Although not a South African, Lady Heath is an important part of South African aviation history. Lady Sophie Mary Heath (31) won the first aerial race in South Africa on 8th January 1928 at Port Elizabeth’s Fairview Flying Field in an Avro-Avian bi-plane. Four pilots took part in the race – Lady Heath, Major Allister Miller, W.E. Swann and Lomax. Major Miller landed the first plane in Port Elizabeth in 1917. Lady Heath won the Humewood Trophy. In 1928, the Avro-Avian was sold to Amelia Earhart, who flew the plane across America later that year.
Lady Heath’s win made her the first woman to land a plane in Port Elizabeth. She was the first female member of the London Light Aeroplane Club, the first woman to use a parachute, and the first woman to hold the British ministry’s commercial pilot’s licence. In 1926 she set the world altitude record for light planes at over 19 000 feet.
The aerial race formed part of the opening of the Port Elizabeth flying field, for which Lady Heath had made the flight. A new £700 Westland Widgeon monoplane was presented by the mayor to the president of the newly formed Port Elizabeth Light Flying Club. Lady Heath smashed a bottle of champagne over the Widgeon’s propeller hub, christening her Lady Heath. After leaving Port Elizabeth, Lady Heath flew the first ever solo open cockpit plane from Cape Town to London via Cairo. She was a second pilot for KLM, in Amsterdam, and flew all their European routes.
Lady Heath was born Sophie Mary Peirce Evans at Knockaderry House, County Limerick, Ireland, on 10th November 1896. While still a toddler, her father, son of a doctor, murdered her mother and she was sent to nearby Newcastle West, where she was raised by aunts. After the outbreak of World War I, she went to England and became a motor bike and ambulance driver, in England and closer to the front in France, for a unit attached to the Royal Flying Corp. She married an army officer, William Elliot-Lynn, and took a degree in agriculture at the Dublin College of Science as preparation for farming in Kenya, where her husband had gone. She joined her husband on their coffee farm in Kenya but the marriage broke down after two years. While working at Aberdeen University, she became interested in women’s athletics, breaking records for the world high jump and British javelin in 1923.
In 1925, she experienced her first flight when travelling to Prague for an International Olympic Committee conference to discuss the inclusion of women in the track and field programme at the 1928 Olympics. A few weeks later, she became the first person to take a flight at the newly inaugurated London Aero Club. She qualified for a private (or A) licence but the International Commission for Air Navigation revoked women’s rights to earn a commercial, or B licence, in 1924. Lady Heath fought the ban and the commission agreed that if she attended flight school and passed the test, she would be granted a commercial licence. She did so in 1926 and the ban was rescinded.
In 1927 she married Sir James Heath, a wealthy businessman, but the marriage was over by 1929. She finally settled in England, where she died in May 1939, from injuries received during a fall from a tram car.
Read More about Lady Heath: http://www.ctie.monash.edu.au/hargrave/heath.html
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