Tracey Curtis Taylor in leather jacket and scarf leaning against plane

Doctor of the University

An aviator inspired by history, and who made history herself.

Born in Lincolnshire, Tracey Curtis-Taylor was raised for eight years in the wilds of British Columbia with her three siblings before returning to England to set up a pizza restaurant. 

She’d had her first flying lesson by age 16, on a holiday in Canada. When she emigrated to New Zealand in 1983, to join her twin sister, she began flying in earnest. For several years she worked various manual jobs to pay for flying, completing both a private and commercial licence before qualifying as a flight instructor. While instructing part time, she worked for six years in the aerial photography and mapping industry, all over New Zealand.

Tracey’s real passion was for flying old aeroplanes and, through the New Zealand Warbirds Association, she was introduced to a Second World War training aircraft. In 1997, she returned to England to forge a new life and pursue her interest in historic aviation. She worked with the Fighter Collection at Duxford, helping to organise the Flying Legends Air Show. She based her 1941 Ryan Recruit aircraft with the Shuttleworth Collection in Bedfordshire for eight years, during which she regularly took part in the summer flying displays.

Inspired by the film Out of Africa, she dreamed of flying the African continent in an open cockpit biplane. In the four years it took to make that a reality, she commissioned the restoration of a 1942 Boeing Stearman – the love of her life. Having assembled a technical support team and secured sponsorship, she took off in 2013 to complete the flight of her dreams. Over two months, she flew from Cape Town to Goodwood, following the route of pioneering aviator Lady Heath. Her documentary film of Lady Heath's story through the lens of her own, The Aviatrix: The Lady Who Flew Africa, was screened on the BBC in 2015.

In 2015/16, Tracey flew with a support and film crew from England to Australia, following Amy Johnson's 1930 solo flight. In 2016, she shipped the Stearman to America with the intention to fly the historic US transcontinental AirMail route, west coast to east coast. Disaster struck in the Arizona Desert when she crashed due to engine failure. Although she walked away unhurt, the Stearman was all but destroyed. Undeterred, she had it rebuilt and returned the following year to fly the route, culminating in a stupendous final journey into Manhattan and around the Statue of Liberty.

Tracey has written a book about her life and flying adventures, entitled ‘Bird’ and this is being published in the spring of 2023. A documentary film of the same title will also be released next year.