This month back in 1937, Amelia Earhart went missing. Radio contact with her plane was lost as she crossed the central Pacific Ocean and she was never officially heard from again. The following January, one of the most celebrated aviators of the period was declared dead. The US pilot had the true high-flying lifestyle – she was feted and celebrated on a circuit famed for its showmanship and flamboyance. There’s some evidence [that should really read ‘speculation’] she may have died as a castaway, but ultimately it seems her life was cut short due to her passion for flight.
But there was another winged woman in that era of dare-devil barnstorming and aeronautic record-breaking. One who also had worldwide fame and acclaim, and who many argue was a more competent pilot and technician. Mary Heath from Limerick moved in the same circles as Earhart and captured the media’s attention with her glamorous antics both high in the air and on terra firma. It seems quite bizarre that Lady Heath (her second husband – of three, no less – was a an elderly peer with the funds to bankroll her insatiable appetite for the flying life) is all but forgotten from our lore. It’s particularly surprising because in celebrity terms she ticked every box to make her story last: a hideous take-off, a stratospheric career, sudden accident and slow, downward spiral to a pitiful crash death just a couple of years after Earhart went missing.
Heath was born Sophia Theresa Catherine Mary Peirce Evans in 1896 at Knockaderry, Co. Limerick. Her father, a volatile character, bludgeoned her mother to death as the toddler Sophie lay bundled up asleep. Raised by her aunts and grandmother (her father was detained in an asylum until his death) Sophie was an energetic tomboy. She was schooled in Dublin and went to college but dropped out to help with the war effort, where she met and married husband number 1.
At this stage Sophie was a keen and highly successful athlete in England and on the back from a sports meeting in Prague in 1925 she got chatting to a pilot. He suggested she come to a flying show in London and it was there she got her first flying lesson and was hooked. From there she rapidly became part of the scene and campaigned vigorously for women to be able to hold a commercial flying licence – at the time menstruation was cited as a reason for banning women from being pilots! – and she eventually became the first woman in Britain to be recognised as a commercial pilot.
Aviation in the 1920s was all about excitement – during the Great War planes were considered war machines, but now the focus was on antics and derring-do. Lady Mary dazzled crowds with her bravery in races and stunt shows, and won the media over with her glamour and wit. She set international flight records and hung out with the US set, including Charles Lindburgh. But in 1929 she suffered horrendous injuries in a crash in the US where she went through the roof of a building. She went on to fly again but her career was on the wane and she returned home with hubby number three and trained young pilots. I spoke to one man who went up in the plane with her at that time and he laughingly recalls a formidable woman with a mouth on her that was not for the feeble of heart.
Mary’s reliance on the drink became more apparent and she eventually moved to London where she died from head injuries sustained when she fell down the stairs of a tram. A tragically understated end to a one-time blistering career. Journalist and author Lindie Naughton is one of the foremost authorities on Mary Heath and you can find out more and see videos of Heath in full flight here .