Mary Petre was born at Coptfold Hall, Chelmsford, Essex, England, on 10 November 1895, the daughter of Jennie Williams, an American actress, and Lawrence Petre, a descendant of Sir William Petre. She was educated at the Convent of Notre Dame de Sion, in Bayswater, London. In 1911, aged 15, she began her passion for motor vehicles by riding her brother’s Matchless motorcycle, travelling around Osterley, west London, with her collie dog in the sidecar. She was cited for a motoring offence and appeared in Hounslow police court, where the magistrate dismissed the charges, fined her court costs of 6 shillings, and banned her from riding the motorcycle until she was 16.
In 1920, she purchased her first car, an Enfield-Allday, and was prosecuted many times for speeding, including three days running at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court. In 1920 her affair with wealthy landowner Stephen Easter (1874–1952) resulted in the birth of a son, originally named Anthony Billy Stephen Petre Easter, but she changed his name to Anthony Petre Easter-Bruce in 1933. In 1926, she married the Honourable Victor Austin Bruce, son of Henry Bruce, 2nd Baron Aberdare. He was a works driver for AC Cars Ltd., and won the 1926 Monte Carlo Rally in an AC car. She and her husband divorced in 1941. They had no children.
Like Amy Johnson & Amelia Earhart, the Hon. Mrs Victor Bruce was a trailblazer in aviation. As well as setting world records in cars, boats and aeroplanes she was also the 1st person to fly solo from England to Japan. She is also referred to as Mary Petre Bruce, Mildred Bruce, Mildred Mary Bruce, or Mary Victor Bruce, in contemporary references, set records on land and water, Bruce looked to the skies.
As early as 1928 she joined the Mayfair Flying Club and by January 1930 was the owner of a Gipsy Moth. She did not take her first flying lesson until 25 May 1930 the day after Amy Johnson completed her record-setting flight to Australia. Bruce learned to fly at the Brooklands School of Flying; her instructors were G. E. Lowdell and Capt. H. Duncan Davis. Bruce soloed on 22 June 1930 and received her A license #2855 on 26 July.
She purchased a Blackburn Bluebird IV with a de Havilland Gipsy II engine from Auto-Auctions Ltd. in Burlington Gardens, London. It was sent to the Blackburn factory in Brough, East Yorkshire, for modifications in preparation for her flight. It was designated G-ABDS. On 25 September 1930, she named the aircraft “Bluebird” and took off on a round the world solo flight from Heston Aerodrome. She flew east with stops in Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq. An oil leak caused a forced landing on the shore of the Persian Gulf, where she was sheltered for two days by Baluchi tribesmen before a British rescue party reached her.
Repairs delayed her onward flight for days, but she flew on to India, Burma, Siam (Thailand), and French Indo-China (Vietnam). Torrential monsoon rains forced a landing in a jungle clearing beside the Mekong River; she contracted malaria and her flight was further delayed. She flew on to Hanoi, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Seoul, making the first flight across the Yellow Sea. On 24 November 1930, having covered 10,330 miles (16,620 km) in 25 flying days, she reached Tokyo. She crossed the Pacific aboard the Empress of Japan to Vancouver.
Her flight across North America was not without incident: a crash landing in Medford, Oregon, caused another week’s delay. She reached her announced destination of her mother’s birthplace, New Albany, Indiana, by way of San Francisco, San Diego, St. Louis and Chicago. A one-week delay followed another crash in Baltimore, and she finally reached New York City in early February 1931. She sailed on the Île de France to Le Havre, and on 19 February 1931 flew to Lympne Airport, having flown about 19,000 miles (31,000 km). On 20 February 1931, she was given an aerial escort by Amy Johnson, Winifred Spooner and others to Croydon Airport, where a reception of press and celebrities awaited her. She was the first person to fly from England to Japan, the first to fly across the Yellow Sea, and the first woman to fly around the world alone (crossing the oceans by ship).
In July 1932, she purchased a Saro Windhover amphibious aircraft (G-ABJP), named it City of Portsmouth, and had the undercarriage temporarily removed. She also purchased a Bristol F.2 (G-ACXA), and had it converted as a refuelling tanker. During August 1932, over the Solent, she used the two aircraft in three failed attempts to break the world flight-refuelled endurance record. Her co-pilot was Flt. Lt. John B. W. Pugh, AFC, later employed by Luxury Air Tours and Air Dispatch.
In early 1933, she was invited to join the British Hospital Air Pageants flying circus, and purchased the sole Miles Satyr (G-ABVG) in the name of her company Luxury Air Tours Ltd., for use in aerobatic displays. She also purchased a Fairey Fox (G-ACAS) from a scrapyard for £2 10s, plus £10 for an engine, then had it modified at Hanworth Aerodromefor passenger-carrying duties. She then trained and qualified for her commercial pilot’s ‘B’ licence. The Fox crashed in July 1933, and she left the flying circus.
On 25 November 1934, she took off from Lympne Airport in a Cierva C.30A autogiro (G-ACVX), headed for Cape Town, in an attempt on the record for the longest autogiro flight, but the aircraft was damaged at Nîmes in France after 610 miles (980 km), and no further attempt followed.
On 7 August 1934, she founded Commercial Air Hire Ltd., that immediately started newspaper delivery flights between Croydon and Paris, using two DH.84 Dragons. In 1935, Air Dispatch Ltd., that she had founded on 9 July 1934, started operating weekend freight (later also passenger) services from its base at Croydon Airport to Le Touquet and Le Bourget, Paris. In April 1935, Commercial Air Hire started passenger shuttle services between Croydon and Heston airports, under the name Inner Circle Air Lines, using GAL Monospar ST-4s. In 1935, Commercial Air Hire purchased an Avro 642 Eighteen 16-seat airliner (G-ACFV) for newspaper delivery contracts, and Air Dispatch shared its use for bullion-carrying, excursions, joy-riding flights and scheduled passenger services, until mid-1936. She was co-managing director, with Eric E. Noddings, of both closely linked companies, that were merged in 1936 as Air Dispatch Ltd. During this period, the combined fleets of Air Dispatch and Commercial Air Hire, plus those of associated companies International Air Freight Ltd. and Anglo European Airways, included GAL Monospar ST-4s, DH.84 Dragons, DH.89 Dragon Rapides, DH.90 Dragonflies, Airspeed AS.6 Envoys, plus other aircraft on lease, such as an Avro 618 Ten.
In late 1936, she sold two of the DH.84 Dragons for a large amount of cash to a mystery man, and they were covertly exported for use in the Spanish Civil War. From 1936, Commercial Air Hire operated many of its DH.84 Dragons on Territorial Army co-operation exercises under contract to the British Army, involving night flying and searchlights.
On the outbreak of war on 2 September 1939, her companies Commercial Air Hire Ltd. and Air Dispatch Ltd. moved with their fleets to Cardiff Municipal Airport, where, between September 1939 and April 1940, they operated under the control of National Air Communications. Subsequently, as part of the Civilian Repair Organisation, Air Dispatch rebuilt damaged RAF aircraft wings and whole aircraft at Cardiff, eventually employing about 700 people.
In 1945, the company attempted to return to commercial air services, but was thwarted by the dominance of the nationalised airlines: “So far only the more powerful of the independent operators have been approached, hoping that they will give away and so weaken our case,” said the Hon. Mrs. Victor Bruce, of Air Dispatch. And somewhat dramatically she commented: “It is tantamount to going around with a cheque book and a hammer. I shall fight for our rights and independence to the end.” Air Dispatch Ltd. turned to repair and then manufacture of bus and trolley bodies, changing its name in 1947 to Air Dispatch (Coachbuilders) Ltd. In 1948, under the management of Mrs. Bruce’s son Anthony, the company was renamed Bruce Coach Works Ltd., and continued until its closure in 1952. Mrs Bruce’s fortunes subsequently increased further via property investments.
In April 1974, at age 78, she test-drove a Ford Capri Ghia at 110 miles per hour (180 km/h) at Thruxton circuit. At age 81, after a brief refresher course in flying, she performed a loop in a De Havilland Chipmunk. Mildred Bruce died on 21 May 1990, at age 94.
She was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium in London, where a memorial plaque was erected, and was survived by her son, Anthony Easter-Bruce (1920–1997) and one grandson, Michael Easter-Bruce (born 1952).