4–7 May 1936: British aviatrix Amy Johnson, C.B.E., departed Gravesend Aerodrome, Kent, England, at 8:02 a.m. GMT, 4 May 1936, in her Percival D.3 Gull Six, registration G-ADZO, enroute to Cape Town, South Africa. In July 1932, she had set a record for flying this route, solo, breaking the existing record which had been set by her husband, James Mollison. The current record, though, was held by Flight Lieutenant Tommy Rose. Her goal was to retake the record.
During the next three days, Johnson flew approximately 6,700 miles (10,782 kilometers). She made several stops to refuel her airplane, but she slept only about six hours.
She arrived at Wingfield Aerodrome, Cape Town, at 2:31 p.m. GMT, 7 May, for an elapsed time of 3 days, 6 hours, 29 minutes. Her average speed over the course was 122.65 kilometers per hour (76.21 miles per hour), setting a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Speed Over a Recognized Course.¹ She broke Tommy Rose’s time by 11 hours, 9 minutes. Her plan was to then make the return flight and beat Rose’s two-way record.
Amy Johnson’s Percival D.3 Gull Six, c/n D63, was a single-engine, low-wing monoplane, with fixed landing gear, designed by Edgar Percival and built by Percival Aircraft Limited at Gravesend. It was built primarily of wood and covered by doped fabric. The Gull was flown by a single pilot and could carry two passengers.
The airplane was 24 feet, 9 inches (7.544 meters) long with a wingspan of 36 feet, 2 inches (11.024 meters) and height of 7 feet, 4½ inches (2.248 meters). The D.3 had an empty weight of 1,170 pounds (530.7 kilograms) and gross weight of 2,050 pounds (929.9 kilograms).
The Gull Six was powered by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated 9.186 liter (560.57-cubic-inch-displacement) air-cooled de Havilland Gypsy Six I, an inverted, inline six-cylinder engine which produced 184 horsepower at 2,100 r.p.m., and 205 horsepower at 2,350 r.p.m. for takeoff. The engine turned a two-bladed fixed-pitch propeller via direct drive. The engine weighed 432 pounds (196 kilograms).
The Gull Six was capable of reaching 178 miles per hour (286.5 kilometers per hour). Its service ceiling was 16,000 feet (4,876.8 meters) and range was 700 miles (1,126.5 kilometers).
G-ADZO had been sold to Harold Leslie Brook, 12 December 1935. Amy Johnson had flown it in a previous attempt for the London-Cape Town record in April 1936, but G-ADZO was seriously damaged when she ground-looped the airplane at Colomb-Béchar, French Algeria.
The Gull was raced by R. Falk, flying for the Marquess of Londonderry, in the King’s Cup, 10–11 July 1936, carrying race number 12. G-ADZO finished in 7th place with a time of 2 hours, 10 minutes 48 seconds, and average speed of 163.44 miles per hour (263.03 kilometers per hour).
G-ADZO was scrapped 8 February 1938.
Amy Johnson had set many flight records, both individually and with her husband, James Mollison, whom she had married in 1932 (divorced, 1938). He proposed to her during an airplane flight, only eight hours after having met her. For her record-setting flight from England to Australia in May 1931, she was made Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) and won the Harmon Trophy.
During World War II, Amy Johnson flew for the Royal Air Force as a First Officer of the Air Transport Auxiliary (equivalent to the RAF rank of Flight Lieutenant). Tragically, on 5 January 1941, while flying over London, she was challenged by an RAF fighter. Twice she gave the incorrect recognition code and she was then shot down. Her airplane crashed into the Thames, where she was seen struggling in the water. Lieutenant Commander Walter Fletcher of HMS Haslemere dived into the river to rescue her, but both died. This incident was kept secret and it was publicly reported that she had run out of fuel.
4–5 September 1936: At 6:50 p.m., British Summer Time, Beryl Markham departed RAF Abingdon, Oxfordshire, England, aboard a turquoise blue-and-silver Percival P.10 Vega Gull, registration VP-KCC. Her intended destination was New York City, across the Atlantic Ocean in America.
The airplane flown by Mrs. Markham, serial number K.34, was brand-new, built for John Evans Carberry (formerly, 10th Baron Carbery) for his entry in The Schlesinger air race from London, England to Johannesburg, South Africa. He loaned the airplane to her for the transatlantic flight on condition that she would return it to England by mid-September, in time for the start of the race.
Designed by Edgar Percival and built by Percival Aircraft Limited at Gravesend, the P.10 Vega Gull was a four-place, single engine monoplane with fixed landing gear. Known as the K-series, it was a development of the previous D-series Gull Six. The airplane was 25 feet, 6 inches (7.772 meters) long with a wingspan of 39 feet, 6 inches (12.040 meters) and height of 7 feet, 4 inches (2.235 meters). The standard airplane had an empty weight of 1,740 pounds (789.25 kilograms) and loaded weight of 3,250 pounds (1,474.2 kilograms). K.34, the airplane flown by Markham, carried two auxiliary fuel tanks in the passenger compartment, for a total capacity of 255 gallons (965.3 liters).
The Vega Gull was powered by an air-cooled, normally-aspirated, 9.186 liter (560.573-cubic-inch-displacement) de Havilland Gypsy Six I, an inverted inline six-cylinder overhead valve (OHV) engine. The engine had a compression ratio of 5.25:1. It was rated at 184 horsepower at 2,100 r.p.m., and 205 horsepower at 2,350 r.p.m. for takeoff. The direct-drive engine turned a two-bladed Ratier variable-pitch propeller. The Gypsy Six I weighed 432 pounds (196 kilograms).
The Vega Gull had a cruising speed of 150 miles per hour (241 kilometers per hour) and a maximum speed of 174 miles per hour (280 kilometers per hour). The service ceiling was 17,000 feet (5,181.6 meters). Estimated range with the auxiliary fuel tank was 3,800 miles (6,115.5 kilometers).
John Carberry was a resident of Colony and Protectorate of Kenya so the new airplane received the civil registration marking, VP-KCC. It was named The Messenger.
Beryl Markham was an experienced airplane pilot who had most recently been employed as Chief Pilot, Air Cruisers Limited, owned by a French financier, François Dupré. She was certified both as a pilot and an aircraft mechanic, and had recently had her pilot’s license endorsed for “All Types.”
Mrs. Markham and the airplane were ready for the solo transoceanic flight by 1 September, but were delayed by bad weather, with worse forecast. By the 4th, however, she was impatient with waiting and decided to takeoff regardless of the weather. She arrived at the airfield at about 5:00 p.m. Her takeoff was delayed while the runway was cleared of a wrecked bomber that had been overturned by the high winds. Captain Percival had recommended that she start from RAF Abingdon because its 1 mile runway (1.6 kilometers) would give the overweight airplane a longer takeoff run. Because of the high winds, the Vega Gull was airborne in just 600 yards (550 meters).
From the start, Markham encountered heavy rain, low clouds, fog and gale force winds. Almost immediately, her carefully-prepared chart was blown out of a cockpit window. She flew most of the distance at an altitude of about 2,000 feet (610 meters). If she climbed higher, the rain turned to ice. If she flew lower she was in danger of the winds forcing her into the sea below. She had hoped to have the light of a nearly full moon as she crossed the Atlantic at night but the weather was so bad that she flew by reference to her instruments for the entire crossing.
During the transatlantic flight the Percival Vega Gull was sighted by several ships which reported her position. Although the airplane had a cruising speed of 150 miles per hour (241 kilometers per hour), because of the headwinds, Markham estimated her rate of advance at just 90 miles per hour (145 kilometers per hour). With the airplane running on fuel from the final tank, which should have lasted 11 hours, the gauge indicated that it was being consumed at a higher rate. She estimated her position as nearing Newfoundland but with rain, clouds and fog, she was only able to see brief views of the ocean below.
“The dawn broke through the clouds. The wind changed and I stopped being so silly. I wouldn’t have imagined that there was an expanse of desolation so big in the whole world as the waste of sky and water I saw go past me since I left Abingdon. . . It was fog, rain, sleet for hours on end. If I climbed it was sleet, if I dropped it was rain. If I skimmed the sea it was fog. I couldn’t see anything beyond my wingtips. . .
“That tank, on which I was banking my all, didn’t last eleven hours. It lasted nine hours and five minutes. . . I watched that tank getting emptier and emptier and still saw nothing but sea and clouds and mist. . . I could see nothing to save me. Good old Messenger was going to stop any moment and I said to myself, ‘If I’m going to go, now is the time to get ready for it.’ The only thing anywhere around was fog, great hefty banks of it. And then I saw the coast. The beautiful coast. I’ve never seen land so beautiful. . . But then the engine began to go ‘put, put, put.’
“. . . I knew then that I had to come down and made for the beach. I couldn’t land there; there was nothing but great big rocks and Messenger and I would have been dashed to pieces. I went inland.
“My engine was missing badly now. It was sheer agony to watch my petrol gauge . . . I peered around for a field to land on. I was still peering when the engine stopped.”
—Beryl Markham, quoted in Straight on Till Morning, by Mary S. Lovell, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1987, Chapter 9 at Pages 177–178.
The field turned out to be a peat bog at Baliene Cove on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada. The airplane nosed over in the soft surface. Beryl Markham struck her head and was briefly knocked unconscious. She soon climbed out of the damaged Vega Gull and was taken to a nearby farm where help soon arrived.
Beryl Markham did not reach her intended destination of New York City. But what she did accomplish was the first East-to-West solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by a woman. Although Amelia Earhart had flown solo across the Atlantic in her Lockheed Vega four years earlier, her crossing was West-to-East. Because of the prevailing weather patterns, the westerly crossing is considered much more difficult.
Beryl and The Messenger returned to England aboard the passenger liner RMS Queen Mary. Although the damage was repaired, it was not in time to compete in The Schlesinger. John Carberry sold VP-KCC to Dar-es-Salaam Airways. It was written off in Tanganyika in August 1937, and de-registered in March 1938.
Beryl Markham was a remarkable woman whose exploits are too great to touch on here. She wrote West with the Night, which was considered by author Ernest Hemingway to be “a bloody wonderful book.” She died at her home in Nairobi, Kenya, 3 August 1986, at the age of 83.