On 26 November, I met Tracey Curtis-Taylor, a 53-year-old aviator, in the lobby of the Taj Mahal hotel in Delhi. “You should have seen my hair when I landed yesterday,” she said in a warm English accent, describing the ravaging effects of sun and wind that come with flying an open-cockpit plane. The previous day, Curtis-Taylor had touched down in Delhi, at the controls of a dark-green vintage biplane. She was about halfway through a three-month journey from London to Sydney.
Curtis-Taylor was recreating a solo flight performed almost nine decades ago by Amy Johnson, a pioneering pilot who, in 1930, became the first woman to fly a plane from England to Australia, challenging sexist prejudices in the process. Curtis-Taylor, many decades later, confronted such biases herself, when she was unable to become a fighter pilot with the British Royal Air Force, which, at the time, did not accept women. She did not let that stop her from flying, and paid her way through civil aviation training.
In all, Curtis-Taylor spent 12 days in India, starting in Ahmedabad, then visiting Jaipur, Delhi, Agra, Varanasi and Kolkata, before continuing to Chittagong in Bangladesh. The Indian press covered her throughout, including a talk she delivered to students at a Delhi school, a documentary film shoot about her flight, a meeting she had with women pilots from the Indian air force, and more. What the media largely glossed over, however, was the story Curtis-Taylor most wanted to spread. At her Delhi hotel, she told me the goal of her voyage was to revive the memory of Johnson’s flight. The Indian leg of that journey—which includes a harrowing experience she had in Jhansi—is particularly worth retelling.