Everyone has heard of the daring Amelia Earhart, but her British piloting peer Sheila Scott did her part to bust boundaries for ladies in aeronautics. Along with her numerous speed records and first flights, Scott helped NASA prove it could use satellites to track the location of airplanes.
In November 1929, all 117 female pilots in the United States were invited to a meeting. Twenty-six showed up, quickly expanding to 99 women as the founding members of the Ninety-Nines, an association for the mutual support and advancement of licensed women in aviation. Of course the already-famous Amelia Earhart served as the first president, helping the organization grow and gain international recognition.
In England, Sheila Scott took up the mantle as a founding member and the first governor for the British section of the Ninety-Nine.
Sheila Scott and Mythre before the over-the-pole flight in 1971. Image credit: NASA
Scott rode her Piper Aztec, Myrthre, on a trip around the world and then some, but taking a different route than most. Loaded down with experimental NASA equipment to communicate with the Nimbus polar orbiting satellite, she became the first pilot to fly a single engine plane over the North Pole. In describing the Arctic to journalists, she marvelled at the dramatic landscape:
It’s truly like nothing on Earth. It’s breathtakingly beautiful with vivid oranges and purples. ...The glaciers and icebergs look pink and you have complete stillness around you in spite of the noise from the propeller. You are very aware of the ice grinding beneath you.
In her autobiography, she described the journey as a moment of pure solitude:
...acres and acres of lonely desolate ice packed sea [as if] everyone else on earth had mysteriously disappeared, and... I had wandered out into space to some other planet.
While physically alone, NASA always knew exactly where she was and how she was doing. The Interrogation Recording and Location System (IRLS) tucked into Myrthre reported continiously to the Nimbus satellite throughout her 54,720 kilometer (34,000 mile) journey and 189 flight-hours.
The transmitted data included her location, but she also wore electrodes that monitored her heartbeat and body temperature during the flight to provide NASA with data on the physical impact of the journey on its pilot. Not only did Scott make a historic flight over the pole, but her trip also confirmed the satellite’s ability to collect and transmit location data from a mobile platform.
Scott was also rated as a helicopter pilot (joining the Whirly Girls), balloon pilot, glider pilot, and an airplane pilot for commercial, land, sea, multi-engine, instrument-only and night flight. She flew barefoot so she could better feel the vibrations of her aircraft.
Scott flying Myrthre with her Myth Too in the background. Image courtesy: Whirly Girls
She so lacked in natural aptitude that it took her nine months to complete her first solo flight. In a moment that reflected the gremlins that would plague her career, she slipped on a potato chip while celebrating, breaking her arm and forcing her to fly with a safety pilot despite her new license.
Scott primarily paid for her flights by working as a demonstrator for Cessna and Piper aircraft and with speaking engagements. Instrument failures were so common, she hung a champaign cork in the cabin as both good-luck charm and yaw indicator. Her record-setting attempts were constantly plagued by moody electronics and malfunctioning equipment, making each flight not just a test of stamina and weather, but one of endurance over mechanical failure. She once told the Associated Press:
I am often afraid. The thing is to stay with the airplane, to make it perform, to cope, even though you’re shaking in every limb. On world record flights, when you’re pushing way beyond anything you or your plane was built form, there must be some for of trouble as well as good moments.
Scott set 104 aviation records, mostly with Myrthre and a single-engined Piper Comanche, Myth Too, while flying to a soundtrack of Rachmaninov and Beethoven. Those records included being the first pilot to solo over the Arctic Ocean and North Pole in a light aircraft, the first British pilot to complete a round-the-world flight (she completed three), and despite flying lumbering beasts of machines, becoming the speed champion between several cities. In a gesture of Christmas goodwill in 1967, the British airforce allowed her to briefly borrow a Fleet Air Arm Hunter jet. She set a personal speed record during the flight, breaking the sound barrier. While several of her records involved long solo flights with a malfunctioning autopilot, Scott wasn’t entirely alone: she frequently carried along a large stuffed rabbit named Bucktooth as her companion and mascot.
Scott and Myth Too covered in goodwell-wishes before setting out on a record attempt. She was forced to paint over the greeting from Israel during a unplanned landing in Libya.
Not every challenge she faced was mechanical. During her 1966 flight around the world, she soared over Vietnam:
Countries involved in war are always wary of aircraft, and have a habit of shooting them down. But when they saw my tiny plane, and heard my accent over the radio, I was allowed to fly over the territory without a scratch.
When reflecting on her experiences as one of the first women pilots, Scott explained:
The more professional a pilot, the more help he gives. But lower down the scale it hasn’t always been easy. Men ‘adventurers’ are highly sponsored and never have to pay for their planes or boats or whatever. In England, at least, a woman ‘adventurer’ has to do everything for herself. I’ve had to lecture, write, beg, and borrow, to raise money to buy my planes and finance my competitions.
March 12, 1968: Scott in front of Buckingham Palace on after receiving the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II. Image credit: AP/Worth
Scott was born Sheila Christine Hopkins on April 27, 1922 in England. She worked as a nurse during World War II, then as an actress before receiving her pilot’s licenses in the 1960s (years before acquiring her driver’s license in 1974). An avid fan of smoking during her long flights, Scott died from lung cancer on October 20, 1988.
This lady impresses me so much. From an aimless life she found purpose, and it was enough to drive her past any technical failings to succeed by sheer force of will and determination. Her charisma and flair for the dramatic earned her both positive press and snarky scorn, and she kept going anyway. She loved flying so much she found a way to make it happen no matter what obstacles life put in front her her.
May your skies be forever clear, Sheila Scott, and your wings never tire.
Read more about Sheila Scott in her autobiographies, “I Must Fly” and “Barefoot in the Sky.” This article originally listed Scott’s birth-year as 1927; thank you to James Myint for noticing the discrepancy.