Friday, 9 November 2012

Flight of fancy

Gertrude Bacon on Waterbird
The last weekend of October is spent in the Lake District, combining a reunion dinner with a couple of days hiking in the hills. As we check into the Windermere Hydro hotel at Bowness, a clutch of sepia tinted photographs catch my eye. One shows a woman in Edwardian dress, with high neck and leg of mutton sleeves. She is Gertrude Bacon, the first British woman to fly as a passenger in an aeroplane, and is seated behind pilot Herbert Stanley Adams in Waterbird, Britain’s first successful seaplane that made its historic maiden flight on Lake Windermere in 1911.

The picture to the right of the doughty pair shows an aerial photograph of the town of Bowness, taken by Gertrude in July of the following year.  In her book Memories Of Land and Sky, published in 1928, Gertrude wrote, “Windermere held no secrets from us that afternoon: fishers, bathers, lovers in secluded corners, all were revealed. Somehow, the word had got around of our intended flight and everywhere were waving handkerchiefs and friendly greetings.”

Intrigued, I sit in front of the log fire in the hotel lounge with my laptop and set about finding out more. The daughter of a clergyman who gave up his ministry to concentrate on his scientific interests, Gertrude was educated at home, and clearly relished helping her father with his experiments – particularly ballooning and astronomy. In 1899, the 25 year old Gertrude took off with her father and experienced aeronaut Stanley Spencer in a hydrogen balloon, from Newbury in Berkshire, to view a predicted spectacular meteor shower.

After several hours of enjoyable flight in the darkness, the trio discovered that the balloon showed no signs of descending as planned. Moreover, because of a decision to dispense with the usual butterfly valve, relying instead on natural leakage, there was no way of letting off the gas. The balloon reached 9,000 ft and the trio found themselves over the Bristol Channel. Concerned that when day came, the sun would add to the problems by causing the balloon to rise even higher, they came to the conclusion that they were doomed to a fatal end in the Atlantic or a crash landing by using the ripping cord to puncture the balloon. 

Reverend Bacon seems to have taken a rather philosophical approach, his main concern being the composition of his message to the flight’s sponsors, The Times newspaper. Gertrude and Stanley Spencer made rather more practical use of his copious supply of telegram forms. “We wrote and posted over the side three dozen or so neatly folded notes, labelled Important, and bearing the following message within.  ‘Large balloon from Newbury overhead, above clouds. Cannot descend. Telegraph to sea coast (coastguards) to be ready to rescue.’” 

Eventually, after ten hours of flight, the balloon began to descend of its own accord, tossed by gale force winds, crashing into an oak tree and then finally coming to rest in a barbed wire fence in a field in Neath, Wales. Gertrude suffered a broken arm and her father a lacerated leg.

Undeterred by this hair-raising flight, Gertrude Bacon went on to become a highly regarded balloonist and aeronautical engineer, permitted to accompany the British Astronomical Association on various expeditions to India, the USA and Lapland. She was noted for her speaking abilities, with one newspaper full of praise for a lecture which “was illustrated with lantern slides, experiments and – as far as the possibilities of the Parish Rooms would admit – of working models, including a non-rigid type of dirigible balloon, which floated successfully over the heads of those present”.

Gertrude was not only intrepid, but a talented photographer and author with a precise yet witty writing style. Her account of the hair-raising balloon flight is a joy to read.  (The Record of an Aeronaut, her biography of her father, published in 1907). Yet despite being a pioneering and confident woman, one of her best selling titles was How men fly.

Golden October on Lake Windermere
Back to the present. The next day dawns bright and clear and we are promised that rare event in the Lake District, a dry day. After a wonderful four-hour walk, wearing my new Salomon boots that replaced the venerable Italian pair that so spectacularly parted company with their soles in the Arizona Rim Country (see The Great Arizona road trip) we take the ferry back to  Bowness across Lake Windermere, with glorious golden sunlight burnishing the brilliant crimson, copper and yellow trees along the shoreline. 

Woman at the helm
In charge of the wooden ferry is a young woman, with a ready smile and a sure hand on the wheel.  She has worked for the company for eight years, she tells me, promoted to driving the boats three years ago. She loves the work.

We return to the hotel to find headlines announcing the departure of Cynthia Carroll from Anglo American, after six years as Chief Executive. A geologist by training, US born Cynthia Carroll was the first woman and the first non-South African to be appointed to the role when she was given the top job in 2007.

Earlier in the month Dame Marjorie Scardino (Canadian) announced her decision to step down from publishing giant Pearson after 16 years.

That leaves just two women at the top of FTSE 100 companies in the UK, of whom only one is British - accountant Alison Cooper who has been Chief Executive of Imperial Tobacco since 2010. The other is Angela Ahrends (American), who restored the upmarket credibility of Burberry from the excesses of WAG over-exposure.

The news has resurrected the calls for quotas in boardrooms and the arguments that this will result in a flood of mediocre appointments and the blight of tokenism. “We just need more women in the pipeline, not special treatment,” goes the cry, “and then it will all happen naturally."

And while we are talking about special treatment, Cherie Blair reminded us at the Women beyond leadership 2012 event held this week in London that the Davies Report revealed that only 5 per cent of Non Executive Directors appointed to company boards go through due process.

Meanwhile an engineering friend reports yet another example of the Catch 22 facing senior women in construction. She was told by a headhunter just last week that FTSE board appointments will only be a reality for her if she can demonstrate FTSE experience. 
On a more positive note, it is good news that women are driving boats, trains and planes in peacetime, and some are venturing higher. A century after Gertrude Bacon made her pioneering flight, the first  Chinese woman astronaut, Liu Yang, joined two others aboard the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft that lifted off from the Gobi Desert for a 13 day mission in July this year. Liu is a 33 year old fighter pilot, one of the cohort that completed their training in 2009 and were rewarded with special Anti-G flight suits for women that took 15 months to develop.

A far cry from the outfit devised by another redoubtable woman, Edith Berg, who was so captivated by seeing Wilbur Wright demonstrating his flying machine in France in 1908 that she persuaded him to take her up for a ride. As she set off, she tied a rope around her skirt to stop it blowing in the wind during the flight, becoming not only the first American woman to fly as a passenger in an aeroplane but also the originator of the fashionable ‘hobble skirt.’

Today’s astronaut Liu, from the poor and populous central province of Henan, has been praised in state media for her nerves of steel after safely landing her fighter jet after a bird strike that left the cockpit glass covered with blood. Speaking to the official Xinhua new agency Liu said she "yearns to experience the wondrous, weightless environment of space, see the Earth and gaze upon the motherland".  

Sentiments rather similar to Gertrude Bacon’s introduction to her book All about flying, published in 1915, in which she says, “Who in this world of ours has not envied the birds their wings, and longed like them to soar their way through the free pure vault of heaven!”

China's first female pilots in new flight suits, Tangshan, August 2009

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