Let’s suppose you wanted to take an airplane flight around the globe. And, since you are probably like me and don’t have access to high-speed military jets, you would need to make the flight using commercial airlines. That means they would have to deal with the hassles of delayed flights, waiting in airport terminals for connecting flights, dealing with immigration along the way, and all of the other hassles associated with flying. Just how long do you think it would take you? Could you do it in a day? In two days? Well, one man has set the record for doing so. If you hang around for a bit, I will let you know just how long it took him at the end of this podcast.
Of course, flying around the world today is far easier than it was in the early days of aviation. One of the earlier pioneers in flying was a British woman named Richarda Morrow-Tait, whose efforts to fly around the world are nearly forgotten today.
Born Prudence Richarda Evelyn Routh on November 22, 1923, she wasn’t exactly what her father had hoped for. “As far back as I can remember, it was always said that my father was so angry when I turned out to be a girl that he refused to speak to me on the day I was born. He’d already had two girls and I was to be called Richard – that’s how I was christened Richarda. So I was a third daughter. But no matter how depressing that could very well turn out to be – I did have one terrific consolation. I was born on a Thursday.” We shall see in a short bit how being born on a Thursday would play an important part in her life.
In 1943, Richarda, who went by the nickname of Dikki, was working as a temporary stenographer and assigned to assist a mechanical engineer named Norman Morrow-Tait who worked in the British government’s Ministry of Supply at Cambridge Norman was more than a decade older than the redheaded Dikki, but the two immediately hit it off and were soon married.
Dikki long had an interest in learning to fly an airplane and in 1945, her husband suggested that she should do so. She first took to the air in January 1946 and continued to take lessons on weekends. Dikki soon became the first woman to obtain a civil flying license in Britain since the war had ended.
Right around the time that she began her flying lessons, Dikki became pregnant. On October 10, 1946, she gave birth to a baby girl who the couple named Anna Victoria Airy Morrow-Tait. Yet, motherhood was not about to stop Dikki from taking to the sky.
On May 31, 1948, 24-year-old Richarda Morrow-Tait announced to the world that she was going to attempt to be the first woman to fly an airplane around the world. To do so, she purchased a surplus Percival Proctor IV, a 210 hp, single-engine plane which had been used as a communications aircraft during the war. For the round-the-world trip, it was outfitted with extra fuel tanks, which gave it an estimated range of 1850 miles (2977 km). Dikki named the plane “Thursday’s Child,” both because she was born a Thursday and for the verse in the folk song Mondays Child:
And boy did she have far to go…
While Dikki had mastered the flying of the plane, she was in need of a good navigator. While the Morrow-Taits were at a party they bumped into 25-year-old Michael Townsend, who had been a childhood friend of Dikki’s. At the time, Townsend was a geology student at Cambridge and a former member of the Royal Air Force. He agreed to accompany Dikki on the flight and spent four months preparing for it.
Their first setback occurred on August 14, 1948, while Dikki was practicing for the flight. While piloting another plane, Dikki crash-landed at the airport in Cambridge. She was unhurt, but this event seemed to cast a dark shadow on what was to come.
On Wednesday, August 18, 1948, as her husband and daughter Anna watched from the ground, Richarda Morrow-Tait and Michael Townsend lifted off from Cambridge and flew to Croyden Airport in London to officially begin their flight around the globe. They anticipated completing the flight in six weeks. Norman Morrow-Tait told the press “I have given her every encouragement to make this flight.” He continued, “I used to fly myself and know how much flying can mean to anyone. Dikki is a wonderful person full of determination and courage.”
Unfortunately, upon landing in Marseille, France, visibility was poor and the propeller, undercarriage, and one of the wings were damaged during landing. The next day, she announced that she was abandoning her attempted flight and would return to England once repairs to the plane were completed. Well, that decision did not last long. Two days later, on Friday, August 20, Dikki announced that she would continue on with the planned flight.
On Saturday, August 28, she finally was able to take off from Marseille and successfully landed later that same day in Malta. From there it was on to Cyprus, Iraq, Bahrain, Sharjah (United Arab Emirates), Karachi in Pakistan, and Delhi in India.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly until September 7. That is when her airplane was damaged during landing at Dum Dum airport in Calcutta. Dikki and Townsend would have to wait seven weeks for parts to arrive and for the plane to be repaired. So much for completing their flight in six weeks.
Finally, on October 22, they lifted off for Rangoon (today Yangon in Myanmar), followed by successful hops to Vietnam, Hong Kong, and five stops in Japan as she piloted the plane up the Japanese archipelago.
Her next flight was going to the longest over water: from Hokkaido, Japan to Shemya Island, located at the western tip of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Due to the great length of the flight, Dikki agreed to be escorted by a US Air Force B-17 bomber. Dikki and Townsend took off from Hokkaido on November 3 and encountered several storms along their flight path. At about 9 hours into their flight, the B-17 lost contact with the single-engine plane. Were Dikki and Townsend okay? Did their plane go down at sea? No one could say for sure until they surprisingly landed the plane on Shemya Island. Total flight time: 13 hours and 20 minutes. It turns out that they had lost contact with their escort plane after their radio was knocked out as they passed through a storm. Dikki told reporters, “Over the Pacific, we landed with only five gallons of gas, or 20 minutes flying time. I think we ran the last of it entirely Ave Marias.”
On November 11, they left Shemya and headed east along the Aleutian chain. They stopped at Adak and Cold Bay as they made their way to Anchorage. As they approached the Elmendorf Air Force Base there, they encountered thick fog, which greatly reduced visibility. To make matters worse, the lights on the field had failed. Two B-17’s and a Civil Aeronautics Authority airplane took off to help Dikki find the field. She made several passes with the plane but was unable to land. To help bring the plane in, cars were sent out to line the runway so that Dikki could use their headlights as a guide. An ambulance and rescue vehicles were put on alert. Once again, she successfully landed the plane. “It’s sure good to be down. I only had enough gas left to circle the field twice more.” Dicki added, “They talked us in three times before we made it and I was extremely frightened. I didn’t care how I landed as long as I got down.”
They were delayed for ten days in Anchorage because their plane was experiencing engine trouble, most likely due to the extreme cold. Once repairs were complete, Dikki took off for Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon territory. Since there was concern over the engine’s reliability, the decision was made to follow the highways just in case they would need to make an emergency landing. Sadly, on what just happened to be Dikki’s twenty-fifth birthday, that was exactly what happened. Just prior to noon on November 22, 1948, sub-zero weather caused her plane’s carburetor to ice up and she was forced to crash-land near Tanacross, Alaska. The army plane that accompanied her dropped emergency supplies, while the Alaska Highway Patrol picked up the flyers and drove them into Tanacross. The two were uninjured, but her plane lay in ruins along the Alaskan Highway. Both the plane’s landing gear and the wings were severely damaged. Low on funds, they could neither afford to truck the plane to Canada for repairs nor ship the necessary parts to Alaska. Dikki stated, “What I need for a birthday present is a miracle.”
At first, Dikki said she would abandon her plan to complete the flight, but she soon changed her mind. Dikki stated, “Personally I would love to go back home, but I will not abandon the flight under any circumstances. My biggest problem is obtaining finances, not securing the parts for my plane.” She estimated that the cost to repair the plane would be around $2000 (approximately $21,500 today), money that she did not have.
A trucker in Fairbanks offered to crate up the plane and ship it down to Edmonton for repairs, but it would take some time for it to be dismantled and haul it down there. In the meantime, on November 27, Dikki and Townsend were flown aboard an American B-17 bomber to Edmonton. Shortly after that, Townsend decided to return to England to complete his studies at Cambridge University. Dikki told reporters, “When Michael leaves me I will have to get another navigator or go on alone but I definitely will fly home.”
It wouldn’t be until January 24, 1949, that her wrecked plane would arrive in Edmonton. The damage was far worse than she had anticipated. Dikki stated, “I was shocked when I inspected the plane.” A repair shop inspected the place and estimated the cost of repair to be $3800 (which is nearly $41,000 today.)
Nearly penniless at this point, Dikki could not imagine how she could possibly earn that much money. Since the time of the crash, she had earned small sums working in an Alaskan nightclub, doing some public speaking, and even modeling, something that she had done before she had married. But none of these jobs could earn enough to pay for the repair of her plane. She made the decision to abandon the plane in Edmonton.
This does not mean that Dikki had given up on her dream to fly around the world. “I am scouring the continent in an effort to find a company which will give me a plane to fly back to England for advertising purposes.”
In mid-February, she hitchhiked back up to Alaska to raise some additional funds. Unfortunately, along the way, someone stole all the money she had managed to accumulate up until that point. To make matters worse, US immigration officials there denied her readmission into Alaska. Ultimately, they granted her a two-week stay.
In early March, she headed for Seattle, Washington. On March 21, it was announced that, with the help of a Seattle dentist and others, a replacement airplane had been located. It was a surplus Army BT-13 Vultee Valiant which had been sold off at the end of World War II. While the cost for the plane was $600 (approximately $6500 today), the catch was that, since it formally was a US military plane, it could only be owned by a US citizen and piloted by an American license holder. Those technicalities could be easily overcome, but the real problem for Dikki was raising the $600.
It was in Seattle that she also found her new navigator. He was Jack Ellis, a native Londoner and former RAF navigator. Ellis saw this opportunity as an inexpensive way to go back to England and see his wife. He said, “It’s a flight I want to finish. I want to go back to England for a visit.”
By the end of March, Dikki had raised the money needed to purchase the plane. Surprisingly, two different Vancouver residents offered her $300 each. In addition, a Victoria couple sent in a check for $50 to The Vancouver Sun. “I am very grateful to Vancouver people. I couldn’t have done it without them.” She added, “I have my American license. I shall start my familiarization flights at Boeing Field Friday.” In mid-April, Dikki paid the $600 for a plane that she could never own. She named it “Next Thursday’s Child.”
On April 16, 1949, she returned to Edmonton so that technicians could remove the extra fuel tank from her scrapped plane and install it in her new machine. Two days later, she took off from Edmonton and headed right back to Alaska, circled over the spot where she had crashed, and then began her journey back to England.
Would everything go smoothly after this? Of course not. Unfortunately, the airplane’s fuel tanks were leaking, so she was forced to make the trip up to Alaska in small hops of two to three hours each. Eight days later she was back in Edmonton to have the fuel tanks repaired. That would ground her there for the next twenty-five days.
Finally, at 9 a.m. on Thursday, May 19, 1949, Dikki and her navigator Jack Ellis were cleared for takeoff. After crossing the border and clearing customs in Cut Bank, Montana, they made a short layover in Williston, North Dakota before taking off for Minneapolis, Minnesota.
This time everything seemed to be going smoothly. That was until she landed at Wold-Chamberlain Field (now the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport) in Minneapolis. On Saturday, May 21, customs inspectors there ordered her plane grounded “until further orders.” Stout chains and a padlock were placed on the airplane. Initially, agents there said that they had no idea why that order had been issued. Dikki later learned that the papers that had been filled out back in Cut Bank, Montana were not in order. She said, “There are lots of rules and regulations that have to be complied with. This will be straightened out.” It turns out that federal regulations at the time forbid taking an American airplane outside of the United States for a period longer than six months. After being delayed for two days, Dikki was able to post guarantees that the plane would be returned and it was released into her possession. She resumed her flight on Tuesday, May 24.
Two days later, on May 26, her plane was impounded once again in Chicago. This time, the Civil Aeronautics Administration claimed that Dikki’s registration for the airplane had been improperly completed. It indicated that she was the owner, which was forbidden because she was not a United States citizen. Also, they refused to issue a certificate of airworthiness because they deemed the extra fuel tank as being unsafe.
This would prove to be quite the predicament because not only was her airplane grounded, but it was low on fuel and Dikki didn’t even have enough money to pay for her meals. Could this be the end of her round-the-world flight? Just what would she do next?
The world will get to know the answer in the early morning hours of May 28, 1949. That was when Dikki and Jack Ellis snuck out to the hangar where their plane was being stored, hopped aboard, basically Dikki stuck her middle finger up at the entire situation, and took off for who knows where… Dikki had previously stated that her next stop would be Buffalo, New York, but many thought that she would hop over the border into Canada to avoid any legal consequences for her actions. Charles Biggs, an inspector for the Civil Aeronautics Administration, stated that she “has created an international incident, and is in violation of four rules.”
She soon landed the plane in Toronto, but Canadian authorities ordered her to go back to the United States. She stated, “They weren’t very interested in me. They told me I’d better get back to the United States in my plane.”
Instead of going back to Chicago, Dikki headed for her original destination of Buffalo. There, she was informed by the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) that she needed to meet five different requirements before they would allow her to continue with her flight. First, she needed to sell her plane back to the Seattle resident who had sold it to her so that it could be registered in the name of a US citizen. Second, Dikki needed to obtain an export license. Next, she was required to obtain CAA approval for the installation of an additional gas tank and, once that was obtained, a CAA engineer would need to come from New York to inspect the installation, and finally, Dikki needed to obtain a certificate of airworthiness for her airplane.
As Dikki worked to meet all of these CAA requirements, a new problem arose. Jack Ellis’ wife had arrived in Toronto from England, so he decided that it was time to jump ship, leaving Dikki once again without a navigator. Luckily, her first navigator, Michael Townsend, had recently completed his studies at Cambridge and he was willing to fly to Buffalo and rejoin Dikki on her quest to become the first woman to pilot a plane around the world. “He came out to meet me – which was pretty big of him because he flew by commercial airlines and that cost a lot.”
An anonymous benefactor provided Dikki with the $300 that she needed to pay off the fines that were levied on her for violation of federal regulations. She was finally able to resume flying on July 9. Her first stop would be in Montreal, where she was once again grounded because her airplane was considered experimental, which was not permitted to fly over open water in Canada. She was ordered to return to the United States. So, she hopped back across the border and landed at the airport in Burlington, Vermont. They refused her admission into the country because her passport was not in order. Dikki had no choice but to fly back to Montréal. It wouldn’t be until August 1, after this latest legal mass was cleared up, that she was able to clear customs in Burlington and fly to Bangor, Maine. After two months of basically going nowhere, it finally seemed like she would be home soon.
From Bangor, she flew to Goose Bay in Labrador, Canada, and encountered more problems. Once again, Canadian authorities refused to allow Dikki to fly her plane over the Atlantic Ocean. She told the press, “The Canadian government refused to let me fly over their territory any longer.” She continued, “Department of transport officials told me to go on home and look after my baby. They said it would cost too much to start a search for me when I got lost.”
On August 12, the Royal Canadian Air Force sent one of its Lancaster bombers from Greenwood, Nova Scotia to escort Dikki’s plane back to Bangor, Maine. At 7:50 AM, Dikki piloted her plane down the runway and once she had gained enough altitude, the escort plane joined up with her. Not long into their flight, Dikki attempted to give the RAF plane the slip. She suddenly swung the plane’s nose around and changed course. Instead of heading for Maine, Dikki was now flying out over the Atlantic Ocean. For the next 6-½ hours, the bomber stayed right with her until she successfully landed her single-engine plane at Bluie West One, a United States airbase located in southern Greenland. She was now outside of Canadian jurisdiction, so the RAF bomber refueled and returned to the Canadian mainland.
Five days later, on August 17, a US Air Force B-17 escorted Dikki on a seven-hour flight from Greenland to Iceland. She landed the plane successfully and was almost home. Her husband Norman, who had been taking care of their daughter Anna for the past year, stated “I shall be very glad to see Dikki. But I shall be doubly glad to let her feed and bathe the baby. I’m tired of playing mother.” He added, “I am very proud of my wife. She is full of pep and very brave and I want her to finish this flight because it means so much to her. I fell in love with Dikki when she was seventeen and even then she was talking about this trip.”
After being held up in Iceland by bad weather, she took off on August 19, 1949, and landed back on European soil for refueling at Prestwick, Scotland. After going through customs and an inspection of the plane, she landed at Croydon Airport in London, making Richarda Morrow-Tait the first woman to ever pilot an airplane around the world, even if it took her one year and one day to complete the flight. As soon as she stepped out of the cockpit, her husband presented her with a bouquet of gladioli and the two embraced lovingly as photographers took pictures. She stated, “No woman had ever flown around the world, and I wanted to show what an ordinary housewife could do.”
Dikki was uncertain what this flight around the world had cost, but her husband estimated it at $12,000 (nearly $225,000 today). While Dikki was technically required to return her airplane to the United States, she did not do so. Instead, she sold the plane to her Cambridge flying club who never used it and had it scrapped in 1952.
Yet, the story is not quite over. Dikki had acquired two mementos on her trip. The first was a tattoo that she had inked while in the United States. The second was even more surprising: she had not seen her husband in more than a year, yet she was pregnant. The father just happened to be her navigator Michael Townsend. She told the press, “We were to be away for six weeks. We reach Calcutta on the 18th day and we were stuck there for 6 weeks. It was there that Michael started being beastly to me.”
Their baby, Giles, would be born eight months after Dikki’s return to England. On June 10, 1950, Norman Morrow-Tait filed for divorce and soon Dikki was living off of public assistance. “I have an electric sewing machine. I make things for the neighbor’s kids for a few odd shillings. As for domesticity, I’ll meet any housewife with a cooker or a sweeper or down on my knees, even, and show her as good as she can give.”
On February 2, 1951, the divorce was granted, and the court ruled that Dikki would be responsible for the care and control of both her son Giles and daughter Anna. Yet, custody of the children was awarded to Norman Morrow-Tait. This meant that while Dikki would raise the children, her ex-husband had the final say in all decision-making.
Seven weeks later, on March 24, 1951, Dikki would marry Michael Townsend. They would remain married until her death from an incurable blood disease on December 17, 1982.
Dikki received very little acclaim for what she had done and her accomplishment is just a footnote to flying history today. Some have attributed this lack of recognition to her scandalous affair with Michael Townsend that grabbed bigger headlines than her round-the-world trip ever did.
I’ll leave you with one final quote from Dikki: “I had more trouble on the ground than I ever had in the air.”
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.