English Channel 1999 -
How I Made My First Flight Across the English Channel...
in the care of British private pilots

by

Giacinta Bradley Koontz

You may appreciate this story more fully if you first read Harriet Quimby's account of her own cross-channel flight of 1912. /gbk/ Click Here

This year the Harriet Quimby Research Conference broke format and did not hold an annual Workshop with a public lecture. Instead, during the month of October which is usually set aside for the conference, I traveled to England and France for field research in the air and on the ground.  The main focus of the trip was to commemorate Harriet's channel-crossing flight as closely as possible.  Since I am not a pilot, I needed someone to fly the plane while I wore a replica of Harriet's flying costume. If you are familiar with this era of aviation you already know that Harriet's goal to be the first woman to cross the English Channel in an aeroplane was scooped by Miss Trehawke-Davis when she flew early in April as a passenger with Gustave Hamel piloting a two-seat Bleriot from Dover to Calais.  Harriet was already in England preparing for her own flight at that time, and she must have been devastated by the loss of potential notoriety and financial backing due to this stunt. Weather and available aircraft delayed her efforts to be the first woman to pilot her own aeroplane across the channel, but in the end she triumphed. I have always believed Harriet was exceedingly generous in her comments about the gallant Mr. Hamel as he tested her borrowed Bleriot and offered to fly across the channel disguised in her costume so that she could claim the honor without having to make the dangerous flight.  Perhaps Hamel was trying to make up for stealing Harriet's thunder, but nevertheless she declined.  The irony was not lost on me that my own flight across the English channel resembled more that of Miss Trehawke-Davis than Harriet.

For Harriet's own account entitled "How I Made My First Big Flight Abroad" see the pages following this photo-journal of my own adventure.  (From "Fly" Magazine, July 1912, page 8). I have included bits and pieces of her story within my own. 

I have included a web site list for the English museums and societies which I visited .  If you are a pilot, you will also enjoy excerpts from our flight log which I have added at the end of my story.

Harriet and her friends left the Lord Warden Hotel and headed for the "flying grounds" near Dover castle early on the morning of Tuesday, April 16, 1912. Bundled in layers of clothing against the early morning chill of the English coast, Harriet drove her own automobile to the hanger where her Bleriot monoplane had been sheltered courtesy of Louis Bleriot himself.

After waiting several days for the windy, foggy weather to clear, Harriet was eager to make her historic flight from England to France. "Time was flying," she complained, "even if I was not."

And that's the way it is in England. Everything depends on the nasty weather. Private pilots jump into their planes eagerly and spontaneously (also with caution and preparedness) as soon as the sun shines.

In my own quest to follow Harriet's flight plan I had about as much luck as she did. I was in England 13 days.  Fortunately the first five were gloriously sunny, crisp and clear, during which time I hastened to cross the channel in a single engine aircraft.  I had further plans to fly from the small grassy airfields south of London to Shuttleworth Air Museum (north) later in the week.  However, "later" never materialized as drizzle, mist, fog, wind, and just plain soupy skies grounded me for the next 8 days.

During my stay I drove to Brooklands Museum south of London where they proudly display a Wellington Bomber. I took the train and tube twice to the The Royal Aeronautical Society for research, and I traveled on British Rail in a horrendous storm to the RAF Museum at Hendon (north of London) where Claude Graham-White first opened his flying school. However, I never got to see the Bleriot on display at Shuttleworth. Homeward bound from Hendon, I looked out the train window into the gray sky and I understood Harriet's frustration.  Time was flying even if I was not!

But, I shall never forget my introduction to British private pilots as I flew on four different types of aircraft during two sunny, clear days in England.

MY FLIGHT ACROSS THE CHANNEL

Early Preparations

Months in advance I connected with a private pilot in England, Julian Berry, who agreed to fly me across the English Channel following Harriet's route as faithfully as possible.  Before I arrived, my generous new partner in this adventure had e-mailed to me a picture of his low-wing, single engine aircraft -  a Socata TB10, built in France. It was beautiful. I thought it was appropriate to fly in a French built plane - just as Harriet did.

Getting down to the details, Julian sent a warning which would have been familiar to Harriet. …"the weather in the UK can be changeable at this time of year," he confessed…"suggest we plan to go earlier in the week rather than later.  That way if we are "rained off" we can re-schedule the trip."

With that in mind, our trip was set for Monday, October 18, 1999 departing from Shoreham, England with a destination of Le Touquet (Paris-Plage), France.

Julian carefully cleared the bureaucratic decks for me with the officials in both France and England by faxing a copy of my passport in advance.  All hope of retaining my feminine mystique went flat as I detailed my date of birth and how much I weighed to total strangers. (Harriet never mentioned intercontinental paperwork in articles about her flight.  There were no officials at her point of departure or landing as are required today). 

While my hosts were "on holiday" in Majorca, I was left alone at their home and handed the keys for their van to use as I needed. I never intended to drive in England.  I was terrified I wouldn't be able to adjust to their left-side arrangement. In six previous visits I had difficulty enough crossing the street as a pedestrian.  I vowed to drive only if completely necessary.

However, my temporary "home" was a mile from the train station, and taxis were expensive and not readily available. So, out of necessity I took a 15 minute driving lesson from my unbelievably patient host - both of us white-knuckled,  How I dreaded that one mile drive! I became a good driver (I didn't hit anyone or anything) but I got lost at every "round-about." I never did get the hang of British road signs.  In truth I was alert with fear every minute behind the wheel.

It turned out I needed all my courage to overcome this fear plus some reinforcement from Harriet in order to make my own cross-channel flight.

I was bunking with remarkably generous American friends in Windlesham, west of London, and I intended to use my Britrail pass to travel south to meet Julian near Brighton on the coast. The two hour train ride was part of my plan and I was prepared to endure the silent, very polite British assessment by fellow passengers of my purple satin flying costume (at 7a.m.!) accessorized with hi-button shoes, gaudy jewelry and…oh, well - you get the picture.

The English climate was cooperating and although the nights were frosty, by 8 a.m. the sun had melted the dewy crystals and ground mist rose to reveal clear blue skies.  My host's garden still sported fat, fragrant roses and colorful geraniums.  It was the perfect weather to be up in an aeroplane.

The Duxford Air Show - Sunday October 17

On Sunday, October 17, I rode British Rail to Duxford (far north of London) for their last air show of the year, the century, the millennium. It was phenomenal. The aerial displays were breathtaking and included a memorial fly-over by the father of recently deceased Mark Hanna, killed while flying a WWII aircraft in Spain. I shall never forget it.

I saw only one interior exhibit (the American Air Museum of Britain) and never met the curator I had corresponded with - there was so much more to see! I must go back for another, longer visit. I spent my time outside and tried to track down the owner of a beautiful DC3 I saw parked at the end of the flight line beside two DeHavilland biplanes.

The DeHavilland Dragon Rapide offered air tours which was a rare opportunity I didn't want to miss, so I signed up for a 15 minute flight at the end of the day. Luckily, the owner of the silver Dakota, Tony Holden, found me and at once I realized we had already met on-line the previous month.  To my delight Tony insisted I allow him to fly me home rather than take the train.  In our hasty conversation just before I jumped into the DeHavilland, I did not get the details of which plane, or how I would ultimately make it back to Windlesham.  For some reason I instantly knew I could depend on Tony to have all that worked out. And of course - he did.

Within an hour I had a remarkable flight in the DeHavilland followed immediately by the thrilling experience of being escorted to the waiting DC3 (Dakota - N47FK)) which smoothly carried me to another grassy airfield (North Weald Aerodrome).  There I was quickly transferred to a third plane (Tony's Saratoga) for the final leg of the journey to Blackbushe Airport (Surrey) very close to my temporary digs in Windlesham.

I was still breathless from the experience as Tony drove me to the train station near Windlesham to collect my borrowed van for the dreaded one mile excursion home - now in the dark.

Tony discovered my channel-crossing plan for the next morning depended once more on British Rail, but he would have none of that!  He offered to fly me round-trip from Blackbushe to Shoreham so that I could hook up with Julian at the airfield rather than the train station. I was flabbergasted but couldn't resist the opportunity to see more patch-work-quilt fields of southern England from the air.  The plan was terrific but depended on me driving about 20 miles through busy morning commuter traffic to Blackbushe airfield, and then driving home in the dark that night. I really wanted to fly with Tony, and I certainly I did NOT want to miss out on more of the adventure.  I accepted his remarkable offer, but my anxiety level rose a notch. 

I had so much on my mind - dressing in just the right costume, taking research notes, camera gear, presents for my pilot, all the while conscious that timing was everything.  I could not afford to be late, get lost, or delay take-off at Shoreham.  I knew all I had to do was show up at Blackbushe near 8am and I could depend on Tony to transport me to the awaiting Socata. The van keys looked like the baton in a relay race.  I slept very little that night.

From Windlesham to Shoreham

I must have been a curious sight at dawn wiping the dew off the (multiple!) windows of the van dressed in purple satin. While I warmed up the engine, I opened my wallet for one more glimpse of Harriet's photograph I carried with me for inspiration.  Harriet is pictured driving her car to the Dover airfield on the morning of April 16, 1912. Incredibly she was in an open touring car - all bundled up against the morning chill just as I was in October. Harriet drove herself to the airfield facing a dangerous flight with unknown obstacles and possible death.  (My flight was none of that!)  Her image infused me with resolve.  If Harriet could drive on English roads to the airfield - then so could I.  And I did.

When Tony first saw my vintage costume he may have been surprised but he did not visibly flinch.  Instead, he proceeded with the plan, and soon we were amid clouds at 3,000 feet when he reminded me that his plane was identical to that in which John F. Kennedy made his last and fatal flight.  He took the time to explain some simple flying rules and characteristics of his aircraft. The aeroplane views and interesting cockpit conversation were an unexpected addition to my prospect of lunch in France. 

Flying Across the Channel

Soon we were at the tidy, grassy Shoreham airfield with its old art-deco terminal which was comfy but elegant and Tony delivered me into Julian's care.  We were meeting in person for the first time.

Julian easily succeeded in making me feel comfortable, instilling confidence in his aircraft and his ability to fly it. Before we climbed into his Socata, he carefully explained the use of life vest, raft and aircraft doors. (They flip up on a Socata!) Julian was so accommodating and generous.  My admiration for English private pilots increased with each new experience.

"It was my turn at last. Everybody was expectant. I was eager to get into my seat and be off…I felt impatient to realize the project on which I was determined…for the first time I was to fly on the other side of the Atlantic.  My anxiety was to get off quickly."

"There was no wind.  Scarcely a breath of air was stirring." (Harriet Quimby 1912)

Julian offered me the option of grass or tarmac for our runway.  I chose grass because that is what Harriet would have experienced. The taxi ride was bumpy but the landings were soft compared to tarmac.  I loved it. We took off on runway "07," which Julian later informed me was  50 feet wide, but I honestly couldn't determine the boundaries.

"In a moment I was in the air, climbing steadily in a long circle. I was up fifteen hundred feet…From this high point of vantage my eyes lit at once on Dover Castle."

"In an instant I was beyond the cliffs and over the channel."

"There was only one thing for me to do and that was keep my eyes fixed on the compass."  (Harriet Quimby 1912)

In English and French air space, especially along the coast, there are all kinds of rules which did not apply in Harriet's day.  Julian informed me part our route was determined by skirting traffic into London's Gatwick Airport. In Harriet's day she made several trips between England and France which necessitated precision timing based on the scheduled ferries. Today, she would have probably taken the train through the underwater tunnel (the "Chunnel") from Dover to Calais.  As we approached Dover Julian pointed out the entrance to this modern marvel below us. To my delight we were able to fly at nearly the same altitude as Harriet flew when we passed over Dover Castle. I searched the ground for the cement marker commemorating Louis Bleriot's flight of 1909 but could not see it due to the still-leafy trees which surrounded it. Julian pointed out a flat area quite close to the cliff-edge where he believed Harriet could have made her ascent.  Today there are radio towers on the spot.

"The sunlight struck upon my face and my eyes lit upon the white and sandy shores of France." (Harriet Quimby 1912)

Past Dover Julian pointed the nose directly for Cap Gris Nez near Calais, and like Harriet, I could vaguely make out the coast of France in the distance.  Below us, the rugged channel waters were remarkably blue and low whitecaps sparkled as an occasional small boat or channel ferry pushed through the cold water. The flight was flawless. Mid-channel Julian changed air traffic control from "London Information" (UK) to "Lille Approach" (France).  I listened to the operator welcome us in French then switch to English. Within half an hour I saw the wide sandy beaches south of Bologne near Hardelot and Equihen.  The tide was very low and Julian remarked that it looked inviting enough to land - although take-off would be impossible.

We flew as low as allowed over the glistening beach until we landed at our destination of Le Touquet, a resort just a few miles south of Equihen. We landed on runway "06," a tarmac strip. We had the small modern terminal almost entirely to ourselves. The French officials didn't bat an eye when I passed through the "alien" window in my costume. I requested a "souvenir" mark in my passport - causing the flustered clerk to reach into his vest pocket and produce a small stamp.  Caught up in his "official" mode, he also wrote a note and initialed it - for which I uttered all I could remember in French…"merci."

Gia and Julian Berry

In France!

Le Touquet is a charming town, although not far enough off the beaten track to have avoided the millennium madness and Christmas decorations already obvious in the narrow streets.  We were joined by another English pilot who flew in to meet us for lunch at a small, exquisite restaurant where 3 to 5-course luncheons are de rigeur.  Although my pilot friends did not drink - I copied Harriet's luxury of a celebratory glass of French wine during my meal. Alas, there was no time for a cup of tea before we hired a taxi to drive us to the beach at Equihen.  Small airports in both France and England close at sundown and we all raced to make the round-trip drive in order to get back across the channel. Radios and cell phones are very popular in Europe - more so even than in Los Angeles - therefore we were able to adjust our rendezvous with Tony at Shoreham  and make it all happen. However, in the hour before our departure we raced through the French countryside like Keystone Cops.

Leaving my pilots with the taxi, I ran down to the beach and stood on the hard, flat sand of Equihen envisioning Harriet's Bleriot and her encounter with the local "fisherfolk."  No one actually knows for sure where Harriet landed - but for me - this was the place.  The beach was deserted and the gusts of wind whipped at my costume and tossed back my hood.  It smelled of sea salt with a hint of fish. I splashed my boot into the edge of the English Channel - it was glorious. Respectfully, I was left alone with my thoughts - and a bag to collect some sand. My personal reflections were naturally supplemented with historic perspective.

I  had completed the journey as best I could, and, with lots of help, I was able to experience the sights and sensations which Harriet had also experienced. Eighty-seven years after her historic flight, I was the next American woman to stand in a purple satin flying costume on the shores of France.

Later, Julian and I watched with heartfelt camaraderie as our lunch partner made a smooth take-off for home.  We soon followed. I took a last long look as we taxied past another sparkling DC3 parked near a tall pole with the French flag flapping wildly in the coastal breeze.  The Gooney-Bird looked like new.  Time seemed frozen in 1940…and then we left the continent behind us.

Our flight home took a more direct route across the channel and thanks to my excellent pilot - a perfectly delightful experience. We shared pleasant conversation on the way home, exceptionally pleased with ourselves and with the great weather. Below, the channel was now a different color in the late afternoon sun and the surface less choppy than I guessed it would be.  Ahead, the brilliant, tall white cliffs were stunning and my heart leapt back to stories of those with war-time memories in bombers, trainers, cargo planes and fighters - going home to England!

Back at Shoreham

After a warm cup of tea at Shoreham and equally warm farewells, I left Julian and headed north to Surrey once again in Tony's Saratoga.  To say all went well (including my drive home) would be an understatement. My "Notice of Leave" from Her Majesty's Immigration clerk at Biggin Hill awaited me by fax in Windlesham.  My trip was now entirely "official."

That night, I carefully re-packed my purple satin flying costume, conscious that Harriet had done the same so long ago. I was flush with memories, and pleased that I had done what I set out to do. Above all else I learned new details about Harriet's flight which had never occurred to me before (or perhaps anyone else!).   There is so much more than this brief summary can describe.

But of course, it all will be part of my own book on Harriet….!

That thought crossed my mind just before I slumped into bed that night - a very tired but a very happy woman.

Giacinta Bradley Koontz

JULIAN BERRY'S PILOT'S LOG

Outbound Leg:

Shoreham (EGKA) - Dover @ 3000 ft - 078 degrees - 65 nautical miles (nm) 42 mins

Dover - Cap Gris Nez @ 5000 ft - 150 deg - 18nm - 9 min

Cap Gris Nez - Equihen @ 1500 ft - 183 deg - 12 nm - 5 mins

Equihen - Le Touquet (LFAT) @ 1500 ft - 171 deg - 10 nm - 6 mins

Inbound Leg:

Le Touquet - Cap Gris Nez @ 2500 ft - 357 deg - 22 nm - 14 mins

Cap Gris Nez - Lydd @ 4500 ft - 289 deg - 27 nm - 14 mins

Lydd - Shoreham @ 2000 ft - 262 deg - 46 nm - 22 mins

NOTE:

Shoreham's grass runway is 909 metres long and 50 feet wide.

Le Touquet's tarmac runway is 1200 metres long and 40 feet wide. /JB/

 

"THANK YOU" to those who also helped make my trip possible - you know who you are but to mention a few - Fred, Nigel, Patricia, Roger, and Rufus. And of course, Harriet. 

 

WEB SITES FOR ENGLISH AVIATION MUSEUMS AND SOCIETIES

Brooklands:  www.brooklandsmuseum.com

Imperial War Museum Duxford: http://duxford.iwm.org.uk/

The American Air Museum of Britain:  http://aam.iwm.org.uk/server.php?show=nav.00h

RAF Museum at Hendon: www.rafmuseum.org.uk/index.cfm

Royal Aeronautical Society:  www.raes.org.uk

Shuttleworth (Old Warden) Aviation Museum: www.military-airshows.co.uk/johnshuttleworth06.htm

 


 

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