Record-Breaking Sheila, the High-Flying Aviator

Sheila Scott in the cockpit of her Piper PA-24-260B Comanche G-ATOY in 1966
Sheila Scott in the cockpit of her Piper PA-24-260B Comanche G-ATOY in 1966

by Ray Setterfield

April 27, 1922 — In the high-flying world of female aviators, names such as Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson immediately spring to mind. But almost forgotten English flyer Sheila Scott, who was born on this day, deserves praise and wider recognition too.

Between 1965 and 1972 she staked her place in aviation history with more than 100 flying records, trophies, and awards. She made three solo flights around the world and became the first pilot, male or female, to fly directly over true North Pole in a light aircraft.

Born as Sheila Christine Hopkins at Worcester in the heart of the English countryside, she went on to serve as a nurse at a naval hospital during the second world war. In 1943 she began an unsuccessful career as an actress, adopting the name Sheila Scott.

Her life was to change in 1958 when she learned to fly, purchasing her first plane – a converted Tiger Moth – the following year.

In 1966, Sheila made her first around-the-world flight, covering about 31,000 miles in 189 flying hours. It was the first such solo flight by a British subject, the longest-distance solo flight, and only the third around-the-world flight by a woman.

Then records began to tumble: between London and Cape Town in 1967; across the North Atlantic the same year; across the South Atlantic in 1969; from equator to equator over the North Pole in 1971, becoming the first woman to pilot a flight circling the world by way of the North Pole in a light aircraft.

After her record polar flight, she made a third around-the-world flight, earning her 100th world-class record, including a new time from Darwin, Australia, to London of three and a half days, beating the previous record by one and a half days. In 1967, she set 23 world records in just one year.

In 1974 Sheila found time to write her autobiography, "Barefoot In The Sky", which was published by Macmillan. In it she wrote of her Arctic solitude, describing her flight over "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."

Despite her prowess in the sky, Sheila was less successful on land and failed her driving test three times. After finally gaining her licence at the fourth attempt in 1971 she said: ''It is terribly difficult to adjust to driving a car when you are accustomed to using your feet on rudder pedals. I wanted to haul back on the steering column and fly away.''

Her record-breaking achievements did not bring the financial rewards she might have hoped for and Sheila always struggled for funds. Her sad and lonely final days were spent in a London bedsit. She died of cancer in 1988, aged 66.

Published: April 16, 2018

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