­il­land Moth and ar­rang­ing for it to be flown to her. Af­ter re­ceiv­ing her new plane, she pressed on, fell ill with se­vere in­fluenza, re­cov­ered and fi­nally reached Cape Town on April 30 af­ter a jour­ney of over 12,800 km. It was a record for the long­est solo flight and the long­est flight by a woman. “Any­body who can drive an auto could do it. My flight was long but un­event­ful and not ex­traor­di­nar­ily dif­fi­cult,” she said mod­estly.

Af­ter a break of four months she started the re­turn jour­ney across Bel­gian Congo, along the South­ern edge of the Sa­hara and up along the West coast of Africa. Then she dis­ap­peared in the Sa­hara desert. Her daugh­ter later re­called the trauma of be­ing sum­moned from class and told that her mother was miss­ing. Af­ter four days Mary was found and de­cided to con­tinue. She flew through Spain and France and re­turned to Lon­don on Jan­uary 16, 1929, having flown a dis­tance of about 28,800 km.

In Fe­bru­ary 1931, Mary Bai­ley put her fly­ing abil­i­ties to good use in the ser­vice of ar­chae­ol­ogy. She flew over some im­por­tant ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites and took aerial pho­to­graphs to fa­cil­i­tate ex­ca­va­tion and re­veal other promis­ing sites. In just two weeks, her team was able to build a com­pre­hen­sive pic­ture of a large ex­ca­va­tion site in the Kharga Oa­sis, the largest and most pop­u­lated oa­sis in Egypt, about 200 km to the west of the Nile Val­ley. It may have taken months to com­plete the same task on foot.

Mary Bai­ley twice won the Har­mon Tro­phy as the world’s out­stand­ing avi­a­trix in 1927 and 1928, the first two oc­ca­sions on which it was awarded. She was one of the finest women pi­lots of her time. She died on July 29, 1960, at the age of 69. She has been called one of the most re­mark­able Ir­ish­women of the 20th cen­tury. Isn’t that quite an achieve­ment for one who started out as some­thing of a rebel?

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