Beryl Markham was an adventurer and aviator whose life reads like something out of a movie script. From running away from home to becoming the first woman in her native Kenya to fly solo across the Atlantic, Markham’s experiences were unique and admirable, making her one of the most well-known early female pilots.
With that being said, here’s the story of the first female pilot to make a non-stop east-west transatlantic flight.
Beryl Clutterbuck, the youngest child of Charles and Clare Clutterbuck was born on October 26, 1902, in the Leicestershire village of Ashwell. When she was a toddler, her father relocated to Kenya and settled in an area called Njoro where he had purchased a piece of land. He would later call up his family to come and live with him in Kenya when Beryl was four years old. Unfortunately, her mother couldn’t stand the isolation and returned to England, taking Beryl’s older brother with her.
With her mother gone and her father busy training and racing horses, Beryl was left to raise herself with her only companions being the workers that served her father. She basically grew up as the locals, without the restrictions and conventions of a traditional English upbringing which she termed “a world without walls.” Her early childhood was spent hunting with the local tribesmen as she was the only white woman allowed to hunt alongside the male warriors.
What is even more interesting is that Beryl used to walk barefoot like the locals and her first language was Swahili, not English.
In many ways, her sensibilities were more African than European and she did not regard the Africans who worked for her father as inferior. As time went by, her father hired a maid named Mrs. Orchardson who Beryl despised a lot especially after finding out about her relationship with her father.
This led her to live in a mud hut, and later on her own farm house. Her dislike of Mrs. Orchardson, however, didn’t extend to her son Arthur, who later became her playmate and jockey.
It was also during this time that her father had decided to enroll her to a school in Nairobi where she got expelled after two and a half years for being a bad influence despite the fact that Beryl was an avid reader throughout her life, thanks to her father and lovers such as Denys Finch-Hatton and Tom Campbell-Black. She would later get married for the first time on her 17th birthday to Jock Purves, an ex-soldier turned farmer, before having two other failed marriages due to her infidelity.
Having been brought up without a mother and a good example of marriage, Beryl didn’t know the first thing about the responsibilities of being a wife, and this played a big role in her failed marriages.
She only had one child, a son named Gervase from her second marriage to Mansfield Markham, and the child was raised by her mother-in-law.
It is documented that the two people that Beryl truly loved, aside from her father, were Denys Finch-Hatton and Tom Campbell-Black, who ensured she had a thorough education before her first solo flight.
Tom showed her how to disassemble and repair plane engines, as well as how to change spark plugs and clear jets. She was also taught to read maps, and it took her 18 months and 1,000 flight hours to become the first female commercial pilot.
Flying appealed to her sense of adventure, and she enjoyed flying mail routes, ferrying people to distant farms, acting as a spotter for big game hunters, and providing an informal air-ambulance service. She was so good and fearless to the extent that she could spot herds of elephants from the air as well as fly her planes without radio and air-speed indicators. She even surprised Tom by flying solo from Nairobi to England.
Beryl Markham also attempted to become the first woman to fly solo and nonstop from east to west across the Atlantic. Nobody had ever flown nonstop from England to North America, and no woman had ever crossed the Atlantic from east to west.
While in England, Beryl Markham attempted to become the first woman to fly solo and nonstop from east to west across the Atlantic. Nobody had ever flown nonstop from England to North America, and no woman had ever crossed the Atlantic from east to west.
She began her flight on Friday, September 4th, 1936, after several days of waiting for the weather to clear. From the start, the crossing seemed difficult with the headwinds jolting her plane and reducing her speed to 90 miles per hour. And after four hours in the air, one of her engines failed, leading to the exhaustion of her first fuel tank.
This incident forced her to fly blindly for the rest of her trip which took about nineteen hours before crash-landing in a peat bog in Nova Scotia, severely damaging the plane. Beryl was fortunate enough to escape the nose-in crash with only minor head injuries. And despite not making it to New York, she was feted and lionized for her bravery and skill.
Beryl Markham was now a hero. Ironically, one of the reasons that led her to attempt the flight was the urge to impress Tom Campbell-Black, who had surprised her after falling in love and marrying another woman while abroad in England.
Beryl hoped that her feat would entice Tom to come back into her arms. Unfortunately, it did not happen as Tom was killed in a gruesome road accident before Beryl could even present her case.
With the demise of Tom Campbell-Black, Beryl lost her interest in flying which led her to spend the war years in California, working as a technical advisor on a film called Safari. She even wrote a book called “West with the Night” in 1942, which was not a commercial success at the time until its republication in 1983.
In the 1950s, she relocated to Kenya to focus on her first love, the horses. She had great success training and racing horses for the next two decades before passing away on August 3rd, 1986.
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