This woman made history with a hair-raising flight across the Atlantic. Why haven't more people heard of her?

Beryl Markham was the daring British pilot who quietly crash-landed her way into the history books when she made the first solo East-West crossing of the Atlantic. It was a highlight of an enigmatic – and occasionally scandalous – life.

By Alec Marsh
Published 26 Oct 2022, 16:21 BST
Beryl Markham, pictured with her Percival Vega Gull single-engine plane. Though considered a peer of Charles ...

Beryl Markham, pictured with her Percival Vega Gull single-engine plane. Though considered a peer of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, the British aviator's achievements – complete with a whiff of scandal – are little celebrated today. 

Photograph by Chronicle / Alamy

AT AROUND NOON on the 5 September 1936, a pair of fisherman came across a woman floundering her way through a bog in in Cape Breton, on the eastern shores of Nova Scotia. In the background somewhere was her single-engined Percival Vega Gull aircraft, its nose buried deep in the moss and the peat and its tail sticking in the air. Blood streamed down the woman’s face and black peat went up to the waist of her formerly white overalls: ‘I’m Mrs Markham,’ she told them. ‘I’ve just flown from England.’

Taken to a local farmhouse, the aviator asked for a cup of tea and for a phone. She was directed to ‘a little cubicle that housed an ancient telephone’ built on the rocks, ‘put there in case of shipwrecks,’ she recalled. Over the line she told the operator: ‘I would like the airport notified and could you also ask someone to send a taxi for me?’

Beryl Markham, 33, had just succeeded in becoming the first person to fly non-stop, solo, from Europe to North America. She was also the first woman to fly east-west non-stop, solo across the Atlantic. Heading against the wind and into uncertain weather, it was an audacious achievement, but because she had not reached her intended destination – New York City – she initially considered herself a failure.

Markham in 1936. She is pictured with a bandage on her forehead, concealing an injury sustained upon crash-landing in Nova Scotia; her head hit and shattered the windscreen of her airplane on impact.

Photograph by GRANGER - Historical Picture Archive / Alamy

Within hours, however, she realised that the world saw it differently. The feat placed her alongside the greats of the golden age of aviation, not least Charles Lindbergh – the first person to fly the Atlantic solo – or Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly the Atlantic (she went east-west, like Lindburgh, with the prevailing winds) or indeed Britain’s Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia in 1930.

Congratulations flooded in from around the world. Earhart told the New York Times: ‘I’m delighted beyond words that Mrs Markham should have succeeded in her exploit and has conquered the Atlantic. It was a great flight.’ And a day later Markham arrived in New York where she was feted and given a hero’s welcome – including a motorcade through the city and a suite at the Ritz-Carlton. ‘America,’ she pronounced, ‘is jolly grand.’


Scarcely 48 hours before, on the evening of 4 September, Markham had ignored warnings of  bad weather, including headwinds and forecasts of squalls, and took off from an RAF station in Abingdon. It had been chosen because its runway was a mile long, and her heavily overweight Vega Gull aeroplane would probably need every inch of it to safely get off the ground. The turquoise blue-and-silver plane, fresh from the Percival aircraft factory at Gravesend, was in Markham’s own words ‘a standard sports model with a range of only 660 miles.’ Extra petrol ‘tanks were fixed into the wings, into the centre section, and into the cabin itself … In the cabin they formed a wall around my seat.’ Markham’s biographer Mary Lovell reports that the upgraded 200hp-Vega Gull carried 255 gallons of fuel, offering a range of 3,800 miles – enough to get her across the Atlantic.

A Percival Vega Gull similar to the aircraft in which Markham made her historic flight. Powered by a De Havilland Gipsy engine, Markham's was fitted out with additional fuel tanks to increase the plane's modest range. 

Photograph by Aviation History Collection / Alamy

But it wasn’t quite that simple: the fuel system was not synchronised so Markham would need to open a petcock, or valve, to each tank in turn. ‘If you open one,’ Edgar Percival, the plane’s maker, had warned her, ‘without shutting the other first, you may get an airlock.’ However since only one of the tanks had a fuel gauge, how could she know when to switch between the tanks? ‘It may be best to let one run completely dry before opening the next,’ Percival had told her. ‘Your motor might go dead in the interval – but she’ll start again. She’s a De Havilland Gipsy, and Gipsys never stop.’

Markham was to put this statement to the test. Yet with 2,000 hours flying already in her log-book – much of it as a ‘bush pilot’ across the wild expanses of Kenya, in what was then British East Africa – Markham knew her stuff, which was just as well. Indeed, it was all proof that she was very different from the image of a glamorous Society girl that was presented in the press. Which was just as well.

Prior to departure she eschewed a lifejacket in favour of wearing more warm clothing – ‘I couldn’t have both, because of their bulk, and I hate the cold, so I left the jacket,’ she had said. Squeezed into the cabin with her were chicken sandwiches, a mixture of nuts, raisins and dried bananas, plus five flasks of tea and coffee and hipflask of brandy. She also wore two watches – one showing British time, the other local time in the US.

Finally she had a sprig of heather pinned to her flying jacket, given to her by her mechanic Jock Cameron. ‘If it had been a whole bush of heather, complete with roots growing in an earthen jar, I think I should have taken it,’ she recalled. ‘The blessing of Scotland, bestowed by a Scotsman, is not to be dismissed.’


Ignoring attempts by Percival and others to dissuade her from leaving, she climbed into the cockpit of the Gull, and fired up its engine before quickly carrying out the checks. She then taxied off through the deep puddles, she gave a wave from the side-window of the cockpit to the gathered well-wishers – and then she was off. (Read: How Concorde pushed the limits – then pushed them too far.) 

With the 1,900 pounds of weight of fuel take-off was the first obstacle; in the event the Vega Gull’s wheels lifted off after just 600 yards. New York lay 3,600 miles away, across 2,000 miles of unbroken ocean. ‘Most of the way it will be night,’ wrote Markham. ‘We are flying west with the night.’ And so she did – and not for nothing did West With the Night become the title of her memoir, published in 1942. Later its plaudits would include Ernest Hemingway, who said it was so good it made him ‘ashamed of myself as a writer’.

Within four hours her plane was spotted over the west coast of Ireland – off County Cork at 10.30pm. Markham noted the Berehaven lighthouse, ‘the last light, standing on the last land’. Now she was in the dark.

The lighthouse on the Beara Peninsula, County Cork – Markham's 'last light, on the last of the land' before she flew west with the night. 

Photograph by Michael David Murphy / Alamy

‘Rain continues to fall, and outside the cabin it is totally dark,’ she later recalled. ‘My altimeter says that the Atlantic is 2,000 feet below me, my Sperry Artificial Horizon says that I am flying level. I judge my drift at three degrees more than my weather chart suggests… I am flying blind.’ A radio would be a blessing and so would better weather. ‘I feel the wind rising and the rain falls hard. The smell of petrol in the cabin is so strong and the roar of the plane so loud that my senses are almost deadened. Gradually it becomes unthinkable that existence was ever otherwise.’ 

Makham flew into a 45-mile headwind at a speed of 130mph. Without modern instrumentation and positioning systems success or failure, life or death, depended on the precision of her navigation. She had to calculate her course through dead-reckoning, estimating the effect of the headwinds on her course and making allowances for them (as well as for magnetic variation affecting her compass.) But before the hazards of navigation could become a reality, her engine quit. (Overcome a fear of flying: five courses to tackle it.)

‘At 25 minutes to 11, my motor coughs and dies,’ she said afterwards. ‘It is the actual silence following the last splutter of the engine that stuns me. I can’t feel any fear; I can’t feel anything. I can only observe with a kind of stupid disinterest that my hands are violently active and know that, while they move, I am being hypnotised by the needle of my altimeter.’

“Without modern instrumentation and positioning systems success or failure, life or death, depended on the precision of Markham's navigation.”

'The needle of my altimeter seems to whirl like the spoke of spindle...' Markham's daring darkness flight was made harrowing by the cutting out of her engine as the fuel lines became clogged with ice.  

Photograph by Andrew Deer / Alamy

In the seconds the follow – the luminous dial of the altimeter glows in the dark – its hands spinning as the plane plunges and Markham finds a torch and reaches the first petcock on the floor of the aeroplane. She turns it and waits. ‘At 300 feet the motor is still dead … the needle of my altimeter seems to whirl like the spoke of spindle. There is some lightning, but the quick flash only serves to emphasise the darkness. How high can waves reach – 20 feet, perhaps? Thirty?’

At the last moment the engine fires up. Markham eases back on the stick, taking the plane up into a storm that shakes the craft – but it’s all strangely comforting. She calculates that her engine must have quit for fully 30 seconds.

When dawn finally arrived she saw the coast of Newfoundland, ‘wound in ribbons of fog’. ‘We had flown blind for 19 hours,’ she stated. Now, using a protractor, compass and map she sets course southwards for the Gulf of St Lawrence across a final stretch of 400 miles before land – Cape Breton, in Nova Scotia, where she planned to refuel before continuing to New York.

That Markham was exhausted cannot be doubted, but with daylight flooding in through the glass canopy and a clear view of the waves below there was no way that she could fall asleep. And, of course, there would be more fuel valves to close and open.

An area of bog near Louisbourg, Nova Scotia. Nearby is Cape Breton, where Beryl Markham's place crash-landed. 

Photograph by Renee Koukoulas / Stockimo / Alamy

Fall at the final hurdle

But then the engine shuddered … and died. ‘It spluttered, it started again and limped along,’ she wrote. ‘It coughed and spat black exhaust towards the sea.’ Because she still had plenty of fuel, Markham assumed it must be an airlock, so she began working at the metal petcocks, even cutting her fingers on them. Blood dripped on her maps and clothes but it was to no avail. ‘I coasted along on a sick and halting engine,’ she later wrote.

She didn’t know it but ice particles had begun to block the air intake on the petrol tank. As she descended – as the ice melted away – the engine fired into life, only to fail as she climbed and it got colder. But land was now in sight, perhaps 40 or 50 miles ahead. Over the next few minutes Markham’s Vega Gull continues to descend and climb, swooping up and down, as the engine fires and dies.

Then suddenly, the land is under her. She checks her map – calculating that even at this pace she can make the closest aerodrome, Nova Scotia’s Sydney airport, in 12 minutes. Only now, the engine finally quits on her and within seconds the Vega Gull is descending fast towards a black bog scattered with boulders. ‘I hang above it on hope and on a motionless propeller,’ she wrote. Markham banks the Gull to dodge a boulder and executes an emergency landing – the undercarriage of the plane touches down on the peaty bog. ‘The nose of the plane is engulfed in mud, and I go forward striking my head on the glass of the cabin front, hearing it shatter, feeling blood pour over my face.’ Stumbling from the wreck, she checked her watch: 21 hours and 25 minutes, from Abingdon to ‘a nameless swamp – nonstop’. She had made it.

Life and legacy

Beryl Markham’s flight remains a staggering achievement. She said she did not do it for the glory, apparently. In her biography of Markham, Straight on Till Morning, Mary Lovell suggests she may have undertaken the mission to fix her broken heart; by setting the record she could hope to win back the affections of her former lover Tom Campbell Black, a pioneering aviator himself, who had taught her to fly in 1930 and then helped her prepare for the Atlantic challenge. ‘Record flights had actually never interested me very much for myself,’ Markham said.

What we do know is that the impetus for the trip came about over dinner in London, apparently on the suggestion of a wealthy Kenyan landowner and aviator John Carberry, an Irish aristocrat. Markham said, ‘yes’, and he paid for the plane, which he was having prepared for a race to Johannesburg. What Markham did say was that she wanted to prove that an ‘Atlantic air service’ was a viable option.

Perhaps it was all of these reasons. What’s certain is that Beryl Markham remained a mercurial and mysterious figure right up to her death in Nairobi in 1986.

Born in Rutland and raised in Kenya, Markham's earlier life was enveloped in scandal, including an affair with Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester. She returned to Kenya in later life and fell into obscurity; a rediscovery and re-release of her memoir West with the Night in the early 1980s would provide her with a renewed income, as well as acclaim as a writer. Markham died in 1986. 

Photograph by Everett Collection Inc / Alamy

Her great-nephew, Sir David Markham, remembers an elderly lady devoted to horses – in Kenya, Beryl Markham was also a noted racehorse trainer – but one that never talked about her exploits in the air. Indeed, most of the Markham family’s recollections about her concerned her brief, failed marriage to Mansfield Markham and rumours of her numerous infidelities – with lovers that included Denys Finch Hatton of Out of Africa fame, (from whom she seemingly caught the flying bug) and Prince Henry, the Duke of Gloucester.

High scandal

The prince was the third son of George V, whom she met when he came out to Kenya on safari with his brother, the future Edward VIII. The liaison blossomed and eventually led to the Prince settling £15,000 in trust for her to pay for an annuity for Markham for life – according to Lovell – to avoid a divorce case in which the prince would be named. ‘In those days Beryl was sensationally good looking, she was immaculate, great fun, she mixed with the high and mighty – she was a party animal and I think everyone loved her,’ recalls Sir David, 73. ‘She was smart, she loved flying and she was a natural. I think it gave her the freedom which she’d wanted as a child and she was damned good at it.’

Markham’s writing also deserved attention, too. The journalist Martha Gellhorn said West with the Night ‘deserves a place as a companion piece to Out of Africa. Her biographer Mary Lovell, who visited Markham in the months before her death, dismissed rumours that the book had been written by Markham’s third husband, a Hollywood ghost-writer named Raoul Schumacher.

What can’t be disputed is that Beryl Markham, a Kenyan colonist’s daughter, did achieve a world first during an extraordinary 21-hour and 25-minute flight from 4–5 September 1936. ‘I’m Mrs Markham,’ she told the fishermen who had found her. ‘I’ve just flown from England.’

Alec Marsh is a journalist and author of the Drabble and Harris books. 


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