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Born in England in 1902 and raised in Kenya, Markham devoted much of her life to horses. As a young woman, she became Kenya’s first female trainer of Thoroughbreds and, amazingly, she continued training into her 80s. But her thirst for adventure also pulled her in a different direction, as she recounts in West with the Night: “One night I stood there and watched an aeroplane invade the stronghold of the stars. It flew high; it blotted some of them out; it trembled their flames like a hand swept over a company of candles.”
Enchanted, as so many of us have been, by the idea of flight, Markham — in impressively short order — took flying lessons and earned a commercial pilot’s license. For three years, she supported herself by, among other things, delivering mail, shuttling doctors to remote African outposts and taking hunters on safari. In 1936, inspired by the exploits of Amelia Earhart and other record-breaking aviators, Markham returned to her homeland and set out to become the first pilot, male or female, to fly solo and nonstop from England to New York City. As you probably know, in 1932 Amelia Earhart became the first woman pilot to cross the Atlantic solo, flying from Newfoundland to Ireland. But without diminishing that terrific accomplishment, Earhart’s 15-hour eastbound flight was shorter and less dangerous than what Markham was attempting, given the natural west-to-east flow of wind across the Atlantic.
On Sept. 4, 1936, Markham and her Vega Gull monoplane took off from Abingdon, England. As she described in her book, “We are bound for a place thirty-six hundred miles from here — two thousand miles of it unbroken ocean. Most of the way it will be night. We are flying west with the night.” The flight got off to an inauspicious start, to put it mildly. She encountered terrible storms almost immediately, and half an hour after takeoff, her chart of the Atlantic was blown out the window. But she persevered, flying blind and without a radio through rain, cold and darkness. Some 20 hours after taking off, frozen fuel-tank vents forced Markham to land in Nova Scotia. She did not reach her goal of New York City, but she did make history as the first pilot (male or female) to fly solo from England to North America nonstop.
Beryl Markham shared the story of her historic flight, as well as her many adventures growing up in Africa, in West with the Night. Interestingly, the book did not make much of a splash when it was first published in 1942. In 1950, Markham returned to Africa and her successful horse-training career. In 1983, a publisher was persuaded to reissue West with the Night, and the second time around, the book — thanks in part to the recently unearthed praise from Hemingway — was a hit. So, at the age of 81, Markham was able to add “best-selling author” to her list of credits.
I have been reminded of Beryl Markham’s achievement quite a bit in recent months, as my colleagues at American Airlines, along with our partners British Airways and Iberia, have implemented our new trans-Atlantic joint venture, which includes near-hourly service between Europe and North America in both directions. These days we revel (and rightly so) in our ability to make routine what was once miraculous. But I hope we never completely lose the wonder we feel when we “invade the stronghold of the stars” and never forget the contributions of all the dreamers and pioneers — like Beryl Markham — who came before us.
If you get a chance, I hope you’ll read West with the Night. In the meantime, thank you for flying with us today.
Gerard J. Arpey