Every time I take off I am enthralled and captivated
Inspired by her hero Amy Johnson, Tracey Curtis-Taylor, 53, flew a 1940s vintage biplane 13,000 miles from the UK to Australia. She tells us about the most challenging day of her epic journey…
The European winter had arrived – the cloud was low, the rain was driving into the cockpit and the fog was causing limited visibility. It wouldn’t have been a problem if I was flying a 737 from England to Australia, but I wasn’t… I was re-enacting Amy Johnson’s solo voyage and flying a vintage biplane. There are no modern instruments on board this plane, I fly with stick and rudder and my eye sight only. I knew that the weather would be one of the biggest challenges of this flight, but I expected to encounter it in the monsoons of the Southern Hemisphere, not at the start of the flight when I was still in Europe.
The fourth leg of the journey to Romania proved to put every sinew of my body to the test. Luckily I was still at the beginning of my trip, so I was still relatively fresh. But this didn’t stop me from feeling nervous. As I was fighting my way through the fog I knew that I could hit a tree or electricity pylon at such a low altitude – my only focus was flying safely.
My support team and I had already been delayed for a couple of days in Hungary, because of the weather, so we set off more in hope than conviction we would be able to get through that easily to the next city.
This flight is very different from Amy’s – I am not alone, I have a support plane with a cameraman and I travel with an engineer. In this day and age, you can’t do it like Amy did. There is endless paperwork, authorisations, immigration… so we share the entire experience as a crew.
When I was flying the two-hour leg from Hungary to Romania I was in a heightened state of tension, the plane on the other had was running beautifully. It didn’t miss a beat. Even with 1920s technology in a 1940s fuselage, everything from the engine to the wings were performing magnificently. People ask me if I listen to music when I’m flying, but I am always listening to the engine – that tells me what I need to know.
Even on the toughest days, this oil, leather and fuel-scented cockpit feels like heaven to me. As an aviator for 30 years I’ve faced all sorts of weather conditions, and I have faced my fair share in this plane. I’ve gone from extreme heat burning my face to dodging thunderstorms and hail. Each situation is unique, and while it’s frustrating, I’ve always known that we will eventually push through.
However, this doesn’t mean that a day in the cockpit isn’t hard to shake off. When I’m lying in bed at night I have a mixture of emotions running through me – frustration, nerves, fear… But throughout this journey I have read Amy’s book every night and I have been drawing strength from her courage and determination.
When we initially set off from Hungary, the weather was cold, but the sky was clear. It wasn’t long before I could see the famed mountains of Romania on the horizon, which were truly magnificent. And when we flew lower to the ground, we were able to catch sight of the rivers and roads that wound their way across the rolling green countryside – it was very beautiful. It was the low flying that we came for. You would get arrested if you were to do this in the UK, but in Europe, you can fly over the forests, rivers and besides castles…
However, it was when we flew over the mountains that we were hit by our first dense wall of cloud. We were hit by turbulence and reduced visibility and we could see only one or two kilometres. We were afraid that we wouldn’t be able to find a way out through the clouds. It was proving to be one of the most difficult and challenging flights that I’ve done.
What I’ve learnt about flying a biplane, is that you have to stay positive, keep checking the weather and revising plans. We braced ourselves, and took the plane down into a field. The cloud was too dense for us to keep going in an attempt to reach the airport. There was no fanfare at the end of this leg, just a thoroughly unimpressed mushroom picker who saw us touch down and roll through an empty cow paddock.
Weather is always a factor with vintage aircraft. Amy certainly would have faced weather challenges, but she was flying in May so she would have experienced milder conditions in Europe. However, this doesn’t mean that her flight wasn’t without incident as she was forced down by bad weather, but it was a sand storm in Iraq.
We were grounded by the weather in Romania for the next three days. Then the sky finally cleared and we had a chance to take off once again. We flew south towards Bulgaria, but as soon as we hit the Danube we were hit by another thick cloud of fog. We had the option of trying to fly around it, but this would have forced us out into the Black Sea, and we had no idea of knowing how far we would have to travel before the system ended. So we had to be smart and turn back. Our visibility was poor, turning around was our only option. But the elements always win in this situation and you just have to return to base and sit it out.
The next day we were able to take off again, but we had to scrap plans to spend the night in Burgas, Bulgaria, and push on towards Istanbul as we had a group of people waiting for us, including the British Ambassador. On this journey, the weather was good to us and when we finally made it to Istanbul it proved to be one of the highlights of our trip.
Flying by biplane is a raw experience. However, there’s not one point during this trip when I decided that I wanted to call it a day. It’s the culmination of 30 years of flying and six years in the making. To live an extraordinary live, you must pay a tremendous price. It’s a dream. I’m living my dream.
Amy Johnson was the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia. She set this record in 1930. Tracey Curtis-Taylor re-enacted the route with her support team from October 2015 to January 2016. Tracey will now be flying Spirit of Artemis across the USA in May 2016 to celebrate the centenary of Boeing in aviation. She will follow the historic Air Mail route from Seattle to Boston.