Born Mildred Mary Petre in November 1895, the Hon. Mrs Victor Bruce made her name during the 1920s and ’30s as a record breaker on land, sea and in the air.
She first came to notice by way of several motoring records. In 1929 she turned her attention to the water and gained records for crossings of the English Channel. In 1930 her fame soared when she undertook the first solo lightplane flight around the world.
At the age of 15, Bruce was the first girl to appear before a court on a charge of speeding (on her brother’s motorcycle). At an early age she got into the world of competitive driving when she entered the 1927 Monte Carlo Rally, for which she won the Coupe des Dames. She then set the land speed record for driving solo for 24 hours.
She next took to the water and set a record crossing the English Channel in an outboard motor-powered boat with a time of 1 hour, 47 minutes. If she could do 24 hours on land, why not 36 hours in a motorboat? She set another record with a distance of 694 nautical miles. She next turned her record-setting eyes on the sky.
Late in June 1930, after taking part in the Monte Carlo Rally, Bruce was wondering what to do next. She found herself in London when she spotted an airplane for sale in a shop window. A sign on the airplane said “Bluebird, Honeymoon model: Ready to go anywhere.” She asked if it could fly around the world, “easily” said the salesman. That evening she started planning a world flight.
Calling the Air Ministry, she was informed that if she contemplated a world flight she would have to depart before the end of September because of the Monsoon rains in India and Burma.
Two days later she bought the plane and then realized she had never been up in the air.
Three weeks passed before she had time to arrange for flying lessons. She tried to get lessons at Brough Aiport where the Bluebird had been built by the Blackburn Aeroplane Co., but was told that they were busy with Air Force training and she would have to wait two weeks. She replied that wasn’t good as she would be flying around the world by then. With help from Robert Blackburn, she started her lessons and soloed at the end of a week. On Sept. 25, 1930, eight weeks after receiving her license and with just 40 hours in her logbook, she commenced her great adventure around the world.
The Bluebird originated as an entry in the 1924 light plane competition at Lympne, England. It was not designed just for the meet, but also as the prototype for a future training aircraft. The seating was side-by-side, which was convenient for conversation between instructor and student. With the two seats on the centerline, trimming was not necessary when making solo flights. The original was powered by a 32-hp Blackbird engine, which was considered to provide adequate performance.
The most famous Blackbird was probably the one Bruce used for her world flight. This was a Blackbird IV, which had much increased performance due to the installation of a 120-hp de Havilland Gipsy II engine. Total fuel capacity was increased to 90 gallons with an additional tank occupying the left side of the two-seat cockpit and covered over so that the machine ﬂew as a single-seater. It was also ﬁtted with long-range radio equipment that automatically transmitted a signal via a clockwork-driven Morse code signal every 15 minutes. She also carried a Dictaphone for recording her impressions along the flight route. There was no room for a parachute or other emergency equipment.
Bruce left Heston Airfield in England Sept. 25, 1930. However perfunctory her flight training was, she had studied navigation thoroughly from a master navigator and provided herself with a set of charts to keep track of her course. Her route from England initially saw her fly to Munich, Vienna, Belgrade, Istanbul, and on to Karachi.
The most challenging event in the world flight took place over the desert near the Gulf of Oman. Continuing on her route from Baghdad to Karachi, Bruce encountered a sand storm and then lost oil pressure in the engine. She attempted to land on what seemed like firm ground, but sank into it and overturned. Other than a bump on her head, she seemed to be OK, but the propeller was broken.
Baluchi tribesmen appeared on the scene and rescued her, taking her to their encampment. After surviving for some days on water and dates, she persuaded the chief to send word to Jask, some 40 miles distant, where there was a British cable office and an Imperial Airways field.
Three Englishmen came to her help and mended the airplane — thanks to the spare propeller she had strapped to the fuselage — and she flew on to Jask, where she had to wait for new engine parts that had been damaged in the wind storm.
She and the Bluebird then ﬂew eastwards with impressive reliability and reached Tokyo after a magniﬁcent 600-mile crossing of the Yellow Sea to Seoul, Korea, arriving seven weeks after leaving London.
The Bluebird was then shipped to Vancouver, Canada, and ﬂown to Seattle. With her arrival on American soil, she became a guest of the Standard Oil Co., which provided a Boeing Model 80 as an escort on her way to Chicago. Then she headed down to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and on to San Diego, arriving there Jan. 18, 1931. From San Diego she started her long flight across Arizona, Texas, through the Midwest and on to New York.
She was again delayed a fortnight later when the Bluebird overturned in thick mud at the Glenn Martin Co.’s aerodrome at Baltimore. After getting repaired, the aircraft reached New York on Feb. 5 for shipment to Le Havre, France, on the passenger liner Ile de France. She then ﬂew to Le Bourget outside Paris before returning via Lympne to a triumphal reception at Croydon on Feb. 20, followed the next day by a welcoming party at Heston, which was attended by nearly every existing Bluebird.
Bruce had indeed made her mark on aviation, including the first solo flight from England to Japan; the longest solo flight, 19, 000 miles; the first to solo over three continents; and the first world encircling flight.