The Fascinating Life of 1930s Aviation Pioneer Mary Petre Bruce

(Note: A version of this post previously appeared on the Holistic Marketing Concepts Blog)

Before Joan Merriam Smith’s first solo flight around the world at the equator in 1964, before Betty Miller’s first solo crossing of the Pacific Ocean in 1963, and before Amelia Earhart’s first solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in 1932, there was Mary Petre Bruce. While Bruce had to ship her plane across the oceans to turn her idea of completing a world flight into a reality—hence making it an “unofficial” flight—did you know that she was technically the first woman to complete a solo trek around the globe utilizing a plane?

Imagine the surprise of coming across an airplane for sale while window shopping in downtown London, deciding to buy it on a whim without ever having taken a flying lesson, and then using that plane to become the first woman to complete an around-the-world flight solo. This is precisely what happened in the late 1920s when the Honourable Mrs. Victor Bruce, otherwise known as Mildred Mary Petre Bruce, decided that she was going to buy a Blackburn Bluebird IV and set out to become first woman to fly solo around the world.

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Mary Petre Bruce, London Times, October 26, 1996 (Image source)

I first came across the existence of Mrs. Bruce while conducting research to learn more about all of the women who have set out to complete around-the-world solo flights. After checking with my local library and various aviation-based organizations, it wasn’t until I found the Earthrounders website and its list of historical solo flights that I first spotted the name “Mrs. Victor Bruce.” From there I discovered the 2012 book written about her life entitled Queen of Speed: The Racy Life of Mary Petre Bruce. The book’s author, Nancy R. Wilson, first learned of Mrs. Bruce upon reading her obituary from half way around the world in 1990. This finding would ultimately launch Ms. Wilson on a 20-year research journey, complete with multiple trips to Europe, to learn all that she could about her.

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Mary Petre Bruce at the 1927 Monte Carlo Rally (Image source)

From the book, Mrs. Bruce is described as “a teenage law-breaker, an unwed mother, a record-setting speedboat and racing car driver; a pioneer round-the-world flier, an author, an innovative airline executive; a fearless adventurer, a free-spending luxury-loving millionaire and an eccentric curmudgeon.” All of this is true. And according to some sources, Mrs. Bruce was the first woman to be prosecuted for speeding in 1911! As unbelievable as it was to learn that such a woman lived during this era, what was even more impressive was actually reading her story, and specifically the undertaking of her world fight.

Mary Petre Bruce after the 1928 Bournemouth Rally (Image source)

Bruce’s 1930-31 World Flight Attempt

After recognizing the buzz and fanfare surrounding English aviator Amy Johnson’s attempt to set a speed record on a solo flight to Australia, Mrs. Bruce decided that embarking on world flight for herself would be the next most logical thing to do. As of 1930, she had already set multiple records in automobile racing, in addition to a speed record for crossing the English Channel in a motorboat.

Departing from London in 1930, Mrs. Bruce traveled through eastern Europe, Syria, the Middle East, Thailand, China and Japan before folding up her plane’s wings and shipping her plane on a Japanese liner to cross the Pacific. Arriving in Vancouver, she would next fly down the West Coast of the United States to Los Angeles, across the country through her mother’s hometown in Indiana, then finally to New York before boarding yet another shipping vessel to complete her journey back to London. (You can view a full overview of her world flight itinerary here.)

Her trip was not without incidents that would provide plenty of storytelling for future generations to come. Key among them: an arrest in New York for flying circles around the Empire State Building, a forced landing in the jungle, an unexpected landing in the Gulf of Oman where she was met by tribesmen, the experience of an earthquake while on the ground in Japan … to name just a few. There were narrowly dodged potential crises, near-death moments, unpleasant accidents, and unexpected expeditions, but most of all one thing was certain: this was the true adventure of a lifetime.

Without giving too much more away, I highly recommend the book Queen of Speed: The Racy Life of Mary Petre Bruce. It’s an account you won’t want to put down. There is also a memoir by the title of Nine Lives Plus, originally published by Mrs. Victor Bruce herself back in 1977. While these titles are a bit difficult to locate, they are certainly worth the adventure of finding, and will certainly inspire you to never take no for an answer, to be more—and to do more—in your own life.