Few people have made an impact on the world of aviation like Lady Mary Heath. The Anglo-Irish aviatrix lived a life of adventure and pioneering achievements in the face of adversity. Lady Mary’s life was as unfortunate as it was brilliant, the sort of story that film-makers are attracted to.
Born Sophie Catherine Theresa Mary Peirce-Evans in Knockaderry, County Limerick, Ireland in November 1896, the start of Lady Heath’s life was as tragic as the end. Her father had an abusive relationship with many, including Sophie’s Kerry-born mother. In December 1897, Sophie’s mother was bludgeoned to death, with Sophie’s father found guilty of the murder and deemed insane.
The year-old Sophie went to live with her aunts in nearby Newcastle West – the building now houses the local AIB Bank. When Sophie was 12, she was sent to a Dublin boarding school which suited her sense of adventure and academic prowess.
COLLEGE LIFE AND WWI
In 1914, Sophie began studying at Dublin’s Royal College of Science. Her boundless energy saw her thrust herself into the extracurricular sports and social scene as much as her studies.
In 1916, she met Captain William Elliott-Lynn and married him a few months later. The following year, she joined the British War Office as a dispatch driver, serving in England and France during World War I.
After the war, she returned to Dublin to complete her degree in Agriculture, following this with postgraduate studies in Aberdeen, Scotland. Having always been physically active in sport, Sophie became involved in the administrative side of it during her time in Aberdeen.
ATHLETICS AND AVIATION
By now, her husband was living in East Africa but Sophie couldn’t settle there. The marriage broke down and Sophie returned to the UK in 1924. She became an accomplished athlete, her 6ft frame giving her a natural height advantage. She also threw herself into athletics administration, the promotion of healthy living for women and authoring a book entitled Athletics for Women and Girls.
As part of an athletics delegation, she flew to Prague in 1925. The experience had her immediately hooked on aviation. She got involved in the London Aeroplane Club and took flying lessons. Within weeks she was flying solo.
She encountered a chauvinistic attitude in the aviation world including a ban on women as commercial pilots. Adversity seemed to be a motivating factor for Sophie rather than a hindrance, and she successfully challenged that position, becoming the first female commercial pilot in the UK. She also became the first woman to make a parachute jump from a plane.
As no airline would hire female pilots, Sophie entered competitions and gave flying lessons. In 1927, she met and married Sir James Heath and began calling herself Lady Mary Heath. They moved to South Africa, with Lady Mary bringing her beloved Avro Avian plane on the boat as luggage. The marriage was not to last.
CAPE TOWN TO LONDON SOLO FLIGHT
1928 was Lady Mary’s year of international fame, starting on 5th January when she left Cape Town in her Avro Avian for a tour of South Africa’s airfields. A few weeks later, she left South Africa heading north towards her final destination of London.
On 17th May, she arrived at Croydon airfield in London to wild celebrations. She became the first person, male or female, to fly solo from Cape Town to London. She also became the first woman to fly over the equator. Lady Mary had well and truly established herself as one of the most eminent aviators of the decade.
The 10,000 mile route was not without its challenges. Running repairs were a constant. As the Avro was an open-cockpit aircraft, she was exposed to the elements. Lady Mary passed out from heatstroke in Zimbabwe. In order to make the plane lighter and gain altitude to clear mountains in Kenya, she had to jettison some cargo.
The upside was the exquisite scenery and the parties she attended along the way as many countries on the route were part of the British Empire at the time.
With a fear of flying over water, Lady Mary had to take the shortest route over the Mediterranean Sea (Tunisia to Sicily) which added time to her journey.
The present-day countries covered on Lady Mary’s route were: South Africa – Zimbabwe – Zambia – Tanzania – Kenya – South Sudan – Sudan – Egypt – Libya – Tunisia – Italy – France – UK.
ONWARDS, UPWARDS, DOWNWARDS
Not one to rest on her laurels, she co-wrote a book on her solo flight experience (Woman and Flying), began a tour of personal appearances around the UK and became a commercial pilot with KLM.
Selling her plane to Amelia Earhart, Lady Mary moved to the US where she became the first female aircraft mechanic in the country.
Considered one of the most experienced pilots in the world, there was huge surprise when, in 1929, she crashed at the National Air Races in Cleveland sustaining life-changing injuries. What followed was a personal breakdown and another divorce.
With her pilot’s licence restored in 1931, she returned to flying, meeting and marrying fellow aviator George Anthony Reginald Williams from Trinidad. From what I understand, they married in Tralee, County Kerry.
She moved home to Ireland where she joined Iona National Airways as an instructor and founded a number of flying associations. In 1935, she founded Dublin Air Ferries while Foynes in her native County Limerick was chosen as the European hub of the new transatlantic route.
With a third marriage on the brink due to her alcoholism, she went to the UK. In May 1939, she fell while travelling on a London tram and died as a result of the head injuries she sustained. At the age of 42, the life of this fearless and pioneering aviator had come to an end.
Lady Mary was a trailblazer in the aviation industry. She went full throttle through the glass ceiling, empowering female aviators in a number of countries. She played a key part in founding the Irish aviation industry.
Lady Mary is commemorated in her native Newcastle West via a plaque on the wall of the building where she grew up. Thankfully, a video of the plaque ceremony survives. But her and her successes have been forgotten in the wider community. So here’s to hoping that this post introduces her life to a new audience.
Question is, who’ll play her in the film of her life?
Lilian Bland was also a pioneering Anglo-Irish aviator so check out the biographical post I have written about her.
Book: Lindie Naughton – Lady Icarus: The Life of Irish Aviator Lady Mary Heath
Newcastle West Olden Times
Eamon at SkyView Photography
Eugene at Photos From Around Ireland
Limerick City Library