"West Over The Waves: The Final Flight of Elsie Mackay" by Jayne Baldwin is a superbly researched and engagingly written account of the life, the exploits and the death of Elsie Mackay. "Who?" you may ask. I'm ashamed to say that I did. We are interested in Scotland and Scots, and we are interested in aviation. How is it possible we'd never stumbled across the story of Elsie Mackay before? I'm not sure of the answer to that, but whatever the reason, thanks are due to Jayne Baldwin for bringing the life and exploits of this glamorous heiress and pioneering aviatrix to a wider audience.
Elsie Mackay was born in India in 1893, the daughter of James Mackay, 1st Earl of Inchcape, who would later go on to become Chairman of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O). Elsie was a wilful child who went on to become a wilful young woman. In 1917 she eloped to Scotland to marry a South African army officer against her family's wishes. After the war she became an actress, using the stage and screen name Poppy Wyndham. In 1922 she divorced her husband, now an actor, on a technicality arising from the arrangements for their wedding five years earlier.
Her family could have been forgiven for thinking that with her wild youth behind her, she would settle down and conform. She certainly spent a considerable amount of time at the family's Scottish home at Glenapp Castle in Ayrshire. And, despite the strong reservations of some in the company, she achieved considerable success when given responsibility for the interior decoration of the ocean liners operated by her father's company, P&O. But her true passion in life was flying, and she had the means to indulge it. She learned to fly and became a very proficient pilot.
In the decade that followed World War One, the great challenge in aviation was flying across the Atlantic Ocean. Two British pilots, Alcock and Brown, made the first crossing, from Newfoundland to Ireland, in a converted WWI bomber, in 1919. Then in 1927 Charles Lindbergh flew non-stop from Long Island in New York to Paris. Others followed, but always flying from west to east, in the direction of the prevailing winds.
Elsie Mackay wanted to be the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean from east to west, against the prevailing winds, and she recruited the renowned pilot Walter G. R. Hinchliffe to fly with her. Plans were made, and a suitable aircraft, a Stinson Detroiter, was purchased in the USA and shipped to Britain. By mid-March 1928 Elsie found herself in a "now or never" situation. Her mother and father were on holiday in Egypt, and she had to make the attempt before her father - a man with the power and will to stop her - found out what she planned. She was also looking over her shoulder at the preparations of others in Europe who might gain the prize before her. And her authorisation to use RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire, which was about the only place in Britain with a runway long enough to permit the take off of an aircraft so grossly overloaded with fuel, had expired. So on the morning of 13 March 1928 Elsie and Hinchliffe took off from the snow-covered airfield at Cranwell, and headed west. They never arrived, and their exact fate has never been conclusively established.
The subtitle of the book gives a strong clue that what you are reading is a story doomed to end in failure and death. But despite that, Jayne Baldwin has done a wonderful job in bringing Elsie Mackay to life. We also learn a great deal about Hinchliffe and other star pilots of the day, and about the quest to fly across the Altantic. The detailed account of the sercret preparations for the flight itself are genuinely gripping, as Elsie had to play a complex game of cat and mouse with a fascinated media to avoid her family discovering what she planned. There are, for all too obvious reasons, no accounts available of the flight itself, but the story of the search that followed is compelling. The book is rounded off with two appendices, one about the aircraft used, and the other, by Quentin Wilson, giving a detailed analysis of the weather conditions over the Atlantic at the time and the various reports of sightings of the aircraft.