This extract is from an article written for Sundeck, the yearbook of the luxury yacht manufacturer, Sunseeker, but it really describes a personal epiphany: after reading Markham's book and meeting the pilot of the Tiger Moth mentioned, I returned home and learned to fly in a Tiger, and embarked on flying adventures of my own.
Spirit of Adventure
This is a travel feature - but not the one I expected it to be. What began as a neatly plotted journey to the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) airshow, AirVenture Oshkosh, ended almost as a rediscovery of aviation. And the point where events began to overtake my chinagraphed route and carefully folded maps was somewhere west of Greenland, when the late Beryl Markham, aviatrix and race-horse trainer extraordinaire, told me her prediction for our flying lifestyle:
"One day," she said in her autobiography, West with the Night, "this will be an airborne life. But by then men will have forgotten how to fly; they will be passengers on machines [and] knowledge of the sky and the wind and the way of the weather will be extraneous as passing fiction." Only 58 years after Markham's prediction was published, I found I was indeed a passenger in the pressurised hush of a flying machine.
Below, the surface of the mid-day Atlantic mirrored the sky; the earth's delicate arc, where the two elements meet, was indistinguishable in the cerulean distances beyond the wingtip. There was nothing – neither cloud nor wave-shadow – in their flawless azure to differentiate the heights above from the depths below. Nor was there anything to anchor the brilliant, drifting splinters of the northern ice pack to the surface of the ocean: the icebergs seemed suspended in the illimitable blue, even as I was suspended six miles up in the slow-pouring light of westward flight.
In '36, when Beryl Markham became the first woman to fly the Atlantic from east to west, she'd been overtaken by the night long before she'd come as far as I had that day. She also flew just 2000ft above the grey, heaving waves - enough height to glide on a dead engine for the time it took to switch from one fuel tank to another. But back then, of course, the imperial sun had yet to set on the British East Africa of her childhood; familiarity had yet to dim the spirit of adventure that attended upon pioneering aviation - that same spirit of adventure, in fact, which the 36 founders of the EAA aimed to foster and sustain.
When the fledgling association staged its first convention as a sideshow at the Milwaukee Air Pageant in '53, the fly-in drew less than 100 visitors and only a handful of aircraft. But over the last 47 years that sideshow has grown into AirVenture Oshkosh, the week-long showcase of the 170,000-mernber association which this year drew 765,000 visitors and 10,500 aircraft. I began to feel discomfited by the realisation that airline limbo was probably the wrong way to travel to Oshkosh, traversing the lines of longitude with no more effort than it takes to wrestle with the plastic meals. So when the flight deck's studied Voice of Reassurance announced landfall, I was relieved to be leaving Markham's troubling, prophetic soul far below on the flats of Cape Breton where she was forced to land after her 21 hours and 25 minutes of altogether more vital trans-Atiantic aviation.
What I didn't know, however, was that Markham's spirit of adventure was at that moment aloft again in a 60-year old biplane with a ground speed of just 83mph. The silver-doped DeHavilland – of British design, Australian manufacture, and now North American registration – had already crossed the plains of the Mid-West and was now threading its way between the towers of cumulonimbus that rose along the cold front chiselling its way under the warm moist air around the Great Lakes. What I also hadn't realised, was that that Tiger Moth was just one of hundreds of aircraft following their compass needles as they dowsed the skies and converged on Oshkosh, the Wisconsin town which for one week in the year becomes the nexus of so many aviation ley lines...
The icebergs seemed suspended in the illimitable blue, even as I was suspended six miles up in the slow-pouring light of westward flight