Tracey Curtis-Taylor admits to “a ridiculously romantic view of flying and a great passion for beautiful old aeroplanes.”
The British-born pilot has combined her romance and passion into a series of aerial adventures, which she’ll discuss during the 45th National Stearman Fly-In.
Curtis-Taylor’s talk, “Bird in a Biplane,” is scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 9, in the Jet Air, Inc. hangar at Galesburg Municipal Airport. The presentation is free and open to the public.
Curtis-Taylor took her first flying lesson at age 16, when her family was living in British Columbia. She earned private and commercial licenses and an instructor’s rating while living in New Zealand, where she also started piloting vintage planes.
Curtis-Taylor says she never wanted a conventional career in aviation. Watching films like “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines’’ and the iconic flight scene in “Out of Africa” had an impact on her career path. “There, in a nutshell, was my own inspiration,” she says.
“And once you fly old aeroplanes you get immersed in the extraordinary people who flew them in history, the record-making pioneers of the inter-war period,” Curtis-Taylor explains.
One of those pioneers was Mary, Lady Heath, the first woman to hold a commercial flying license in Britain. She made front-page news in 1928 flying a Gipsy Moth, a 2-seat biplane, from Cape Town, South Africa, to London. She thought it would take three weeks; the reality was three months — from January to May.
Curtis-Taylor bought her 1942 Stearman as part of a plan to recreate Lady Heath’s flight. Restoration of the plane was started by 3G Classic Aviation in Europe in 2012.
In 2013, Curtis-Taylor launched her Stearman on the 8,077-mile flight from Cape Town to Goodwood Aerodrome, Great Britain. It was flown in 38 legs and took 110 flying hours. Curtis-Taylor flew over Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan and Egypt. Security issues prevented her from flying over Libya.
A film crew accompanied Curtis-Taylor on the trip, resulting in the production of “The Aviatrix: The Lady Who Flew Africa.” It will be shown at 7:35 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 8, in the Jet Air, Inc. hangar at Galesburg Municipal Airport. The screening is free and open to the public.
The 2013 flight set the stage for Curtis-Taylor’s next adventure – a flight from Farnborough, Great Britain, to Sydney, Australia.
The flight commemorated one made by British aviation pioneer Amy Johnson in a Gipsy Moth in1930. During World War II, Johnson became a ferry pilot and was killed in 1941 after her plane went down in the Thames River.
Curtis-Taylor launched on Oct. 1, 2015, and landed in Darwin, Australia – the same place as Johnson — on New Year’s Day 2016. She concluded the 16,777-mile flight on Jan, 9, 2016. She flew through 23 countries in 50 legs, with a number of stops and programs that were planned to inspire others, especially women and girls.
Curtis-Taylor has logged 1,600 hours of flight time to date, most of it in taildraggers. She owned a share of a T-6 Harvard in the late 1980s, starting “a love affair with American aeroplanes with radial engines.” Since 2005, she’s also owned the prototype for the PT-22 Ryan Recruit, which she calls “my spiritual link with Lindbergh.”
The Boeing Stearman, Curtis-Taylor says, is the “classic American biplane which defined a whole era of aviation. It is strong, rugged, gorgeous to fly and spectacularly beautiful.”
Christened “Spirit of Artemis” for Curtis-Taylor’s main sponsor, Artemis Investment Management, the plane was built in 1942. It served as a Navy trainer in World War II, and was converted to crop duster when it was wrecked in a crash. During its 2012-13 restoration, the engine was upgraded to a Lycoming 680 with 300 horsepower, and two more fuel tanks were put in the top wing for six hours of endurance.
Spirit of Artemis is equipped with a Garmin 439 comm/nav system and a transponder. Curtis-Taylor also carries an iPad for airspace delineation. “It is otherwise a basic stick and rudder aeroplane with no artificial horizon, just basic instrumentation for VFR ops only,” she says.
The Stearman, Curtis-Taylor says, is “quite simply my dream aeroplane.” And the Spirit of Artemis is “the love of my life.”