Beryl Markham, a pioneer aviator, was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean from London to North America.
Beryl Markham spent most of her life in Kenya, a country in eastern Africa, where she was well known for her career as a bush pilot and for her success as a breeder and trainer of racehorses. She was also famous for her record-breaking, though near fatal, solo flight from London to Nova Scotia in 1936. Markham wrote a book about her adventurous life that became a best-seller.
Born in 1902 in Leicester, England, Markham (then Beryl Clutterbuck) was just three years old when her parents moved to Kenya. Kenya had come under British control in the late 1800s, and after the turn of the century many Englishmen established farms there. The highlands offered a pleasant climate and productive soil for growing such tropical crops as coffee. The European farmers prospered over the years and, as more and more settlers arrived, they were able to establish a comfortable life-style in Kenya.
Markham's father cleared land and started a farm at Njoro, about 70 miles from Nairobi, the new capital of Kenya. After trying to raise various crops, he discovered his true talent as a horse breeder and trainer. Horse racing was a popular sport and social activity among the colonists, and Markham's father began to supply horses for the Nairobi racetracks. Markham spent her childhood on the horse farm, learning to speak several African languages from the families her father employed. She also learned to hunt wild game with a spear, and her father taught her how to ride a horse. In the course of her adventurous childhood, she was attacked by a "pet" lion and once killed a deadly black mamba snake.
As a young woman, Markham started a career of her own as a horse trainer. She was so successful that one of her horses won the most prestigious racing prizes in Kenya when she was only 24. This success helped her to become one of the most socially prominent young women in Nairobi. She met a wealthy young Englishman named Mansfield Markham, whom she married in 1927. The Markhams then moved to England, where Beryl gave birth to a son, but within a short time the marriage ended, and Markham returned to Kenya alone.
Back in the colony Denys Finch Hatton, a well-known big-game hunter, took Markham flying in his airplane. Thrilled by the experience, she decided to learn how to fly a plane herself. Shortly after she began taking lessons, Finch Hatton was killed in a crash, an event that seems to have increased Markham's determination to become an aviator. Within just a few months Markham received her pilot's license, and she then became the first woman in Kenya to receive a commercial pilot's license. Embarking on a career as a bush pilot, she flew alone delivering supplies, passengers, and mail to the remote, or "bush," regions of the country. Since there were no airfields in Kenya, Markham landed her plane in forest clearings or fields.
When Markham had been licensed for less than a year, she undertook a daring solo flight to England. She left Nairobi in a single-engine, 120-horsepower airplane that had no radio, no direction-finding equipment, and no speedometer. On the first day she flew northeast to Juba, a town in the Sudan, but was forced down a short distance from the airport by a storm and engine trouble. The next day she flew to Malakal on the Nile River. She tried to reach Khartoum, the capital city of the Sudan, on the following day but made it only halfway before the plane's engine failed. Landing in the desert, she repaired the engine as best she could. Local people helped her push the plane to harder sand, where she took off again and made it to a nearby airfield. The next morning Markham flew on to Khartoum, but the engine died twice along the way. In Khartoum it was discovered that the engine had a cracked piston ring. She was unable to get spare parts there, so she flew on to Atbara, where she replaced the piston.
When the engine continued to malfunction, Markham was forced to land outside Cairo, Egypt, in the middle of a dust storm that was so severe she could not see the ground as she was landing. After the British Royal Air Force repaired the engine for her, she flew on across the Mediterranean Sea, wearing an inner tube around her neck as a lifesaving device. Although bad weather plagued her flight across Europe, she finally landed safely in London. Her flight from Kenya had taken 23 days.
After years of bush flying in Kenya and locating big game by air for safaris, Markham returned to England, where she hoped to win one of the big prizes that were being offered for record-breaking achievements in aviation. She had originally thought of competing in a race to South Africa with a former flying instructor, Tom Campbell Black, but decided instead to try for the prize of flying solo from London to New York. Such a flight had never been accomplished because it meant flying against the prevailing winds. In the Northern Hemisphere the jet stream travels from west to east.
When Charles Lindbergh made his solo flight across the Atlantic, he had the wind pushing him on. Other aviators had attempted to make the flight from east to west but had fallen short of the mark. In 1932 Jim Mollison had flown from Ireland to eastern Canada; in 1934 John Grierson had flown the whole distance, but his trip took six weeks because he made four stops along the way.
Markham's aim was to fly nonstop from London to New York in order to show that commercial air service between the two cities was possible. For the trip she borrowed an airplane--a single-engine Vega Gull with a 200-horsepower engine--that could fly up to 163 miles per hour and that was fitted with extra tanks so it could travel 3,800 miles without refueling. The plane had no radio equipment, however, so contact with Markham would be impossible once she took off. Markham left London at 8:00 P.M. on September 4, 1936, facing a strong head wind, low clouds, and blustery weather. She was seen over Ireland at 10:25 P.M.; at 2:00 the next afternoon she was spotted by a ship in the Atlantic; and at 4:35 P.M. she was reported to be flying over the tip of Newfoundland, the easternmost part of North America. Then she disappeared.
A telephone call from a small town in Nova Scotia finally brought news of the aviator. She had survived her trip, but the plane had crash-landed in a peat bog. With the nose of the plane stuck in the mud, she had climbed out and greeted two fishermen by saying, "I'm Mrs. Markham. I've just flown from England."
Her flight across the Atlantic had almost ended in tragedy when the fuel line to one of the plane's tanks froze, causing the engine to fail and the plane to fall toward the ocean. Just before Markham reached the sea, the line warmed up and the gasoline started to flow again, allowing her to pull the plane up to safety. It was another frozen fuel line that caused her to crash in Nova Scotia.
Disappointed that she had not managed to fly all the way to New York City, Markham was afraid the flight would be considered a failure. In fact, news services carried the report throughout the world, and she was hailed as a heroine. In Nova Scotia a U.S. Coast Guard plane met her, and she co-piloted it to New York, where she met Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and rode in a motorcade through the city. Markham returned to England to find she had become a celebrity. She lived there for the next few years but did not take up flying again. Although she talked about entering another of the great air races, her interest seems to have faded after her friend Campbell Black was killed in the race to South Africa.
In 1939 Markham moved to the United States. For some time there were plans to make a movie about her famous flight across the Atlantic. While the film was never made, she received an offer to write about her experiences. Her book, West with the Night, was published in 1942 and was favorably received. After reading it, the American writer Ernest Hemingway said, "She can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers." Appearing on 13 best-seller lists after it was published, West with the Night tells the story of Markham's childhood in Kenya, her unconventional career as a bush pilot, and her pioneering transatlantic flight. Eventually sales began to decline, and the book was forgotten.
For a number of years Markham lived in California, where she remarried and ran an avocado ranch. In 1952 she returned to Kenya and took up the career she had started thirty years before--raising and training horses. From 1958 to 1972 she was the most successful trainer in Kenya, winning all of the major racing prizes and becoming a local legend. During Markham's final years she once again become a well-known personality. West with the Night was republished, becoming a best-seller, and she was the subject of a television documentary. She died in Kenya in 1986 at the age of 84.
DID MARKHAM ACTUALLY WRITE
WEST WITH THE NIGHT?
According to The Lives of Beryl Markham, a biography by Errol Trzebinski (Norton, 1993), Markham did not write West with the Night. The real author was her third husband, Raoul Schumacher, who was a writer and journalist. Trzebinski interviewed friends of Markham who said that when the book was published they assumed she had not written it. She never showed any interest in writing, they say, and she did not even like to read; in fact, she began writing the book only after she met Schumacher.
Markham's friends recall Schumacher and Markham saying they were writing the book together; much of the manuscript, which Markham kept all her life, was in her husband's handwriting. Further proof is the book itself. It contains literary references that only Schumacher could have made and inaccurate descriptions of flying that Markham would not have put in her narrative.
Why, then, did Markham not tell the truth? Her friends think she may have intended to reveal Schumacher as the actual author, and that might explain why she kept the manuscript. Moreover, she may have been so caught up in the book's success when it was published that she could find no graceful way to say she had not written it. As many people have commented, however, the question of who actually wrote West with the Night may be irrelevant, since the book continues to be a classic account of growing up in Kenya.