Tracey Curtis-Taylor on her incredible Farnborough to Sydney journey
PUBLISHED: 16:29 25 April 2016 | UPDATED: 16:30 25 April 2016
Having embarked on the aviation journey of a lifetime from Farnborough to Sydney, Tracey Curtis-Taylor is finally back on solid ground and talks to Peter White about her incredible adventure
Tracey Curtis-Taylor will never forget the moment she rose above the lush Hampshire countryside to begin one of the most incredible journeys ever attempted.
She had just taken off from Farnborough Airport, and although her adventure had been meticulously planned, in truth she did not really know what lay ahead. Her final destination was Sydney, Australia, a trip that was to take her more than three months to complete, covering 14,600 nautical miles.
This was certainly no ordinary jaunt in a plush, modern aircraft - it was an epic flight undertaken by Tracey in a 1942 Boeing Stearman open-cockpit vintage bi-plane – stick and rudder, and all!
Her flight in ‘Spirit of Artemis’, a plane she admits is the ‘love of her life’, was in honour of intrepid aviator Amy Johnson, who made the solo flight from England to Australia in 1930, a feat which astounded the world. For Tracey to re-trace the flight path as near as possible was an incredible challenge, and one she admits she could not possibly have undertaken but for the help, inspiration and encouragement she received from Farnborough-based TAG Aviation Europe, and from the Hampshire wing of Boeing UK.
Indeed, she feels so indebted to all at Farnborough, that later this year she hopes to bring ‘Artemis’ back to Hampshire, and make the famous airport its permanent home, so enthusiasts can view for themselves her magnificent flying machine.
In this exclusive interview, Tracey recalls the build-up to her amazing expedition, reveals her initial modest hopes, gives an insight into some of her jaw-dropping experiences and talks about her affinity to Hampshire.
She said: “The couple of weeks preceding my departure from Farnborough were so intense with final preparations and domestic issues. The pressure was simply ridiculous, and I was operating on about three hours’ sleep a night. “Four days before I was due to leave we even had a phone call from the BBC asking if I could take the plane down to appear on ‘The One Show’. I nearly dropped the phone, and asked myself ‘do they think it’s an airfix model?’. I joked: “Tell them to close Oxford Street, and I’ll land there, then we can push it back to the studio!”
Although Tracey now lives in South West London, she regularly visits Hampshire, and often stays with her best friend who lives in Petersfield. “Hampshire is beautiful - I wish I lived there permanently, but at the moment I have to be in London.
“I spent a lot of time at Farnborough in 2014, and met Graham Williamson, President Aircraft Management and Charter Services, TAG Aviation Europe, and the team from TAG. They said I should base myself there ahead of my flight.
“Farnborough works so well for me, and it has so much history and heritage associated with it. It is the birthplace of British aviation in a way. The first flights were made from there - all the old aircraft manufacturers were based there, and they have a wonderful museum. So it is a very strong heritage centre for British aviation, and the Air Show was formed off the back of that.
The Royal Aircraft factory was also based there, so it is probably the most historically important aviation site in the UK. Boeing have a strong presence in Hampshire with their various operations from Odium with all the Chinook support, so the county is very significant.”
Tracey’s epic adventure began on October 1 last year. She said: “Leaving Farnborough Airport and rising up into the air was one of the highlights of the whole trip – the send-off was so brilliant and overwhelming. All my friends and family came along, and it was so intense I could hardly get into the aircraft. Prince Michael of Kent flew in with a whole delegation from Pakistan, and actress Diana Rigg, a fantastic friend of mine was also there to support me.”
Then came the time for take-off, and as Tracey explained: “The minute you get into the plane you enter into a different head space - it’s like flicking a switch. Once you are waved off you focus purely on the machine. After I took off, I buzzed around for a bit with a pass over the apron in front of the big TAG hanger, then buzzed off due south in beautiful conditions.
“It was so exhilarating. I remember thinking to myself ‘if I can just get over the English Channel, maybe that will be enough’. You never know at that time of year what the weather is going to be like, so I was thinking that even if I landed at Blackbushe Airport, just a few miles from Farnborough, I would have done something. But it all came together on the day, apart from having difficulty re-fuelling when I finally reached France.”
She followed Amy Johnson’s flight path as near as possible, replicating the incredible bravery and dramatic flight of her world famous predecessor. But inevitably she could not follow the route entirely, including not entering Syrian or Iraqi air space.
The journey comprised 56 legs through 23 countries, and Tracey admitted: “It was a very complex expedition, because it wasn’t just a flight - we built a huge programme of engagement through the sponsors, and everywhere I landed there was a programme.”
Her journey took her across Europe, then on to Istanbul, Dubai, India with several stops, and Singapore. She said: “The flying was out of this world. Once you are off the ground there is that sense of freedom and detachment, and then I was seeing some of the most iconic landscapes in the world. Flying over the Dead Sea just a few feet off the ground; the Mediterranean; crossing the Arabian Desert below the level of the sand dunes and seeing herds of camels. I was awe-struck. Nothing prepared me for the geology of the terrain.
“What happens on the ground is tedious beyond belief, but once you are in the air it is simply incredible. Some of the sights I saw were simply jaw-dropping. I also got some wonderful hospitality through Jordan, Saudi Arabia and many other places. Pakistan was amazing - we were treated like royalty.”
During her adventure Tracey also took Royalty flying in her plane - including Prince Michael, Prince Hamzah and Princess Basmah of Jordan, and Prince Nikolaos of Greece.
“Artemis’ has a range of about 380 nautical miles, as opposed to Amy’s plane which had a 1,200-mile range. That is why I decided to take my trip over three and a half months. I wasn’t the pioneer, I was the messenger. You can only do something once, so I was taking the message back out again to celebrate what Amy achieved. I think she had more raw courage than anybody I have ever read about. That’s why her flight is probably the greatest solo achievement ever.
“I have always been interested in pioneering aviators and it is the inter-war period that I love. Lindberg’s crossing of the Atlantic in 1927 electrified the world, and suddenly flying became fashionable. I had known the Amy Johnson story all my life, and I have read all the stories of famous aviators.”
Most of Tracey’s journey was at an altitude of just a few hundred feet, although there were times when she was higher, and even lower. The maximum altitude for ‘Artemis’ is 10,000ft, with a top speed of around 85-90 mph. “But you have the best view in the world,” she said. “It’s all stick and rudder, low level flying in an open cockpit. Tip-toeing over the edge of mountains, and cliff faces just half a wing away.
“This is the kind of flying that few people ever get to do. For me there’s nothing in between the flying I do and being high up in a jet with a gin and tonic in my hand. I am simply not interested in modern aircraft. Flying is so wonderful in ‘Artemis’ you never really want to land. Even when I reached Sydney I thought maybe I could go a bit further up the coast.
“Artemis is the love of my life. I have such a bond with it, and as soon as I set eyes on it I feel my pulse quicken. It has been very well looked after…it has been astonishing. It’s a beautiful airplane, and it’s a hero. It really is a dream.”
Tracey spent the first 10 years of her life in Canada and recalls: “Although my two sisters, my brother and I were taken to the occasional air show, I had no exposure to flying at school. But I liked making little planes that flew - I was interested in flight. But a lot of my inspiration came from literature and film.
“Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines – there in a nutshell is why I fly. I simply adored people getting into wood and fabric machines and staggering off into the air. The romantic adventure was irresistible for me.
“I went to school near the Lake District, then went to Africa in 1982, before joining my twin sister in New Zealand and had 14 years there. That is when I got in to flying old airplanes and didn’t want to do anything else.”
Within the next couple of months Tracy and ‘Artemis’ will be re-united for a trip across the US, beginning in Seattle. Once the trans–America flight is complete the plane will come back in July for the international Air Tattoo at Farnborough, and hopefully remain there.
She added: “There are beautiful facilities at TAG Farnborough, so I would like to be able to let people come along and have a look at ‘Artemis’. I have such a strong bond with everyone there and I shall be there as often as possible. It would work so well with all my plans for the next two years.”
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