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Sunday, 11 March, 2001, 14:58 GMT
Historic aviators take to the skies
Jean Turnbull, Margaret Ringenberg and Priscilla Myers
Former WWII pilot Margaret Ringenberg (centre) and her crew
Pilots from around the world took off from an airfield in Kent on Sunday in an attempt to recreate one of the golden moments of early 20th Century aviation.

More than 35 flying enthusiasts in propeller-powered aircraft will spend the next 28 days navigating oceans and continents as they compete in the London to Sydney Air Race.

It is a unique air race, the longest in the world

Race spokesman
Thick morning fog at Biggin Hill airfield in Kent delayed some of the intrepid adventurers as they prepared to set off on their epic voyage along the daring "Kangaroo Route".

The event, which took five years to organise, is part of the Australian Federation's centenary celebrations, and is only the fourth race of its kind.

First stop Cannes

Australia's High Commissioner Michael L'Estrange was on hand to wave off the crews as they headed for the first stop in Cannes, in the south of France.

Race spokesman Leon d'Borg said: "The flyers are all really excited and the public has turned out in droves to see them off.

Helicopter at Biggin Hill
The only helicopter in the race will be flown by "flying granny" Jennifer Murray
"It is a unique air race, the longest in the world and one that crosses very varied terrain, not all easy by any means."

Those taking part will pass through Corfu, Crete, Cairo, Luxor and Dubai and may catch a glimpse of the Taj Mahal as they fly over India.

The first "Great Air Race" took place in 1919, when the Australian Government offered a first prize of 10,000 to the first crew that managed to fly the 14,000 miles from the UK to Australia.

The "ultimate flying challenge", as organisers have dubbed the mammoth flight, was repeated in 1934 and 1969.

Flying pioneers

But for those flying vintage aircraft, some dating back to World War II, being the first to touch down in Sydney is not the main goal.

Pilots such as 55-year-old Maurice Kirk, flying the oldest craft in the race, are taking part to record their place in aviation history by emulating the great early flying pioneers.

Mr Kirk, from south Wales, whose father was the UK's first flying vet, took in his Piper Cub plane built in the early 1940s and used first by the US General George Patton.

Biggin Hill Airfield in Kent
Pre-race preparations at Biggin Hill airfield
He said: "It will be very tough. As far as I know, I am the only one flying solo, but it will be a very unique and personal experience."

This year's entrants range from modern single and twin engine light aircraft to a helicopter.

Individual prizes will be given by governments along the way, but the winner's award is still a closely guarded secret.

A special trophy will also be awarded in memory of an all-female American crew lost as they flew to Biggin Hill on Tuesday.

Gwen Bloomingdale and Barbara Gard, from Massachusetts, crashed off the coast of Iceland in their Rockwell Shrike Commander, casting a sombre shadow over the event.

But Mr d'Bord said the race would go on in memory of the flying veterans, who in 1992 recorded the fastest trans-American time in the fiercely contested Powder Puff Rally.

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See also:

08 Feb 01 | Americas
Aviator Anne Lindbergh dies
12 Jan 01 | UK
Mum embarks on epic flight
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