Thursday, 9 April 2009
A new exhibition at The National Museum of Flight, East Lothian, Scotland celebrates the largely forgotten achievements of Sheila Scott in the 1960s and 70s. Sheila had been an actress and model when in her mid thirties she decided to get her private pilot's licence. Considering the 104 aviation records she was to clock up, it is a bit of a shock to learn that it took her five attempts to get it.
However, there is no doubting her courage, endurance and navigation skills in small planes with no GPS covering massive distances around the globe. Scott first flew around the world in 1966, covering about 31,000 miles in 189 flying hours in her single-engine (is that a good idea?) Piper Commanche called Myth Two.
Perhaps she is best known for being the first person to fly directly over true North Pole in a light aircraft in 1971. Few Americans had ever heard of Scott although she had set hundreds of aeronautic records . However, the U. S. Navy had orders: "Don't lose Sheila!" Their job was to track her via the American polar satellite, Nimbus. Below is artist Paul Cooper's impression of the feat.
Her twin engined Piper Aztec Mythre. She described the Arctic solitude in her autobiography Barefoot In The Sky "acres and acres of lonely desolate ice packed sea" as if "everyone else on earth had mysteriously disappeared, and... I had wandered out into space to some other planet."
photo © NASA
Sheila always cut a dash as a pilot and would encounter sexist enquiries about how she put her make-up on during the flight. But she was used to the burst of flashbulbs and must have realised that to keep up her glamorous image was necessary for her sponsorship and publicity.
July 1967 at a press conference at London Airport. Photo: Tim Graham/Fox Photos/Getty Images
The big question is why she never had the fame of Amelia Earhardt or Amy Johnson and the answer is probably that she was a victim of history. Scott's greatest achievements were in the era of the Space Race and when more dramatic records like the Breaking of the Sound Barrier were established. Her courageous sorties in a light plane may have seemed somewhat insignificant.
She died in London's Royal Marsden Hospital in October 1988 at the age of 66. In the wake of her flying career, Scott was dogged by financial troubles and was forced in the 1980s to sell some treasured mementoes and trophies from her flying feats, especially to pay for treatment in a long fight against lung cancer - a battle she eventually lost.
Posted by John Aeroclub on the Aviation Forum: Miss Scott autographed these c.1971 at RAF Luqa. They were the only paper items in my wallet. my Air britain card and my Malta Air Enthusiasts card.
Top image: 18th May 1966. Sheila Scott in the cockpit of her Piper Comanche light aircraft at Heathrow Airport before the start of her solo round the world flight. (Photo by Stroud/Express/Getty Images)
Acknowledgments: Artist 'Paul C and 'Moggy C ' from Aviation Forum, Hargrave: The Pioneers, BBC Woman's Hour