Although she was the very first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean the "hard way" - against the headwinds - the name Beryl Markham is not a familiar one. Unfortunately, this is often the case for many great female aviators, but as more information becomes available, this is slowly changing. Beryl Markham's name will forever be associated with thoroughbred horses, her book WEST WITH THE NIGHT, and doing it "the hard way."
Taken as a young child to British East Africa, Beryl was left by her mother to be raised by her father and the African house-servants. Having grown up among the native Africans on her father's farm, Beryl possessed a bond with the African culture, as well as an inherent will to survive. Beryl's father, Charles Clutterbuck, who successfully trained thoroughbreds for the Nairobi racing scene, contributed to his daughter's superb horsemanship. Her ability to ride, coupled with her skill as a hunter, which she learned from her African companions, made Beryl Markham a noted personality among the great white hunters of the time.
Despite only two and a half years of formal education - Beryl couldn't stand the strict level of discipline - Beryl was an avid reader and a quick learner. Known for her fearlessness, riding horses became Beryl's source of relaxation and escape.
When she was in her late teens, Beryl's father left Africa, as a result of financial difficulties. To support herself, Beryl became Africa's first female thoroughbred trainer and later its first female bush pilot.
After flying as a passenger in a close friend's aeroplane, Beryl wanted to learn to fly herself. She contacted an old friend, Tom Campbell Black, and with him as an instructor, she began taking lessons in April 1930. An avid pupil, Beryl made her solo flight debut after only eight hours of Tom's instruction. A month after her first solo, Beryl took her "A" license tests and passed. Now she could take off and fly whenever she wished, without the sanction of her instructor. But she still had a lot to learn, and Beryl continued with Tom's instruction. Wanting to become a commercial pilot, Beryl worked hard, flew as often as she could and quickly progressed towards getting her "B" license. Her first flights were harrowing on er Avro Avion IV aeroplane, which seemed plagued by engine difficulties. At one point, Beryl admitted to wearing an inflated inner tube around her neck during a long sea crossing from Kenya on her way to England!
In September 1933, Beryl passed the tests and was granted her Air Ministry Pilot's "B" license, which allowed her to carry passengers in an aeroplane for hire or reward. Beryl was the first woman in Kenya, as well as the first Kenya trained pilot to obtain a "B" license. Starting out as an air scout for safari parties, Beryl was quickly offered a job delivering mail and supplies to miners at the African gold mines. She augmented her income by providing a courier service for safari groups, delivering medical emergency supplies, flying critically sick patients to a hospital in Nairobi, providing an air taxi service to up-country farms and working as a relief pilot for East African Airways.
Colleague G.D. "Flip" Flemming remarked of Beryl:          "She was a fine pilot with great courage and endurance, and with the exception of Jean Batten I think Beryl was the finest woman pilot in the British Empire...She always looked fresh and cheerful...her navigation was uncanny, and she could find her way to any spot....I never saw her make a poor landing, even in really filthy weather, on bad aerodomes or at night..."
After making a countless number of safari runs, Beryl's ambition took over and she headed towards England with the intent to prove to the world that she was the best pilot there was.
In 1936, no one had made a successful solo non-stop crossing from England to America (specifically New York), and no woman had crossed the Atlantic from east to west in a solo flight. Amelia Earhart was indeed the only woman to have flown the Atlantic solo at that time, and she had done it "the easy way," landing in Ireland after a relatively short flight of just over 15 hours. Because of prevailing headwinds, the east-west crossing was far more hazardous and took longer than Earhart's west-east flight. Beryl was determined to set a new light-plane record for the trip, and, despite head winds, rainy autumn weather and the lack of a radio to keep her on course, Beryl saw no reason why she couldn't succeed.
Navigating a new (radio-less) Vega Gull aeroplane, Beryl flew west with the night on September 4, 1936. For nineteen hours after she took off from Abingdon, England, Beryl flew blind through the darkness and stormy weather.
The eventful flight is perhaps best told by Beryl's own account, published by the DAILY EXPRESS newspaper:
"It was a great adventure. But I'm so glad it's over. I really had a terrible time....I knew I was in for it half an hour after I left. I pulled out my chart of the Atlantic and a gust of wind blew it out of my hand. I saw it floating away down to earth....I had a rather bad time after that. There was a 30 mile headwind, a helluva lot of low cloud and driving rain. I almost wanted to turn back, but of course I couldn't do that.
...Then the weather simply went to pot when I got over the sea somewhere near Bristol. It blew great guns, worse and worse. It got darker and darker and darker. It meant blind flying an dthat went on nearly the whole way...Then an electrical storm popped up to make it all gay and happy...Next time the lightening flashed I took a look out of the window. I was flying upside down. That was a nasty shock...I know I got into a spin more than once. I just went on-on-on hoping for the best but not expecting it, bumping and rocking all over the place...
...That tank, on which I was banking my all, didn't last eleven hours. It lasted nine hours and five minutes....I was nearly out of fuel and I ought to have had enough for hours yet....My engine was missing badly now...the engine stopped....
Over 22 hours after Beryl took off from England, the news came through, via telephone, that Mrs. Beryl Markham had crash-landed on the coast of Nova Scotia but was safe. Although Beryl had failed to achieve her ultimate goal of flying from England to America, she HAD safely crossed the Atlantic Ocean from east to west -- the first woman to do so. She was also the first person to ever make a solo non-stop crossing in that direction. And she was safe, though tired and suffering from a few lacerations to the forehead, as a result of her crash-landing.
After her remarkable adventure, Beryl's story was in constant demand. Beryl finally decided to record her love of Africa and flying in a published book entitled WEST WITH THE NIGHT, which was released in 1942. Beryl described the book as a combination of "the exhilaration of flight" and "a native's love for the dark heart of Africa." Rose Field described the book as "more than an autobiography; it is a poet's feeling for her land' and adventurer's response to life; a philosopher's evaluation of human beings and human destinies."
Years later, Beryl continued to lead an interesting life. Although she did not attempt anymore record-breaking flights, Beryl's interest in aviation did not die out. She also resumed raising racehorses and eventually a documentary of her life was filmed. Over the course of her life, Beryl married three times and had many famous lovers, including Prince Henry of England.
Despite her independence and will to survive, Beryl became the victim of pneumonia in the summer of 1986. Even Beryl Markham could not fight the disease, and she quietly died on August 3 of that year.
On September 4, 1986, the 50th anniversary of her famous flight across the Atlantic, Beryl was remembered by one of her friends from her African childhood, George Bathurst Norman:
"Around Beryl life was never dull. Like a comet passing through the firmament she lit up all aroun dher. None who came into contact with her could fail to recognize the genius of a truly remarkable person."