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Page last updated at 13:40 GMT, Wednesday, 8 September 2010 14:40 UK
Forgotten record of aviatrix Beryl Markham
Beryl Markham
Beryl Markham was the first person to fly from England to the USA

On 4 September 1936 Beryl Markham departed from Abingdon Airfield in her Vega Gull airplane, The Messenger.

Her aim was to be the first person to make a solo, non-stop, transatlantic flight, east to west.

Headwinds made Markham's mission harder than the eastbound route taken by Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.

Markham's destination was New York, but she crash-landed in a peat bog in Nova Scotia. Yet she survived and her dream to cross the Atlantic had come true.


Sheréll Cunningham is the great-niece of Beryl Markham and believes it is time the daredevil aviatrix received the recognition she deserves.

"I do believe the people here in Oxford should be proud of the woman that has achieved this from Abingdon Airfield," she told BBC Oxford.

"Abingdon is a town that should recognise her. She achieved more than Amelia Earhart did, flying against the winds."

"This was a braver thing to do than what Lindbergh did because she was doing it on a shoe string," explained Jon Lake, an aviation journalist based at RAF Benson.

"Only a few years before Jim Mollison flew from Ireland to Eastern Canada. But she was going the whole way and aiming to do it non-stop.

"Two years earlier John Grierson had done the same journey but he made four stops and took six weeks!

"People were only just proving that route either by taking the absolute shortest distance or taking weeks to do it.

"That was impressive enough but then there's a woman who's a relatively newly qualified pilot and she's looking to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a single-engined aeroplane with no radio!"

"The Vega Gull had very simple instruments," agreed Sheréll Cunningham.

"She navigated by the seat of her pants. She lost her map out of the window at one stage and it was pitch black.

"For her to achieve what she did on her Vega Gull was phenomenal."

Out of Africa

It was when Beryl Markham took a ride in the airplane of Denys Finch Hatton (the big-game hunter later portrayed by Robert Redford in the film Out of Africa) that she became fascinated by flying.

The two of them went on to have an affair. After going to a flying instructor she became the first woman in Africa to earn a commercial pilot's license.

She subsequently flew missions delivering mail and medicine around East Africa, often flying to remote areas of the African bush to rescue injured hunters or miners.

Jon Lake picked up the story for BBC Oxford: "She made a solo flight to England via Nairobi and Khartoum and did her own maintenance on the way, impressing everyone because she got out of the airplane and spun her own propeller.

"At that point she started thinking where to go further in aviation and she was looking hard at air racing. Instead she decided to fly across the Atlantic from London to New York - the wrong way, against the prevailing winds - and that was still quite a big deal, even in 1936.

"It was a long endurance and long duration flight to attempt. Doing it east to west was brave.

"She didn't make it all the way to New York because she ended up in a peat bog with the aircraft standing on its nose. But the scope of her ambition was fantastic!"

When a farmer found her at the crash site she introduced herself as Mrs Markham from England. She soon became a celebrity.

"People were absolutely bowled over by it and she was subsequently flown to New York and given the ticker tape welcome and rode through the city with the mayor."

"Thousands of people came out and everybody recognised her," said Sheréll Cunningham. "She was across the press, everywhere."

But in the UK Markam's achievement was limited to a few small newspaper articles, and Sheréll Cunningham believes that after a string of affairs and failed marriages her reputation worked against her.

"She had a little fling with the Duke of Gloucester in Kenya when they were out hunting.

"He was very much in love with her and when she came to England for this epic flight they would go out quite a lot.

"He wanted to marry her but I don't think the Royal Family wanted him to get involved with this woman.

"I assume that's why in England she was hid under the carpet."

"The amazing thing is having done that she basically gives up flying and returns to breeding horses," Jon Lake added.

"It makes you think what she would have achieved if she had stuck with aviation."


Sheréll Cunningham
Sheréll Cunningham became a pilot like her great-aunt before her

Beryl Markham would later recount her adventure in her memoir West with the Night.

Ernest Hemingway would lavish huge praise on the book: "She has written so well, and marvellously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer."

He went on to write: "This girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers ... it really is a bloody wonderful book."

"She flew hard, she played hard and she lived hard and took pride in what she did," said Sheréll Cunningham, who also grew up in Africa and became a flying instructor.

"She's more remarkable than any other woman that has flown and she's absolutely not recognised properly."

Beryl Markam died in Nairobi in 1986.

"I knew of her just as my great-cousin. I only realised the year before she died that she really truly was an achievement."

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