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Issue 75 - The Flying Heiress

Scotland Magazine Issue 75
June 2014

 

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The Flying Heiress

Aviatrix Elsie Mackay and her final flight

Swathed in a fur coat to hide her flying suit, Elsie Mackay huddled in the back of her Rolls Royce alongside the dashing Captain Hinchliffe, the flying ace who had lost an eye in the Great War.

An hour earlier the beautiful dark haired daughter of shipping magnate Lord Inchcape, had quietly slipped from the modest hotel in Lincolnshire and visited the local church to take communion and pray for the success of her perilous adventure.

Snow was falling in the first light of this bitterly cold morning in 1928 as the car swept through the gates of RAF Cranwell. On the runway, the black and gold Stinson Detroiter was in stark contrast to the blanket of unseasonal weather. The small monoplane was heavy with fuel though few knew where it would be heading.

The venture was shrouded in secrecy unlike every other flight in this golden age of aviation when the world's media feverishly followed every pilot with a plan. The previous year, American Charles Lindbergh had been welcomed by huge crowds on the arrival of his plane, The Spirit of St Louis, in Paris at the end of the first successful Atlantic crossing. Headlines heralded the news, aviation was at the forefront of the modern age, the exciting new technology of the bright post war era.

By contrast, despite being dogged by reporters, Captain Hinchlliffe had played down the preparations he was making and claimed to be considering a flight east towards India. Rumours that an Atlantic attempt would be made by the Captain and Miss Mackay had been angrily quashed by the heiress who had threatened legal action against any newspaper repeating the story. Elsie needed to keep the flight a secret, fearing that her influential father would try and stop the dangerous mission.

At 8.35am on the 13th of March 1928 Elsie and Captain Ray Hinchliffe shook hands with the officials, ground crew and a friend, Captain Gordon Sinclair, before climbing into the dual control cockpit. The weight of fuel meant that the small plane travelled along the whole of the lengthy runway before finally lifting into the sky.

News began to filter out that another attempt was being made to fly the Atlantic, this time by the far more difficult east to west route, but there was confusion and speculation as to who was in the plane. Even Captain Hinchliffe's wife Emilie was unsure. Elsie had arranged for Captain Sinclair to go into hiding in a deliberate ploy to keep everyone guessing. She hoped to prevent her parents, who were in Egypt, from learning about the flight until she had safely arrived in New York.


As they waited for news of the intrepid aviators reporters filled their columns with details of Elsie Mackay's glamorous life. Her father had been born plain James Mackay in the Scottish harbour town of Arbroath in Angus. Despite starting out as a clerk, by the time of Elsie's birth in 1894 the fourth of five children, James Mackay had very successfully risen through the ranks of the British India Steamship Navigation Company going on to become the chairman of the famous P&O shipping line. Elsie shared her father's drive and ambition but opportunities were few for women, even those who were wealthy and well-connected.

The family divided their time between a London town-house in Mayfair and their magnificent Scottish estate at Glenapp Castle in south Ayrshire, close to the village of Ballantrae. When war was declared in 1914 Elsie joined the ranks of young women wishing to 'do their bit', initially as a driver for the top brass of the Royal Naval Air Service and later as a nurse at a hospital set up by her mother.

Elsie, ever an impulsive young woman, fell in love with a wounded officer in her care called Denis Wyndham who, as a South African born actor, failed to impress Lord Inchcape. Risking disinheritance and despite the Captain's need to return to his regiment, the couple eloped leading marshals in a madcap chase around London before boarding the express north to Glasgow where they married at St Aloysius's Church just off Sauchiehall Street.

After the war, Elsie followed her husband into the acting profession and enjoyed a short career in silent cinema under the name Poppy Wyndham, gaining something of a reputation not just for her acting skills but fearlessly performing her own stunts.

The marriage lasted less than five years, Lord Inchape's lawyers helping to release Elsie from her vows through a controversial annulment. She returned home to Scotland where she was a firm favourite with the estate staff and local people. New thrills beckoned, she was famously not content with the luxury her wealth could buy, and in 1922 Elsie became one of the first women in Britain to qualify as a pilot despite a hair-raising first lesson when her safety strap broke during an acrobatic manoeuvre and she almost tumbled from the plane – 10,000 feet in the air.

Joining P & O as an interior designer in 1925, Elsie was again a pioneer as few women worked in this field and at the same time she was elected to the advisory committee of the British Empire Air League.

But for all her achievements and the experience of her highly respected co pilot, the pair were faced with the endless waves and unknown weather conditions of the mid Atlantic in March 1928. The little plane, The Endeavour, had last been spotted flying very fast and at high altitude by the Coast Guard at Mizen Head, the most south westerly tip of Ireland.

Ships coming into British ports reported terrible storms in the mid Atlantic. The thousands who had gathered at Mitchel Field in Philadelphia and waited for hours ready to welcome the British pair eventually made their way home, still searching the sky in hope of glimpsing the aircraft. Rumours, false sightings and extensive searches by the American and Canadian Navies eventually gave way to despair. Two more brave aviators lost to the Atlantic.

Lord Inchape never really recovered from the loss of his daughter, who he described as having the 'courage of a lion.' With Lady Inchcape, he commissioned the creation of a beautiful stained glass window featuring Elsie's image which can be seen still at the tiny church of Glenapp in south west Scotland. Most poignantly he arranged for the hillside on the opposite side of the glen to be planted with flowering shrubs that, though now overgrown, once spelt out her name in enormous letters as if he was somehow trying to call her spirit home.