Sky's the Limit

International Women's Day 2019

Inspiring Interview, International Women's Day 2019

Tracey Curtis-Taylor has seen the world, set records and made headlines from the cockpit of a bi-plane. Here she reveals her motivations, challenges and proudest achievements.

Tracey Curtis-Taylor decided her days at the Foreign Office were numbered after just nine months. Joining the civil service in 1981 as an adventurous 19-year-old, she was intent on travelling the world as a high-flying diplomat.
Instead, comments by a chauvinistic colleague provided the catalyst to a very different career – one that would ultimately fulfil her dream in dramatic fashion. She left soon after to become an accomplished pilot, later flying a vintage Boeing Stearman on a series of high profile challenges as the self-styled ‘bird in a bi-plane’.

Amelia Earhart, turning the propeller of the sports plane she bought in 1928. The plane was previously owned by Mary, Lady Heath, an Irish aviatrix. 

“I was a Grade II clerical worker and felt completely trapped in my Whitehall office. So when that man told me women were rarely considered for overseas posts and the best I could hope for was to marry a diplomat, I knew it was time to leave.”
The incident inspired Tracey to become a poster girl for flying whose exploits have made headlines around the world. Her adventures have included flights from England to Australia, Cape Town to Goodwood – plus a narrow escape crash-landing in America earlier this year.
Despite a late night the evening before, Tracey is firing on all cylinders when we sit down for an early morning chat. Her two-bedroom flat in west London is crammed with memorabilia that could be borrowed from the set of an Indiana Jones movie.
Dominating proceedings is an enormous propeller off a World War One bi-plane. A pith helmet sits on a shelf, squeezed together with other African artefacts, while a photograph of an aircraft flying over the pyramids in Egypt dominates another room. Then there are books, lots and lots of books.

“...when that man told me women were rarely considered for overseas posts and the best I could hope for was to marry a diplomat, I knew it was time to leave”

Pride of place goes to a two-foot high statue of the Spirit of Ecstasy – like the one found on the bonnet of every Rolls Royce. “It’s so beautiful. To me, it represents the whole female ethos of beauty and intrepid adventure.”
Tracey has arrived home just a few hours earlier from a classic car rally. She accompanied the driver in a 4.5-litre open-top Bentley on a three-day drive around the west of England. I can still hear the excitement in her voice as she recalls the experience.
“We had a couple of breakdowns but it was absolutely epic. The owner said that his Bentley is the closest I would get to flying a vintage aircraft on the road – and he was right.”
Tracey, 54, was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire. Her father was a journalist and the family later moved to the Lake District, before emigrating to Canada and finally New Zealand. “I think my first love as a teenager was for horses. I saved up all my spare money to buy a pony called Victor.
“He wasn’t a very polished horse but I loved him to bits. When he died at a young age, I was absolutely stunned. It had a massive impact on me. He had real presence, character and identity – something I would feel again with my bi-plane.”
Tracey’s father encouraged his twin daughters to go with him to air shows when the family lived in Canada. “I’m certain that’s where my interest in flying started. I think some of dad rubbed off on me – he was definitely an inspiration. When he died last year I was devastated.
“I took my first flying lesson when I was 16. I waitressed to pay for the course and then the instructor couldn’t get rid of me. I flew vintage aircraft because they were cheaper and, as it turned out, much harder to fly.
“Then I went on to work at air shows, in display teams, and much later at the Shuttleworth Collection of vintage aircraft, in Bedfordshire. I’m divorced but I never wanted to be trapped in a marriage with children and a mortgage.”
The photos in her sitting room confirm she has spent more time in the air than with her feet on the ground. Tracey’s first major adventure took off in 2013, when she decided to recreate the extraordinary journey of Lady Mary Heath from Cape Town to England.
The original pioneering female pilot, Lady Heath was nicknamed ‘Lady Icarus’. She founded the Women’s Amateur Athletics Association, before undertaking her first solo flight in an open cockpit plane in 1928. She set a world altitude record, was the first woman to make a parachute jump, and to hold a commercial pilot’s license.
“It doesn’t get more inspiring than that!” laughs Tracey. “I thought she was a romantic adventuress and that totally captivated me. It was an incredible trip in my 1943 bi-plane but also set the mould for an even bigger expedition.”
This time it was a perilous 14,600-mile flight halfway around the world in her Boeing Stearman, called the Spirit of Artemis. The three- month journey, which ended in January this year, would retrace the route of legendary female aviator, Amy Johnson – who was herself inspired by Lady Heath.
“Amy was the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia in 1930. She did it without satellite navigation or proper support and I’m sure encountered many of the dangers I did on the way there.”

“The original pioneering female pilot, Lady Heath was nicknamed ‘Lady Icarus’ …she was the first woman to make a parachute jump, and to hold a commercial pilot’s license. ‘It doesn’t get more inspiring than that!’”


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