Well, today is Ada Lovelace day – a day to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science.
When I was in my teens, I wanted to become a pilot. But I have had short-sight from the age of 11, and realised that I would never qualify as a commercial pilot. I then seriously thought about becoming an aeronautics engineer, so that I could design aircraft. But, at 17, I decided a general engineering degree might be a more strategic choice of career, so that I didn’t over-specialise too early. Fateful decision, and I somehow ended up specialising in digital electronics and then became a software geek.
But aviation has always inspired me. From Jonathan Livingston Seagull, to sitting at the Alcock and Brown landing site with my back against the white cairn in the middle of Roundstone bog and watching the contrails overhead on a fine spring morning, I have always been interested in the beauty of flight.
So, my choice on Ada Lovelace day is Limerick girl, from Knockaderry, just outside Newcastle West, Sophie Pierce Evans.
When she was just one year old, her father was found guilty of murdering her mother! Sophie was then looked after by her two maiden aunts — who strongly disapproved of her passion for sport! She went to secondary school in St Margaret’s Hall on Mespil Road in Dublin, where she played hockey and tennis. She then went into Royal College of Science in Ireland and achieved a first class honours degree in science.
She volunteered in the first world war, becoming a dispatch rider.
She married after the 1914-18 war, and was a co-founder of the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association. She moved to London with her partner, and became both a javelin and high jump champion. She wrote a “Athletics for Women and Girls” in 1925, based on her lobbying of the International Olympic Committee to open up the Olympics to female atheletes.
She then started her first flying lessons in 1925. She initially qualifed for a private pilot license. However from 1924, the International Commission for Air Navigation refused to grant women commercial pilots licenses. She fought the ban furiously, and persuaded the Commission that if she passed the commercial pilots test, that they would grant her a commercial license. She do so in 1926, and the Commission then lifted the ban. She set altitude records, and became the first woman to parachute from an aircraft.
Having divorced from her first partner, she married Sir James Heath, and became known as Lady Heath. During January to May 1928, she became the first woman to fly solo from Cape Town to London, financially supported by her new partner. During her flight, the British Air Ministry refused to provide her with an escort aircraft across the Mediterranean. She therefore approached Benito Mussolini who charmingly agreed. She was widely acclaimed by the media, in both the UK and USA. Here she is, showing some leg as she clambers out of her aircraft having arrived at Croydon:
She went on a lecture tour in the USA during 1928, as one of the most celebrated aviators of her time. While there, she met the President and Mrs Cooledge. She also obtained her engine mechanics certificate in the USA, to be able to service aero-engines.
While in England in 1928, Amelia Earhart escaped from the media attention to meet Lady Heath. Earhart was quite taken by Lady Heath’s Avro Avian, and bought it from her and shipped it back to the USA.
Lady Heath became an air-race pilot, taking part in high speed low altitude flying races around pylons. She was badly injured in a crash at the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1929. She recovered, and had to re-qualify to obtain her license, which she duly did. Here is a youtube video from Pathe News, showing an interview with her as she passes her license test a second time. The effect of the crash on her eye is clear:
She returned to Ireland, with her third partner Gar Williams.
Lindie Naughton wrote Lady Icarus – the Life of Irish Aviator Lady Mary Heath which was published by the Ashfield Press, Dublin, in 2004. I am very grateful for Lindie’s help in clarifying some of the details of this post!
A disputed portrait of Lady Heath was painted (now in the Hugh Lane Gallery) by Sir John Lavery. Lindie Naughton believes:
The John Lavery held by the Hugh Lane Gallery is not the one of Lady Mary – have got in touch with them about it. I am almost sure it’s a later portrait by Sir John using his wife Hazel as a model. The one of lady Mary shows her in her military uniform and was painted in 1919. As far as I know, it’s still in a house in Co Limerick.
Here is the Hugh Lane Gallery portrait:
Lady Heath died in London in 1939, falling from a tram.
Here too is a short clip of a documentary (or a proposal for a documentary, I’m not sure it was ever made), based on Lindie Naughton’s book:
Subsequent to my post, Rossa McMahon commented — see the first comment immediately below — and drew my attention to his own great post about Lady Icarus in his own blog.