Quentin Wilson was formerly an aeronautical engineer, and worked on the Concorde and Hovercraft projects, as well as the Jetstream 41, built at Prestwick, by British Aerospace. He lives in Ayrshire and helps to promote STEM subjects in local schools, perhaps in compensation for the fact that none of his three daughters became engineers.
Fiona Wilson is a poet and scholar and lives in New York City.
She was young, good-looking, and rebellious. Dark-haired, dark-eyed. It didn’t hurt that she was rich.
Born in Simla, India, in 1893, the Hon. Elsie Mackay was the third daughter of James Mackay, 1st Earl of Inchcape of Strathnaver, later the chairman of the Peninsular and Oriental Navigation Company. Money buys freedom, and more than most women of her era, Elsie Mackay could afford to experiment with her life. Still, when she eloped with, and married, the actor, Dennis Wyndham, in 1917, her family cut her off.
Reborn as the doe-eyed silent film actress, Poppy Wyndham, she appeared in films with titles like Snow in the Desert (1919) and Nothing But the Truth (1920). In Many a Slip (1917), she played The Girl; in The Tidal Wave (1920), she was an artist rescued from the sea—and her own ambition?—by a ruggedly handsome fisherman. In 1922, she divorced her husband, and was reconciled with her family. A more conventional life beckoned. Soon, she was doing interior design for P&O liners.
What she really liked to do, however, was to fly.
In 1923, a year after her divorce, she took up flying lessons at the famous De Havilland Flying School, becoming one of the very first British women—and certainly the first Scottish woman—to gain her pilot’s licence. Flying was a new and dangerous activity (her father refused to even set foot in an airplane). In one famous episode, Mackay’s safety belt broke in a plane performing a loop at 10,000 feet, and velocity almost dragged her from the machine; back on the ground, her hands cut to the bone, she nonchalantly offered to repeat the move. Still, Mackay had a larger goal. Her dream was to become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic.
The 1920s was a period of intense public interest in aviation. Scarcely a day went by without a newspaper article related to airplanes, airships, flying men—and very occasionally flying women. A weekly mail service to India was proposed and, also, the appointment of a Minister for Airship Development; solitary fliers attempted flights across Africa, or even to Australia. Each newspaper story was a saga that could be followed by readers as days, weeks and months went by, sometimes ending in triumph and sometimes in horrific disaster. One notable triumph that surely caught Elsie Mackay’s attention was Charles Lindbergh’s non-stop flight across the Atlantic in 1927. When the Spirit of St. Louis touched down in Le Bourget airport, near Paris, Lindbergh became an instant worldwide celebrity. Lindbergh had flown from America to France, west to east. Elsie Mackay’s goal was not simply to be the first woman to cross the Atlantic, but also to be the first person to cross against the frequent headwinds of the much more difficult east-to-west direction.
Mackay had earned her pilot’s licence, but to fly the Atlantic she needed the assistance of a flier with considerable experience and so she approached Captain W. G. R. Hinchliffe with her plans. Once Hinchliffe’s reluctance at the very idea of making an Atlantic flight with a woman was overcome, the two selected a machine called the Stinson Detroiter, with dual control and an enclosed and heated cockpit. The standard model had a top speed of about 130 miles per hour, but only a fraction of the range required for the Atlantic flight.
Mackay and Hinchliffe planned to compensate for this problem by carrying extra fuel in a large tank, with even more in cans. When required, the cans were to be poured into the cabin tank, and the fuel then transferred by hand pump to the main tanks in the high wing. Under normal flying conditions, this operation would have been cumbersome, but doable. Inside a tiny cramped fuselage, buffeted by strong winds, however, it must have been a very different matter.
By the end of February 1928, the airplane, now named Endeavour, was at Cranwell airfield, in the south of England, ready for take-off. Why were Mackay and Hinchliffe even contemplating a flight across the Atlantic at the end of winter? In the previous year there had been four such attempts, of which two had ended in disaster; another attempt was in an advanced state of preparation. The time available at the airfield was limited and, already, the press sensed that a new attempt on the North Atlantic was about to be made. If Mackay and Hinchliffe were to succeed in breaking records, their Atlantic attempt had to be made as soon as possible.
There was snow on the ground at Cranwell on the morning of Tuesday, 13th March. Though the air was still, a brisk wind of 20 miles per hour was blowing 1000ft above the airfield. Nevertheless, the weather report available to the fliers looked promising. Around 8.30 a.m., the Endeavour took off. Three hours later, the plane was spotted at Kilmeaden in County Waterford, by Irish Civil Guards. Heavy snow was falling and visibility was low. Two hours later, it was sighted again, this time by the lighthouse keeper at Mizen Head, Co. Cork. Ahead, lay the endless miles of the North Atlantic, with rough weather brewing.
Though Hinchliffe had a left a note describing his plans, Mackay’s involvement had remained secret. On the 14th March the Glasgow Herald broke the story with the headline: “Big Flight Sensation – British Aviator Sets Out “to Fly the Atlantic” – Scottish Peer’s daughter as passenger? – Aeroplane sighted by ships at sea.” By the 15th of March, it was indeed confirmed that Elsie Mackay was aboard the Endeavour. By now, however, liners on the Atlantic run were being asked to keep a look out for a plane “distinguished by its dead black fuselage and brilliant gold wings, with the struts and supporting stays picked out in gold”. For the next few days there were rumours of sightings, then nothing.
On August 14, 1928, the steamship Seapool reported the floating wreck of an airplane, but failed to salvage it because of darkness. Almost seven months later, the UK Air Ministry confirmed that part of an airplane undercarriage washed ashore in County Donegal had been identified as coming from the Endeavour. The finding was consistent with a sea landing in which water or ice floes had sheared off that part of the plane.
Had the Endeavour been brought down by severe buffeting, or by ice formation on the airframe or in the engine, always a danger? Or had it been driven far off course by strong winds? Was there a problem with the fuel transfer arrangements? The mystery remains to this day.
What is known is that in April 1928, three men (two German aviators, and one Irish) became the first to complete the dangerous east-to-west crossing of the Atlantic. Two months later, the American Amelia Earhart became the first woman to complete the journey by airplane, travelling as a passenger in the west-to-east direction. In 1932, Earhart repeated the feat, this time as a solo pilot. It was not until July 1933 that Amy Johnson of England made the first east-to-west crossing by a woman, flying as a pilot with her husband Jim Mollison.
In her lifetime, Elsie Mackay was celebrated for her beauty and daring, as if those characteristics were somehow identical, and as if flying, for her, was little more than a kind of glamourous hobby. Pioneering women aviators were often diminished in that way. Yet, Mackay’s most striking attributes were surely her raw physical courage and her intense determination, the “steel nerves” cited by a New York Times correspondent in 1928. Writing in that same newspaper, almost a century later, David W. Dunlap and Darcy Eveleigh suggested that, for women in the early twentieth century, flying had profound symbolic importance:
Still hemmed in by all sorts of restrictions, still valued for looks and decorative skills, still steered toward passive accomplishments, [flying] was the ultimate escape: total freedom, total mastery—no interference. Total liberation. Women who became pilots won something additional along the way: respect.
Neither money nor good looks could achieve that. As Amelia Earhart put it to aspiring women pilots of the era: “if and when you knock at the door, it might be well to bring an ax along; you may have to chop your way through.”
Baldwin, Jayne. West Over the Waves: The Final Flight of Elsie Mackay. Wigtown, Scotland: GC Books, 2008.
Dunlap, David and Darcy Eveleigh, “Those Magnificent Women in Their Flying Machines.” New York Times, November 10, 2011.
Wilson, Quentin. “The Flight.” Appendix. West Over the Waves.