And so she did, quickly establishing herself as one of the world's premier airborne adventurers. In 1997 she became the first woman to circle the globe in a helicopter. Then, on Sept. 6, this adventurous grandmother became the first woman chopper pilot to go the distance solo. Besides adding her name to the record books, Murray used the 22,173-mile journey to raise money for Operation Smile, a volunteer medical-services group that provides free reconstructive surgery to poor children and young adults internationally. "She became a hero for children the world over," says Dr. Bill Magee, the organization's cofounder.
During her latest 99-day air odyssey, she averaged five hours of flight a day—accompanied in a microlight plane by record-setting British aviator Colin Bodill—hugging coastline for most of the trip. (The longest over-the-water segment was an eight-hour hop from Labrador to Greenland.) Murray faced her share of danger in the four-seat, single-piston Robinson helicopter with an extended range of 750 nautical miles. She braved 100 mph winds near the Arctic Circle, a sandstorm over Kuwait and an emergency landing in California. One of her worst scares occurred 9,000 feet above the Mediterranean, when a magneto blew, shaking the helicopter. "It was like a pistol shot," she says, "a heart-stopping moment."
And a moment that Murray could never have predicted as a privileged young girl born in Providence. The second daughter of William Mather, a knighted British engineer who died in 1998, and his American wife, Eleanor, now 83, she was raised in England. Murray quips that the most shocking thing she'd done before her chopper exploits was marry Simon, now 60. A distant relative, he was working for her father when he ran off to join the French Foreign Legion in 1959. On his return to Britain the couple fell in love. They were married in 1966, then moved to Thailand and later Hong Kong, where he became a managing director of a global conglomerate and she devoted herself to raising three children—Justin, 31, a businessman; Suzanna, 29, a furniture-store owner; and Christy, 27, a manicure-salon proprietor.
Murray was already a grandmother in 1994 when she earned her pilot's license in just three weeks. After 25 years as a full-time mom she told a friend, "It's my time now." Though mechanically clueless to begin with, she soon displayed "a huge natural aptitude," recalls her instructor Quentin Smith, himself a renowned helicopter pilot. "She was breaking free. It was amazing." Husband Simon, now a venture capitalist who often flies with Murray between their homes in Bath, London, Hong Kong and near Bordeaux, France, has a saltier assessment: "Bloody cheeky!"
Within three years she had accomplished the first of her epochal journeys. But once around the block wasn't enough. Even daughter Christy's pleading ("Oh no, Mum, please don't do it again") could not dissuade her. Nor is anyone likely to in the future. No sooner had Murray touched down in Surrey, England, this past September than she shouted, "Let's go around again!"
Eileen Finan in Bath