A princess' vain attempt to fly across the Atlantic Ocean
It was an odd adventure for a member of German aristocracy to embark on.
Princess Lowenstein-Wertheim did not consider the inherent risks of crossing the North Atlantic in a fragile airplane -a feat accomplished by only a handful of human beings. By the summer of 1927, many were chasing Charles Lindbergh into the history books attempting the first-ever transatlantic east-west crossing. While her critics viewed such an enterprise as the height of vanity, it was in keeping with her almost lifelong obsession with aeronautics.
The English-born Lady Anne Savile was the youngest daughter of the Earl of Mexborough. At the age of 33 she married Prince Ludwig of Lowenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg in one of British high society's grandest weddings of the year. Less than a year later, the fairytale union took an unusual turn when Prince Ludwig vanished from London. After months of speculation, he turned up in the Philippines playing a shadowy role in the Spanish-American War, quite possibly as an agent for the German government. He was killed by U.S. soldiers after being caught in a skirmish at the Battle of Caloocan.
Anne never remarried but refused to give up her husband's title, even after war broke out with Germany in 1914. That same year, she took her first airplane flight. Urgently needing to get to Paris, she rented an experimental crescent-wing biplane built by Frederick Handley Page. Her pilot, Rowland Ding, had just earned his licence.
After that trip, the princess immediately set her sights on conquering the Atlantic Ocean. She paid Page 3,000 to build a craft capable of a transatlantic passage. Page drew up designs for a six-seat enclosed cockpit floatplane but those plans were scrapped by the war.
Undaunted, Anne lling around to airplane manufacturers, however, such inquiries soon raised the suspicions of authorities.
Police soon investigated whether the British-born German national was masquerading as a spy. Matters grew worse when she was charged with furnishing false particulars after registering under the Aliens Restriction Order. Investigators claimed the princess intended to purchase aircraft to spirit escaped German officers across the North Sea. In the end she was fined for providing the false particulars, a mixture of her German and English names, but acquitted of any charge that she would be disloyal to her native country.
After the war, she renewed her passion for flying, travelling as a passenger in a plane she purchased during the 1922 Croydon to Edinburgh Cup Race. Around this time, she met Captain Leslie Hamilton, a flying ace nicknamed "The Flying Gypsy," and they became fast friends. He piloted her plane during the 1923 King's Cup Race. Two years later, they attempted a London to Paris flight. While they were sighted passing over Folkestone, her family grew worried when their plane failed to arrive in Paris. Then came word the aircraft was forced down due to engine trouble in the Paris suburb of Pontoise.
Her exploits quickly earned her the mantra of "Britain's first airwoman," however, the adulation did not feed her ultimate ambition to cross the Atlantic Ocean. While Alock and Brown did fly from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1919 and then Lindbergh, no one had yet made the treacherous east-west crossing. By June, 1927, Princess Lowenstein-Wertheim was more determined than ever after hearing that the glamorous American heiress Mabel Roll, the so-called "Queen of Diamonds," would accompany millionaire Charles Levine and his pilot, Clarence Chamberlain, on a Paris-to-New York flight.
She sponsored Hamilton's expedition, insisting to her family that she was merely the financial backer. The princess decided that a flight from London to Ottawa would demonstrate the crossing as a truly British feat. Hamilton recruited Lt.-Col. Frederick Minchin, a former bomber pilot who had won the distinguished Military Cross. As they could find no suitable British aircraft, a Dutch Fokker F. VIIA monoplane was purchased and shipped from the Netherlands.
The pilots installed a 450- horsepower air-cooled Bristol Jupiter engine while gutting the plane's interior to make room for eight extra fuel tanks that would carry 800 gallons. That would be enough for 42 hours of sustained flight with a range of 4,000 miles.
Anne telephoned from London to get the latest updates. She kept them guessing until a day before the anticipated departure, when she told them she was going. Hamilton was concerned that she was pressuring them to leave despite the worsening weather conditions only so they could beat Levine.
"I wish the hell she wasn't coming," he told one of his ground crew.
However, the princess learned Levine had just hired a new pilot who determined the Wright-Bellanca WB-2 plane Chamberlain had initially flown from New York needed more maintenance. Despite this, planning of her expedition proceeded. Hamilton and Munchin studied the charts calculating that if the Fokker averaged a ground speed of 85 miles per hour, they could reach Ottawa. If headwinds dropped their speed to 55 miles per hour and they were stretched to 44 hours flying time then the fallback landing would be at Harbour Grace, Newfoundland.
On the morning of Aug. 31, Princess Lowenstein-Wertheim arrived at the RAF aerodrome at Upavon in Wiltshire to a throng of wide-eyed spectators and reporters. Stepping out of her Rolls Royce, the 63-year-old was dressed in purple leather knee-breeches with matching jacket, black silk stockings and high-heeled fur-lined boots.
"I am proud to be the first woman to attempt the crossing," she told reporters. "I am rather nervous, but it is the greatest moment of my life."
She then fell upon her knees to receive a blessing from the Archbishop of Cardiff, who then sprinkled holy water on the monoplane now christened the "Saint Raphael."
Strenuously objecting to his sister's participation in this venture, John Savile, the Earl of Mexborough, looked on in dismay. While Munchin was optimistic, Hamilton had a sense of foreboding.
"It's a grim business," are the words he uttered to RAF mechanics as he gave them the money out of his pockets. "It's better they have it than the fishes."
Donning her flight suit, the princess climbed into the cabin with the help of her two pilots. She strapped herself into a wicker chair placed at the back of the cockpit as the crew readied the Saint Raphael for takeoff. She placed her only luggage, two hat boxes, under the chair.
At 7:32 a.m. the heavily-laden plane roared down the runway, lifting only into the air at the last second. The princess was seen waving from a window.
The Saint Raphael was next seen two hours later, passing over the village of Thurles in County Tipperary on the Irish coast. The plane was spotted by folks on the Isle of Aran before it turned towards the open sea.
At 9:44 p.m. that evening, the American tanker Josiah Macy sighted the aircraft about 800 miles west of Galway. The Saint Raphael had been flying for 15 hours now, fighting stronger than expected headwinds at a speed of less than 80 miles per hour. She would not make Ottawa.
The crew of the tanker last saw her flying due west towards Newfoundland approaching a thick fog bank. From that point, the Saint Raphael was not seen again.
While it was hoped the plane had ditched at sea and its three occupants were rescued by a whaler or steamer, on Sept. 5 the Earl of Mexborough declared his belief that his sister perished at sea. A year later, one of the plane's wheels washed up in Iceland.
The fate of Capt. Leslie Hamilton, Lt.-Col. Frederick Minchin and Lady Anne Savile, the Princess Lowenstein-Wertheim may never be known. It remains an example of how a vain obsession can lead to be one's ultimate downfall.
Sean Chase is a Daily Observer reporter